Device management: 3 key strategies for success

Device collection is the first of three key steps to ensure equitable distribution in the coming school year.
Lenny Schad is chief information and innovation officer of District Administration.
Lenny Schad is chief information and innovation officer of District Administration, and former CIO for Houston ISD.

As districts begin to recover from the chaos and quick decisions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic they must turn their attention to strategically planning for the start of school and beyond. Remote learning was forced on every K-12 school system whether they were ready for it or not.  Parents were very supportive during this crisis because it caught everyone by surprise.  As a result, parents were willing to deal with the chaos and uncertainty.  As parents look towards the start of the school year they are expecting school systems to show improvement since March’s shutdown.

One of the most prevalent gaps in the virtual learning scenario is student devices and connectivity. For years, there have been discussions about digital equity, but as an education system, we were never able to truly solve this issue. COVID-19 has forced the hand of every K-12 institution to take on digital equity as a key element in defining and operating under current circumstances.

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Remote instruction is not a onetime reaction to the pandemic. Rather, it is something every school system must embrace and adopt. The challenge with remote learning is that it takes years to successfully implement as it has more to do with culture than simply giving students a device.

Since our education system does not have the luxury of taking years to implement remote learning it is critical that district leaders look at this effort and the required planning differently.  Strategic planning must be viewed in another way requiring a new format and style. It is no longer possible to strategically plan in 1- or 2-year increments. Today, district leaders should adopt a mentality of strategic sprints. These sprints allow systems to focus on the highest priority issues and at the same time create opportunities to show improvement and celebrate success. The first major strategic sprint for school systems is the professional development opportunities summer provides and the start of school.

To manage expectations for this first sprint, district leaders are grappling with what the start of school will look like. There are three basic scenarios being considered:

  1. All Students Return
  2. Full Quarantine
  3. Hybrid Model
    1. Portion at home
    2. Portion at school

Each scenario poses challenges with varying solutions depending on what is selected. The scenario most likely to occur in some form or fashion is the hybrid model. Regardless of the scenario chosen, there is one consistent element every school system must be prepared to address, which is providing devices for each student.

I have had the privilege of leading mobile learning initiatives for two districts. Through my experience, I have had the opportunity to fine-tune and implement manageable and successful device management processes and procedures. Device management can be broken down into three key strategies:

  1. Collection
  2. Deployment
  3. Maintenance

In this three-part series, I will break down each strategy and provide insight on topics like ownership, critical decision points, processes, and procedure.

Read: Infographic: The COVID-19 crisis and school district budgets

Current State:

As I mentioned earlier, districts had to react quickly to the pandemic and as a result, the focus was getting as many devices as possible into the hands of students. Without adequate asset management systems, processes, and procedures this quick reaction has left many districts struggling to accurately account for what has been given out and what they can expect to get back. This becomes an even bigger issue as districts determine how many new devices need to be ordered.

Strategy 1:  Collection

To begin getting our arms around the chaos of the past three months the first thing that must be done is to identify who got devices and what if any tracking system or spreadsheet was utilized in the distribution process.  This information becomes the foundation for all other steps in the device management process.  While assisting districts across the country I have found that the biggest issue school systems are facing is numerous lists coming from multiple owners with no way to validate any of the content.  My first recommendation is to streamline the ownership of this process and make a department responsible. This department should be tasked with gathering all the various sources of data and creating one master list of inventories.  This master list at a minimum needs to track:

  1. Asset (Device and/or hotspot)
    1. Student assigned
    2. Not assigned at location X

Read: How online learning is unmasking disparities

Beyond the inventory list, a key decision that must be made quickly is: Are you collecting the devices currently in the hands of students prior to the start of school? At a minimum, a process needs to be established for seniors (if they received a device) to return them. For the remaining devices, this decision becomes very important as you determine the deployment plan for the start of school and which students will get new devices and which students will get your current inventory.

Defining the collection process has three critical elements:

  1. Location:
    1. Where will students return the device?
    2. When can they return them?
    3. What are the return window and expectation for completion?
      1. What is your follow-up process if any for devices that are not returned?
    4. Check-In Process
      1. Who will be responsible for managing the process?
      2. What will be the quarantine standards for devices?
        1. Each device should have a date stamp of when they were returned.
        2. How long will devices be quarantined before any evaluation is performed?
  • How will devices be stored and where?
  1. What sanitation procedures will be conducted for the devices?
  2. Who will conduct a functionality evaluation of the devices being returned?
    1. Devices that are determined to be non-functional
      1. Dispose
        1. Asset management system updated
      2. Repair
    2. Devices that are functional
      1. Updated in the asset management system as ready for deployment
    3. Storage
      1. Where will the returned devices be stored?
        1. Central location
        2. Campus
      2. In addition to location capacity when making this decision I recommend you take into consideration two things.
        1. First, the security of the location. Because these devices will be stored typically in one spot, security and monitoring of this space will be critical to proactively ensure theft is avoided
        2. Second, transportation. The normal ownership of these devices at a campus level will likely change and these devices could be given to students across the district. Selecting a storage location that can best facilitate this new reality will save time and dollars when you begin to define your deployment process.

As I said this is a three-part series on device management. The collection process is the foundation from which the other two strategies will build off. Part 2 defines the deployment process and necessary ownership, decisions, and procedures.

Lenny Schad is chief information and innovation officer of District Administration, and former CIO for Houston ISD.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

Lenny Schad
Lenny Schad
Lenny Schad, one of the most prominent voices in K-12 technology leadership, is District Administration's chief information and innovation officer and technology editor-at-large.

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