Red Phone Booths

Help Desk Phone Support Changes

Penn Manor School District is a big place. With 10 buildings and a 110 square mile footprint, providing immediate tech support for staff and students is an ongoing challenge. I am fortunate to have stellar IT staff, but my small crew is often stretched a little thin. For example, our help desk line consists of one dedicated person, Gina Brubaker. There are times when calls fall into voicemail simply because she is already on the phone, away from the desk, in a meeting or helping another staff member.

Experimental attempts to clone Gina have thus far proven unsuccessful, so we are trying a new plan. We recently restructured the 1776 help desk line to behave more like a classic call center. Various members of the IT Team log into the help desk line throughout the day. When a support call arrives, Gina’s phone rings first. If she is already on a call or otherwise unavailable, the call transfers to the next available tech support person. The new call routing system provides backup for Gina, and increases the likelihood of reaching a live person when help is needed most.

Behind the support curtain, the Penn Manor IT Team now uses an internal IRC server for real-time communication. In addition to our tech support chats, status reports from our Kayako ticket system and Nagios network monitoring tools are piped into the IRC stream. All chat transcripts all logged to an internal webpage, so my team can go back in time to review history and tech support discussions. Personally, I love the IRC server because it establishes a convenient space room for my entire team and provides a central dashboard on district technology support.

While staff replication experiments will continue in earnest, I think the new help line configuration and IRC server will create better customer support experiences for our academic community.

Call us!

Photo credit: scott1723

Student 1to1 Training Groups

The Laptops Have Landed!

After a year of planning, Penn Manor High School has officially launched a 1:1 computing program. Laptops are in the hands of approximately 1700 students! Here are a few fast facts and notes about the unique program:

  • Each student received an Acer TravelMate TMB113 laptop, mouse, flash disk and case. Kits were distributed, by grade level, during the week of last week of January 2014. The bulk of the distribution took 4 days. During distribution, students received an orientation session to help them get started with the new laptop.
  • The laptops are running Linux, specifically Ubuntu 13.10, along with several dozen free and open source programs. Our program is believed to be the largest open source 1:1 implementation in Pennsylvania. By using open source software exclusively, we estimate an initial cost savings of at least $360,000 on licensing fees.
  • Students are given full control of their laptops. They are permitted to install programs and experiment with software. They are expected, and trusted, to abide by copyright laws and district policies. Program expectations, guidelines, best practices and digital citizen tips were reviewed with all students last December.
  • The laptops will be used in the classroom and at home, and students will be responsible for any damages that may occur. As required by the Children’s Online Protection Act, (CIPA) each laptop is equipped with a filter to block material deemed harmful to minors. Filters are enabled both on and off campus.
  • Our student technology apprentices have been instrumental in program implementation and peer technical support. Student apprentices are enrolled in an honors level, independent study course. Shifts on the help desk are scheduled during the school day just like traditional courses. During distribution, student apprentices worked alongside Penn Manor IT staff and assisted with tech support and helped to facilitate laptop orientation sessions.
  • Several student apprentices helped develop critical software tools for the program, including the student help desk/ticket system utilized by their peers. Their code is available on GitHub.

Between logistic planning, teacher professional development, cardboard unboxing and all of the little details threaded into a project of this scale, the last two months have felt like a frantic sprint to the finish line after an intense marathon. The joint efforts of the district IT team, student apprentices, faculty and administration have flipped a profound classroom switch and empowered every student in every classroom. I look forward to the next part of the journey!

Image Party

Welcome to the Laptop Machine

Penn Manor’s 1:1 student laptop program reached another milestone this past weekend. After a two-day setup marathon, 1725 laptops are now ready for distribution and delivery to Penn Manor High School students. Manor Middle School’s cafeteria was transformed into a computer assembly line as the PM IT Team, student help desk apprentices and community volunteers worked to unbox, inventory, configure and prepare the laptops for distribution to students at the start of the second semester.

Manually installing an operating system and applications on such a vast scale is impractical. Central to our setup process was a customized software toolkit developed by Penn Manor senior, Andrew Lobos. The software, titled Fast Linux Deployment Toolkit (FLDT), is derived from several open source projects. True to its name, FLDT makes Linux software setup fast and easy. Andrew’s program rapidly copies our custom Ubuntu image from one master laptop to as many as 50 laptops at a time. The entire FLDT copy process completes in less than two minutes and accelerates the process of cloning software to hundreds of laptops.

