K12 IT: Here, there, everywhere

Coordinating central information technology staff and field techs keeps digital schools running smoothly

Whether it’s a small district with just a few schools or a mammoth operation that spends billions of dollars, one thing is certain: getting tech support in the right place at the right time is mission critical.

This not only requires having trained staff to fix problems, but maintaining careful coordination and communication between the technicians at schools and IT leaders at central headquarters.

“It’s best to have trained techs near where the trouble arises, but too many IT techs in the field gets expensive and inefficient because of their inevitable downtime between calls at a single school” says Nick Polyak, superintendent at Leyden 212 High School District in the Chicago suburbs.

“On the other hand, having too many people at the central help desk risks having an organization that is unresponsive and out of touch with the needs of its schools, students and teachers.”

And without the right fix—whether it’s a forgotten password, cracked tablet screen or an errant operating system—the school’s digital infrastructure and teaching can grind to a halt.

“Each one is the most important task from the perspective of the user in trouble” says Andrew Stenehjem, manager of user services at Oregon’s Beaverton School District. “If we can’t fix it quickly on the first try, we’ve failed.”

Windshield time

Los Angeles USD operates a central help desk but 90 percent of its 210 techs work in the field providing support to individual schools or moving among a few nearby buildings. The techs have a lot of autonomy in scheduling their days in order to react quickly to the demands of teachers and students.

They do get overall marching orders from central headquarters and have periodic training sessions to make sure everyone is on the same page. “They can get the lay of the land and anticipate users’ needs” says Themy Sparangis, LAUSD’s senior director of information technology and IT customer services.

For instance, just about every school experiences a web overload during lunch when students (and teachers) check social media or watch videos.

Balance between techs on site and those at headquarters is therefore key, Sparangis says. “We want to make sure that everything is working at the schools, but still have some people on call for the entire district.”

Other IT teams within LAUSD focus on networks and servers or handle software and E-Rate payments. All IT techs interact frequently on social media, regardless of whether they’re in San Fernando in the north or San Pedro in the south. Among other things, they share what the most prevalent problems are, and discuss fixes.

“We use an all-of-the-above approach to communications” including phone calls, software ticketing and social media, to make sure that every problem is solved, Sparangis adds.

For a district covering nearly 720 square miles, this decentralized approach to support pays off. Due to LA’s notorious traffic, it can take a couple of hours to drive from one end of the vast district to the other. Having techs close to the action at the schools cuts the wait.

“Windshield time is our greatest enemy” Sparangis says. “It means they’re driving or stuck in traffic rather than fixing the problem.”

Emergencies can bring out the best in IT support organizations. “The recent fires in our areas forced school closures and evacuations” Sparangis says. “We rerouted technicians from the normal duties of visiting schools to the affected sites to assure that technology was supported and maintained.”

Oregon IT trail

By contrast, windshield time isn’t as big a concern at Beaverton School District. With 53 schools spread over 57 square miles west of Portland, middle and high schools get a full-time support techician, while elementary schools share a person.

“For us, the split is about three-quarters at our schools and one-quarter at our central help desk” says Stenehjem, the manager of user services. “We dedicate 34 people to specific schools so they know what the users want, but still have enough people ready at our headquarters.”

School-based techs are free to schedule their day to streamline operations. They meet monthly to go over contingency planning, coordination and general trends, and to train for specific events. And with eight technicians held in reserve at HQ, the district can react quickly to districtwide problems without pulling people from the field.

Communication is key to coordinating IT activities, Stenehjem says. “It requires constant vigilance to make sure that people are getting the information they need when they need it.”

Beaverton uses Yammer, a Microsoft collaboration program that integrates support and analytics. It’s available on everything from a Mac and PC to tablets and iPhones. It lets IT staff check in on what problems need to be fixed and who’s going to do it.

In the event of a widespread IT emergency, such as a network failure, “we try to centrally communicate with the in-school techs via Yammer or School Messenger (text messages) to let them know that there’s an outage” Stenehjem says.

“We also try to include secretaries and some other school staff in these messages so that they can all help to proactively communicate with their school.”

The biggest danger is failing to respond to support requests. LAUSD and Beaverton roll overflow calls to outside contractors. “The calls never go unanswered” says Sparangis.

Teen power

At Leyden 212, Polyak takes a different approach. His district’s two high schools in suburban Chicago use student interns to perform 90 percent of IT support. It’s based on the district’s Tech Support Internship class that’s offered every period in both high schools.

The internship class has a teacher who is nominally in charge of the IT response network. Each period, seven or eight students perform repairs, answer tech questions and follow up on support calls.

As the first line of IT defense, they get training that they wouldn’t normally be exposed to until they were older.

About 70 to 80 of the district’s 3,300 students serve as tech interns, which means there’s a pretty good chance that one is in or near every classroom to respond to calls for help.

The district needs only eight adult technicians to deal with the more intricate and sensitive aspects of the IT infrastructure.

Teacher laptops that might contain confidential material, changing network passwords and all aspects of the school’s digital security are off-limits to students. “We get qualified support where it’s needed most—at the schools—and the students get valuable experience that will stay with them for life” Polyak says.

Leyden 212 uses a ticketing system that tracks each case’s progress and allows a problem to be passed to another tech intern if a student—as happens every 48 minutes —has to go to their next class. “The hand-off is critical” Polyak says. “No problem should ever be ignored or fall into the cracks.”

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer in Pelham, New York.

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