Last year I arrived at Lynfield College with one of my responsibilities being eLearning. The school had 3 year levels already operating under BYOD and 2016 saw this implemented from Year 9-12. BYOD had been relatively successful in the junior school but it’s first foray into Year 11 had not gone so well.
My initial reactions were to arrive at the school, raise expectations and support it with plenty of professional development. I then quickly took a breath and got myself set to observe and listen to what was happening, rather than arrive with all guns blazing.
I found a Principal (Steve Bovaird) who has spearheaded the introduction of BYOD, a (fantastic) Director of eLearning (Bronwen Wilson) whose role was to help staff develop their use of blended practices, a well used Moodle site and plenty of PD opportunities occurring. So, with great people already involved in leading BYOD and some good processes in place, I prepared to dig a little deeper as I got to know Lynfield.
Very soon, it became clear that one of the major barriers to BYOD implementation across our school was the network infrastructure and maintenance. Term 1 2016 was one full of disruptions as the wifi crashed or slowed considerably on an alarmingly regular basis.
As a teacher, if I have spent time preparing lessons to utilise BYOD and then the system lets me down, I would be getting very frustrated. If I was a teacher who preparing those lessons was a stretch for, a change in practice for, I would be far less willing to take that risk again. And this was happening fairly regularly, causing teachers to not plan to use students’ devices. To be fair, part of me didn’t blame them for that approach. The system was letting them and the students down. It was time to take action.
We had an internal audit process to see exactly what the state of the network was and also invited an IT Service Provider in to audit our system as well. Our Linewize filtering system was able to give us information on number of devices connecting to the system and how they were using it.
Like many schools around New Zealand we had our network being managed by a teacher who split his time between the classroom and the Network Manager role. He also oversaw 2 IT technicians who did many of the day to day maintenance jobs around the school. This had been the set up for a long time and had worked well when there were a handful of computer labs around the school but increasing network demands and the influx of devices under BYOD saw this arrangement not being as successful as it had been in the past.
With all of this information, we decided a change had to be made. Both the Principal and myself shared a vision for our system to be simple and reliable (my perspective on this has been well shaped by Abdul Chohan – listen to him here). Our Principal spoke with a colleague who had undergone this process recently to see how they had approached it and also contacted our PPTA Field Officer to ensure our process would be a fair one for the staff that we currently employed.
Our current IT staff were informed that we wanted to restructure our Network Provision and Maintenance and given time to respond with their perspective on what shape that should take. I contacted colleagues across many schools to see what structures they had in place to support their IT Network. We also spoke with the Board of Trustees to get their approval to go ahead with the restructure which was warmly supported as they are parents whose students had been coming home complaining about the disruptions.
With the help of the Connected Learning Advisory (http://elearning.tki.org.nz/Ministry-initiatives/Connected-Learning-Advisory-service) we created a Request for Proposal document to give to interested parties. This included our current state, what we felt was important for our school in a service provider and the evaluation criteria. You can see our RFP document here, if it helps you move forward with your network, please let me know.
This started a series of Service Providers visiting us here at Lynfield College and many conversations as they tried to work out what the best solutions for us would be, and we tried to see if they would be a good fit for our school culture. Their written proposals came in and then we had presentations and interviews as well so we could be sure of the decision that was to be made.
We quickly got the field down to 2 Service Providers who understood what we were aiming to do as a school. The clincher in the end was that our number 1 priority was to get Reliability in our system and one of these providers had experience with large urban Secondary schools and had taken on other schools in a similar state to us before. This was the deciding factor in outsourcing our IT provision to New Era.
Of course, this was not the end of the story – a few contract negotiations, deciding which model of onsite/offsite support, how extra projects would be paid for (we went for a contract that includes all this in the maintenance contract) etc. etc. The New Era team were fantastic throughout this process and we quickly reached an agreement that had both of us happy.
Their team came onsite during Term 3 when we had a few weeks overlap of our old technicians still here too. That way they could ask questions of how things had been organised or occurred in the past.
The big jump happened in the holidays between Term 3 and 4. A server upgrade occurred along with re-imaging all desktops and staff laptops to Windows 10 (yes, we went without our laptops for a week – a forced holiday). This was a massive ask for 2 weeks at a critical time of year – just before Seniors leave for NCEA exams. Many staff were very nervous about such big changes at this time of year but it went really well, despite a landscaper cutting up our cables into the school halfway through the holidays!
We started Term 4 with a PD Workshop for staff so that we could all operate Windows 10 and Office 16 as these were significant upgrades on what had been on some of the computers in the school previously. Soon we were all underway and getting used to the new systems.
Later in Term 4, I was in a Heads of Faculty meeting where the following comment was made by Robin Eyre, our Head of Science:
My staff don’t realise that they are no longer complaining about IT. It just works now so they don’t ever think about it.
This was music to my ears and showed how successful the change had been. You notice services like IT when they aren’t working. If the network has become invisible then we had achieved our goal of a reliable network.
The start of this year saw further confirmation of staff confidence in our network. We had an initial PD session for staff who wanted to join a pilot group to trial Schoology as a new LMS where 75 teachers showed up. 2/3 of our staff voluntarily finding out about a new IT tool – this is a major step forward in confidence in our system.
We don’t have a perfect system, I think anyone who has worked with IT knows that is a fallacy. But New Era have done a brilliant job at creating a reliable system for us. Next step is to bring more simplicity to it and you will hear more from me about how we are aiming for Schoology to do this for us, but that is for another post.
If you are in a school where the system is failing, where your staff don’t have confidence in the network, I hope this post brings you some faith. So many schools around New Zealand are going to BYOD and it does bring increased complexity but that can be managed and utilised for better learning. Before this happens in the classroom though, you do need to sort out your infrastructure. Many schools around New Zealand have now outsourced their network provision and maintenance.
It felt like a major, scary prospect at the start of the process but it is so much better on the other side. Use the good people at the Connected Learning Advisory to help you. Speak to your colleagues in other schools and please feel free to ask me any questions or adapt the RFP document that I shared in this post. Your staff and students deserve a reliable network to enhance teaching and learning. I hope that sharing our story will help you improve the situation at your school.
Infrastructure was one of the key challenges to implementing elearning I identified in my thesis, this post describes how to deal with that successfully. Then comes the really big, less tangible thing: education teachers and students on how to effectively use digital tools for learning. That never ends either!
Great practical advice Steve.