The FLDT system was tested and refined by student tech apprentices over the past several months. It performed exceptionally well as our team processed thousands of laptop images. In the spirit of the open source community, FLDT and other district open source projects are available via GitHub, a software development sharing site: https://github.com/pennmanor/. We encourage other schools to freely use and contribute to the code.

While the FLDT quickly replicates our custom software images, physically handling and processing over 1700 individual laptops takes a great deal of human effort. A large part of the setup work involved unboxing, labeling, scanning, inspecting and adding laptops to our inventory system. After nearly 24 hours of work with a 13 to 20-person crew, the laptops were ready to be shipped to Penn Manor High School.

It is difficult to overstate the incredible power of this learning experience. Pictures simply do not capture how our students demonstrated genuine ownership of the setup process, or their incredible passion for building systems that their peers will use daily. Pride and enthusiasm was palpable as traditional classroom roles dissipated and students assumed leadership roles in their individual functional areas. The project was a potent, authentic learning experience, one that I suspect our students will recollect for the rest of their lives.

For more on our approach to open source in education, check out this article on Opensource.com: http://opensource.com/education/14/1/trust-your-students

The Penn Manor Tech Technology Team thanks these students,

Collin Enders
Aaron Jandzio
Nick Joniac
Andrew Lobos
Ben Moore
Bri Reisinger
Tom Sowers
Zack Schucker
Ben Thomas

…and the following volunteers!

Jill Billman
Charlie Goodrich
Dylan Kostelich
Allen Markes-Lyon
Teresa Reisinger

MiniTimeLapse

Winter Mountain

Winter 2014 Tech Update

With another year nearly a wrap and the winter of 2014 upon us, it is time to reflect and recount recent Penn Manor IT projects. Summer 2013 was one of the busiest on record for the district, and the past several months have proven equally as exciting.

The summer teacher technology upgrade was completed when nearly 200 elementary and middle school teachers received Asus MeMO tablets. These Android powered 10” tablets are making regular appearances as part of classroom instruction and with special education services. Teachers are finding creative and inventive new ways of using Google Play apps with students. Huge thanks to district IT Specialists Jason Sauders, Shelby Foster and Tom Swartz for facilitating the tablet rollout, and for making the summer laptop upgrade happen so efficiently.

Much of the IT department’s work occurs behind the scenes. IT System Engineers Shawn Beard and Chad Billman completed a number of vital infrastructure upgrades and improvements including new network switches, server builds, and programming changes. Chad spearheaded the creation of Jenkins, a continuous integration server that will massively assist in the creation of new images for our Linux laptops. As December drew to a close, Shawn deftly migrated the district website to a new highly available cloud-hosted service via DigitalOcean.

Speaking of websites, our online viewership has continued to grow. The Penn Manor website received a record 744,000 visits. Thanks to the consistent efforts of our new Community Relations Coordinator, Brian Wallace, the Penn Manor Twitter account has rapidly reached over 860 followers.

The district also migrated to a new emergency calling system, SchoolMessenger. In addition to typical mass-notification services, the new system call home when a student is absent from school. We expect that the parent attendance calling features will be enabled in early 2014.

Open Campus, our online course partnership with Hempfield and Manheim Township continues to expand with new course offerings and increased student participation. Penn Manor student enrollment in Open Campus courses has grown to over 150 and total course requests for all three districts have approached 450. Thank you to Help Desk Specialist, Gina Brubaker, for helping Penn Manor and partner district students smoothly and successfully access and navigate their online courses.

Exploding PA Department of Education data reporting requirements consumes considerable district time and recourses. Our new Data Specialist, Dianne Bates, has rapidly mastered the intricacies of continually evolving PIMS submissions and expertly developed a PVAAS data plan for our student management system. In other data news, Dianne, Gina and Carol Alexander are working to create a fully online student registration process, which is scheduled to be unveiled in the spring of 2014.

