TIG: First of all, paint me a picture of the IT education environment today – hos is it different today than 10 years ago?
JS: We didn’t have any wide area network at that point. Today we have a WAN, and I would say the two killer apps that changed our direction or the way we do things
are the Internet and e-mail. Today we have a Windows 2000 Active Directory running, a Windows 2000 domain and we use server-based computing with a Citrix metaframe deployment. It’s a combination or hybrid situation where we’ve got some Citrix and some traditional fat installations. We use thin clients wherever it makes sense for us, whether it be terminals or legacy PCs configured as terminals. Our strategic direction is to serve as many applications via metaframe as possible and only deploy locally installed applications where necessary.
We have a fibre network now – GigE to every school – which gives us huge advantages. Now we can start our server consolidation and centralization. In other words, rather than have a distributed model where servers are installed at each school, we are moving to having all of our Wintel servers installed back in our data centre. So we’ve fortified our data centre. We have a diesel generator that keeps us up and running for 24 hours in the event of a power outage and UPS and more power and all those sorts of things. We have redundancy built into our fibre network, so if one link goes down there’s an alternate route to get to where we need to go. We’re not everywhere where we want to be at this point but we’re in the process of moving. Like I’ve mentioned many times we’re rebuilding an airplane while flying it. We’re never really down, although the schools close in June that’s when all of our work heats up with new buildings, new construction, so it’s a group that’s busy pretty much 12 months of the year.
TIG: What do you see as the challenges particular to IT in the education sector?
JS: The No. 1 is funding. We are not adequately funded to deploy technology in our schools. That starts from the acquisition of hardware and software through to support. Quite often there are dollars spent on of hardware and software without any recognition there needs to be dollars spent on support and training. The structure we’re moving towards involves a comprehensive training function within the ICT department here, but again we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. There is no funding from the ministry that will address this adequately.
TIG: But at the same time your board has been more successful in selling the benefits of IT investments than some. Have you been able to demonstrate a return on investment in certain areas that has helped you to do that?
JS: I’m not sure we’re better than other places. We’re probably better than some, but the fact that we centralize all our acquisitions is a big difference between us and other school districts. In other words, school A can’t go out and buy whatever hardware or whatever software they want, it’s all centralized and managed and controlled through our department. But one of the big advantages for us is our board has approved a leasing program rather than purchasing, so consequently we’re able to take advantage of getting more for less. We’re still in that renewal stage, we’re not done but the model is sound, and I think maybe other school boards haven’t really addressed (that issue). The old saying is if you replace 20 per cent every year you’re going to be fine because in five years you have a totally new infrastructure. But what school boards and publicly funded institutions tend to do from my experience is they’ll buy something today and not put together any formal renewal program and in five years when the equipment is obsolete they don’t have the money to address it. So they might replace 20 per cent at that time and you’ve got a snowball building and you end up in a real mess. That’s the situation we were in in 2001. Since 2001 when we adopted a leasing model for all of our hardware we’ve been able to put a big dent in it. We still have a ways to go. We probably have about 50 per cent of our infrastructure that needs to be renewed but that’s across 137 schools plus our central board offices, so we’re making progress.
TIG: You just implemented Windows server system. Tell me a bit about the background of that.
JS: We used to run on Windows NT and obviously that’s a legacy operating system, to say the least. It was time to move things to a newer OS, so we selected Windows 2000 Server. We’re predominantly a Microsoft shop, because most of our business productivity tools are Microsoft products. Our database is Oracle. So the advantage that Active Directory gives us is the ability to manage our network, to manage our user accounts with Active Directory is much simpler than it was in an NT environment. Based on our experience with Novell in the past, it’s a fine operating system, but it would have taken us much longer to migrate to a Novell environment. Our internal expertise is pretty much all Microsoft. We have a good relationship with Microsoft and we wanted to stick with Microsoft.
TIG: What will MS Office System let you do that you couldn’t do before?
JS: A lot more integration between the applications. Now with the power of the systems, multitasking is not an issue. Interoperability or integration between the applications that make up each suite allows us to be more productive, for sure.
TIG: Last year you did a major fibre optic deployment with Peel District. How has that changed IT’s job since then?
JS: What that enables us to do -just initially, we’re not talking long-term when we get into videostreaming and other high bandwidth applications – is reduce the number of servers we have and centralize them. We put them back in the data centre, so therefore we are not only saving licence costs associated with the servers and those sorts of things, but on things like the mileage we pay our technicians to go to the sites to repair them. Also, the environment they’re kept in in the school is not the same as the environment they’re kept in in the data centre, vis a vis air conditioning, so (we don’t have) any maintenance associated with the servers or the extra servers. By eliminating them, we eliminate the maintenance charges, the software licensing charges and our time to resolution on repair is much quicker as well, because the servers will reside in one location.
TIG: What major IT projects will you be working on over the next couple of years?
JS: We will in August be starting the installation of a central farm of blade servers and a storage area network. That leverages the value of our fibre network. We’re looking at the potential of an integrated library system, so we’d have one centralized library system for all schools in the district. Another major initiative is voice over IP and we’ll be doing something in 2004-05 as well.
TIG: IT knows about IT and most kids know about computers, but teachers have been the missing link. What kind of training has been required to get the most out of your investments?
JS: One of my major objectives is to establish a training function. We will collaborate with other staff at the board who are responsible for training to provide training for teachers on the use of the productivity and curriculum tools they have. We’ve established a training centre; it consists of two labs, one Apple and one Wintel, and we’re opening another centre in the north. So we have one in the north and one in the south, and we are going to work with our academic consultants to give teachers the opportunity to be trained on not only the tools used in the curriculum but also on the productivity tools such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint that they’ve never really had an opportunity to be trained on. We started that process last October and it has worked really well. We began with our corporate staff, and it has worked exceptionally well. In the fall we’re planning on deploying some of our ICT staff to the schools where they will set up a day or two in which teachers will come to see them during their spares to get trained on the basic productivity tools, and our academic consultants will work with us on providing opportunities for teachers to be trained on the curriculum tools.
We have seven academic consultants who are dedicated to supporting our elementary teachers … for the use of IT to enhance pedagogy. We’re also not just deploying traditional labs of computers. We have a hybrid environment but also mobile labs of laptops, and that’s a very big part of our future. Our philosophy is to bring the technology to the students, and not the other way around and make it part of their regular classroom activity as opposed to making it a separate lab.
Right now they’re just laptops with wireless connectivity, so teachers who teach in portables can now have their students work with technology, whereas in the past they didn’t, because we can’t deploy desktops to portables for security reasons. The other is if I have mobile lab of 50 laptops, teacher A may need four, teacher B may need five, and teacher C may need six, so you can deploy them more efficiently, in that the technology is asked for when required – it doesn’t sit in the classroom unused. The other advantage for us is they’re increasing demands on teachers to use those tools for reporting and administrative purposes so teachers can sign these laptops out and take them home overnight, and bring them back the next day and the students are never without technology.