Of course, the biggest story is the impending Penn Manor High School student 1:1 laptop program. After a year of planning, a successful fall pilot, dozens of hours of teacher professional development, multiple parent information sessions, student class meetings and great efforts from the Technology Team, we are on target to begin laptop distribution at the start of the second semester. IT Specialist Alex Lagunas has been doing outstanding work with the Penn Manor High School student technology apprentice team while preparing the final laptop software image, assisting with teacher PD sessions and troubleshooting existing building technical support issues. Thanks also to Shawn Canady, High School Teacher Technology Coach, for his role in planning and facilitating faculty professional development in support of the program.

Finally, a special shout-out to our students and staff–in the face of continuous change, they continuously demonstrate academic excellence. I am proud to collaborate with such outstanding students and staff!

Happy New Year!

Charlie

Photo Credit: torremountain cc

Education Apps for Android Starter Guide

Penn Manor School District recently distributed 200 Asus MeMO tablets to elementary and middle school teachers. To help our staff jump in and begin exploring, we developed a starter guide to highlight a few useful classroom apps. With over one million Android apps in the Google Play store, the sheer volume of content can be overwhelming. The attached guide helped our teachers focus their efforts. I suspect it may be useful to PM Techblog readers as well. Enjoy!

Teacher Apps For Android 2013

 

Holiday Tech Gift Guide 2013

As the holidays approach, the Penn Manor Technology Team begins to receive questions about affordable technology gift alternatives to iPads and traditional Apple and Windows laptops. Below is a updated version of the holiday tech gift guide email I sent to district staff; I hope it is helpful to Penn Manor families as well.

Google Chromebooks and Android tablets are priced significantly lower than equivalent Apple gear. Plus, there are over a million games and apps on Google Play, the alternative to Apple’s App Store. Google Play includes a huge catalog of music, movies and books. Just in time for Cyber Monday, here is a list of snazzy tech gifts for kids of all ages:

Android Tablets

Google Nexus 7

Nexus 7 is my top tablet recommendation for families. The new 2013 model has been updated with a fantastic HD screen, faster processor and a slimmer build. Consider the 32GB version, which should provide enough storage for a mountain of games, music and apps. For comparison, a 32GB Nexus 7 is priced at $269; the iPad mini with 32GB of memory is $499. Think of all the apps, games, books and stocking suffers you can buy with the $230 you save!

*As of November 30, 2013, Google is offering a $25 Play Store credit with the Nexus 7.

ASUS MeMO Pad 10

If you are looking for an affordable 10″ Android tablet, start with the ASUS MeMO. This tablet is about the same size as the new iPad Air and similar to the tablets teachers received as part of the summer 2013 update. MeMO battery life is over 10 hours and the processor is super snappy. Currently $299 on Amazon, this great 10″ HD tablet is half the price of a 32GB iPad Air!

Note that Android tablets double as eReaders; simply install the Kindle or Nook app to access books purchased via your Amazon or B&N account!

Google Chromebook Laptop

A Chromebook is a fast, lightweight laptop optimized for the web. Unlike traditional laptops, Chromebooks rely on Internet applications and online services rather than locally installed programs. Chrombooks are virus-free and offer excellent battery life. If you need a laptop for home web browsing, games, Facebook or Pinterest, the Chromebook is tough to beat.

Several new Chromebook models hit the streets this past year. Two models stand apart from crowd. The Acer C720 Chromebook is priced at $249 and includes an 11.6″ screen. HP offers a nice 14″ Chromebook for $299. You’ll find these and other Chromebooks on Google’s store.

Bonus! Gifts for Student Technology Enthusiasts

Opensource.com recently published an outstanding guide with 20 super-cool tech gifts for all budgets. Check it out here.

 

Student Help Desk

1:1 Laptop Program Update

Penn Manor High School is approaching the day when every student has access to a personal laptop for learning. In preparation for our January 2014 building-wide 1:1 computing program, a pilot group of 90 students are testing district-issued laptops in school and at home. For the past two months, the pilot group, comprised of Open Campus students and others who are enrolled in online classes, have adopted the laptop as their primary scholarly device.

Student feedback is key to the program; student experiences help us refine installed software and test the laptops in various classroom situations. Based on student input, several changes will be implemented. One example is the neoprene case originally selected for the pilot laptops. It has proven to be less resilient than expected, and the IT Team is investigating a tougher case alternative. Additionally, several software image changes are being implemented to make the laptops more efficient and easier to use. Read more about the pilot program kickoff on PennPoints.

Pilot computers are the Acer TravelMate TMB 113 series laptops running Ubuntu, a flavor of the Linux operating system. The Acer/Ubuntu combination is a perfect blend of computing capability, battery life and software flexibility. Bugs and kinks have been minimal, and students have remarked positively on the laptop’s compact size. Given a successful device pilot, we have selected the Acer TravelMate with Ubuntu as our standard 1:1 program device.

The student help desk team is a vital component of the pilot program. Providing peer support to fellow students, the student team solves technical issues, prepares and configures laptops, trains peers and prepares documentation and help guides. You’ll find a great example of their work on the 1:1 help blog: http://blogs.pennmanor.net/1to1/. PennPoints, recently posted an excellent article on the student help desk.

Penn Manor High School teachers have participated in technology professional development for the past several years. To amplify their exiting skills and help build additional instructional capacity ahead of the full 1:1 program, teachers are participating in 2-3 days of educational technology sessions on a number of new and old topics such as, Open Educational Resources, Moodle, curating content with Evernote, file and resource sharing, student writing/blogging, LibreOffice, screencasting, Google Apps, and document annotation.  Technology professional development sessions are scheduled either after school or during full day trainings.

To keep parents informed of the program, three evening parent information sessions are scheduled. The first session was held on Thursday October 24th. Dr. Gale and I provided an overview of 1:1 program’s instructional goals and answered parent questions for nearly two hours. The next two sessions are scheduled for 7PM on November 20th and December 11th and will be held in the Penn Manor High School library. Registration is not required.

During the second semester, the full program will begin and all 1,700 Penn Manor High School students will receive a laptop. The IT Team is on-schedule for a full program launch by the end of January 2014. However, it is critical to keep in mind that our program is not about the device; it is for and about our students. Excitement is building as we move toward our goal of empowering all Penn Manor High School students with a laptop to explore personal passions such as creative design, engineering, programming, writing and music.

Finally, a big thank-you to PM High School Technology Specialist, Alex Lagunas. Alex has been working tirelessly to prepare for the pilot and guide the student help desk team while simultaneously supporting day-to-day building technology needs and staff help requests. While juggling his many tasks and projects, Alex always remains cool, calm and collected; I’m fortunate to have him on the Penn Manor IT team.

More updates to come!

Back to School with Open Source Software

Note: This article was originally posted on opensource.com, Red Hat’s community hub for all things open source.

For parents: Shopping for back-to-school supplies, textbooks, clothing, and other accouterments can be frustrating and expensive. To help take the sting out of this ritual, students and parents might consider turning to free, open source software and tools in preparation for a new year of study.

For students: Beyond cost savings, open source software empowers students to take ownership of their work and be free of software licensing treadmills. And, perhaps the ultimate educational opportunity is the ability to examine, analyze, and contribute to open source software and tools like these.

For teachers: Turning theory to practice, students can learn by doing as they help with documentation, quality testing, bug review, or even code contributions. Teaching is not simply the delivery of content, via lecture-taxi, to passive minds. Participation and collaboration ignites powerful learning, and empowers students to engage in thoughtful, meaningful scholarship. And open source can be the catalyst.

Here are five great open source applications for learning:

Xournal

Annotation, journaling, and note-taking apps are incredibly popular on tablets and smartphones.Xournal brings these capabilities to the Linux desktop. Students can utilize Xournal to annotate PDF files and capture ideas. Alternately, teachers might use Xournal to grade submitted papers. Extra credit: Use Xournal in conjunction with GfxTablet, an app that allows you to draw on your PC via your Android tablet.

Kazam Screencaster

Forget Kahn Academy; put students in the driver’s seat and let them teach the class. Screencasting is a powerful tool for demonstrating student mastery of concepts and ideas. Inspire students to become teachers, trainers, and digital experts with Kazam Screencaster, a simple desktop video and audio recorder.

LibreOffice

Microsoft may offer a reduced cost student edition of Office, but who needs it when LibreOfficecan handle your productivity tasks with vigor and vim. LibreOffice is a flagship open source product and continues to set the bar for other collaborative projects. With the ability to handle standard Office documents plus Publisher and Visio files, LibreOffice is a personal productivity powerhouse and a big step toward student document liberation.

MuseScore

Unleash your inner Mozart with MuseScore, a high-quality music composition and notation program similar to commercial software such as Sibelius and Finale. MuseScore boasts an impressive list of features and runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows.

Kojo Learning

Play with math, programming, music, and art in the powerful Kojo Learning environment. Based on ideas derived from innovative programs such as Logo and Geometers Sketchpad, Kojo offers a rich platform for students to explore the synthesis of mathematical ideas, coding, creative thinking, and learning.

What applications are loaded into your open source backpack? Are you already using some of these applications in the classroom? If so, tell us how in the comments below.

Back to School Apps For The New Nexus 7

As the sultry days of summer rolled by, Google introduced a hefty refresh to their already solid Nexus 7 tablet. The new Nexus 7 (2013) sports a resplendent HD display, faster processor, upgraded ram, better power efficiency, and a sleeker design. Also included is a rear facing 5MP camera, which should satisfy those who longed for a camera on the first edition.

Google continues to keep the price significantly lower than the obvious competitor, the iPad Mini. Consider that at a cost of $269, the 32GB Nexus 7 is $160 less than the $469 32GB iPad Mini. Importantly, the Google Play store continues to offer a mammoth selection of apps for Nexus 7 and other Android tablets, many of which are free or ultra-low cost.

Based on performance, price and apps, the new Nexus 7 is an outstanding device and continues to be my top recommendation for students, parents and staff seeking an affordable yet powerful tablet.  Check out a detailed Nexus 7 2013 hardware review on Anandtech.

Image via Google

Nexus 7 Image via Google

Show me the apps!

Last year, I posted a few Android app recommendations based on our teacher and student experiences with Nexus 7. Here is an updated list of ten interesting education and classroom apps. Note that these apps will run on various Android tablets, not just the Nexus 7.

Duolingo – Learn and practice Spanish, French, German or Italian on your Android tablet. Duolingo is a fun and free language app to help develop conversational fluency. Simple and addictive, Duolingo provides language learning tools for Android and via the Duolingo website.

Evernote – Replace your paper notebooks with Evernote, the king of personal note-taking and archiving apps.  Notes may be organized into folder-like notebooks, tagged with keywords and later searched. Your notes are stored in the cloud and automatically synchronized everywhere you access Evernote, be it the web, your phone or tablet. The Android app is a super organizational companion for students and teachers.

Lecture Notes – Annotate, draw, sketch and write in style with this versatile note-taking app. The feature list is long; PDF import/export, a wide pallet of pencil/pen customization, drawing tools… there are too many to mention. Plus, you can easily export your written notes to Evernote. The full version is $4. However, the free trial includes two notebooks, which should be sufficient for casual note-taking.

Writing Prompts – Chop writers block with 500 inspirational prompts to help your students launch the next great novel. Prompts are organized into category topics such as Animals, Crime, and Fantasy. One of my favorites: “Write a love letter from Peanut Butter to Jelly.”

Groupboard – Draw, chat, and collaborate in a virtual whiteboard space with Groupboard. The app and companion website offers a dynamic workspace for group projects or remote tutoring. Organize your students into small teams and let the brainstorming begin; the free version allows up to 5 participants per board.

MyScript Calculator – A great tool for checking homework or tutoring, this app truly needs to be seen to be believed. Write a mathematical expression on the screen and MyScript Calculator will convert your script to numbers and solve the operation in front of your eyes.

Graphing Calculator – MyScript Calculator is great for simple equations. When your studies reach the next level, you’ll find useful Algebra, Geometry and Pre-calculus tools inside Graphing Calculator by Mathlab.

Moodle Mobile App – Connect to your classroom Moodle course while on the move! The Moodle app provides access to course content, messages and notifications. Note: This app requires your school’s Moodle server to be running version 2.4 or above and Mobile Web Services to be switched on.  

Socrative Socrative is a free web service and mobile app that turns any laptop, Android or iOS device into a clicker response system. An innovative upgrade to traditional test review, Socrative continues to be a favorite of educators. 

Extra Credit for Linux: Check out GfxTablet, an app that allows you to draw on your PC via your Android tablet. Pair this app with GIMP and you have a natural drawing slate. Note: This app is still under development and may be a little rough around the edges.