Technology Priorities for 15-16

Mission: To support the instructional and operational pillars of the charter, specifically project-based learning, enhanced learning, and service learning, so that our students can become college ready, active citizens and life-long learners.

Vision: To provide equitable access to instructional technology for all students, teachers and staff.

I’ve found it a challenge this year to communicate how the technology team is supporting instruction this year, so I’d like to outline our initiatives here.

  1. End User Support.
    1. Technology Support Assistant. YPICS has added a part time technology support position for each school site, who is tasked primarily with making sure the classroom instructional technology is operational. They respond to support tasking via the help desk system at http://www.ypics.org/hd/ and do such things as troubleshoot connectivity issues, reinstall student computers and assist with audio visual equipment issues. Our goal is to deal with each ticket as quickly as possible, within 24 hours during the week for most immediate issues. Some situations may require research, but we will communicate with the ticket originator within 24 hours during the week via the help desk system. (write an example)
    2. OS X client management. We have implemented the Casper/JAMF mobile device management system, which puts a software agent on each YPICS Mac device. This agent allows us to get inventory information and push out configurations and software changes automatically. This tool helps us respond to change requests without necessarily touching the affected device.
    3. Anti-Virus. We have added the Avast Antivirus package to all OS X clients, which automatically updates the antivirus definitions daily and shields the user from most malicious software, including browser based attacks. This software is being added to the computers over the course of this week, more than 500 machines have been installed so far.
    4. Printer Support. We have replaced the HP 2015 printers with HP 401, and can automatically set up the queues on YPICS managed computers.
  2. Robust Network Stability
    1. Managed services. We have secured the services of a network management company called 7LITS. They are based in Granada Hills and assist with troubleshooting and management of the switching and wifi networks.
    2. Upgraded infrastructure. We have replaced the content firewall, core router and wifi controller with more modern equipment, and have leveraged the district’s high-speed wifi network wherever possible.
    3. Cloud based services. We have migrated the primary web server, database and device management system server to Amazon Web Services, rather than hosting them in-house. This allows us a great deal of flexibility in management and configuration, and has proven to be more reliable that local hosting.
  3. End User Data / Asset Security
    1. Branding. Using the device management system, we have branded the login screen and added a confidentiality warning to all staff laptops. We are in the process of branding the student computer login screens as well.
    2. Encrypted file systems for staff laptops. We will work with each staff member over the rest of the year to add file system encryption (File Vault) to secure student and parent data in case of laptop theft. This requires the use of a user password as the encryption key, and can take a few hours to initially take effect.
    3. Inventory. We are using the device management system to maintain a digital inventory of all YPICS Mac devices, which allows the tech team to identify systems and anticipate issues such as battery end of life and software updates.
  4. Data Access and Analysis
    1. Illuminate. We are in the process of moving from Powerschool SIS to the IlluminateISI, which will allow us to generate student data reports much more easily, and in formats that are visual and colorful, so they are easier to interpret. You can learn more about this process by following the Illuminate Transition Process blog.
  5. Inventory / Cost Controls
    1. Asset tagging. We are in the process of adding asset tags to each YPICS device.
    2. Budgeting. Each school site has budget for consumables that I manage in coordination with site and YPICS admin.
  6. Technician Training
    1. Friday training meetings. The tech team meets via Google Hangout each Friday at 11am to go over current issues and to pursue more advanced topics, such as network engineering and server administration for future certifications.
  7. Documentation
    1. Runbook. The tech team is developing a “runbook” that contains all of the processes and procedures necessary to support technology integration at YPICS schools.
  8. Teacher Technology Training
    1. Professional development. Through collaborating with the Coordinators of Instruction and YPICS administration, we will be supporting the teacher PD process.

Making the jump from Powerschool to Illuminate, part 2

We have begun using Illuminate’s DnA (data and assessment) tool, and we got excited when we saw how easy it was to search for students and see their data all in one place. With Powerschool we were never really able to put test score data into the database and use it in a meaningful way, instead relying on the Excel-fu skills of our data folks to create spreadsheets and charts, all of which were built from static data snapshots.

After viewing a demonstration of the IlluminateISI, we believe the system has the following advantages:

  • Lower cost. The per student licensing cost is about 75% of Powerschool annually. The training costs are also significantly reduced by 90% for similar events, such as conferences and consultants.
  • Completely HTML5 based. The entire site, including the grade book, uses modern web technology to dynamically display data, relieving the IT staff of the burden of maintaining Java runtime compliance on the various platforms. Therefore, any device that can access the website with a modern browser can use the entire application, limited only by screen size.
  • Data visualization. In conjunction with the IlluminateDNA testing platform, we can load external test data such as our Achieve3000 and MAPS scores and create reports per student and per cohort. This will lighten the data processing burden of our data folks significantly, and allow stakeholders, such as students, teachers, parents and administrative staff access to real-time data to more easily tailor instruction and intervention.
  • Reporting. The Powerschool reporting module requires learning a separate layout and markup language, and has proven difficult to customize, especially where reports cards are concerned. IlluminateISI allows us to create PDF templates using standard applications, such as Microsoft Word, and then populate the required data more easily.
  • Spanish language localization. The student and parent portals have Spanish versions, and can be easily switched between English and Spanish in the user interface. Powerschool had to be run through a translation service such as Google Translate, and did not translate error messages, making the system difficult to access for non English speakers.
  • Easy access to support. Illuminate’s help resources are open to all at http://illuminate.screenstepslive.com/s, and does not require a designated technical contact or access credentials. Any user can also search the online and contextual help, and can email the Illuminate support staff.
  • Integration with MiSIS. Illuminate has taken steps to easily export data to the LAUSD student information system, while exporting data out of Powerschool and into MiSIS has been very problematic and time consuming. This integration will allow us to run our own student information system and exchange data with the district in accordance with the consent decree.
  • Responsive development cycle. Illuminate runs a two week software development cycle, where program improvements are tested and implemented dynamically. Powerschool’s development cycle has been increasing, but it is still a matter of months between updates.

Even so, there are several challenges ahead, for each of our stakeholders:

  1. Teachers
    1. How to use a new gradebook
    2. How to implement standards based grading
    3. How to take attendance
    4. How do subs take attendance
    5. How to track behavior and log referrals
  2. Students
    1. How to track subject and assignment grades
  3. Parents
    1. How to access student grades
    2. How to access multiple children’s grades
  4. Office Staff
    1. How to track attendance and make changes
    2. How to schedule teachers to courses and sections
    3. How to enroll students, set cohorts and roster classes
    4. How to do CALPADS and other reporting
    5. How to enter and change demographic and other parent and student data
    6. How to create student travel cards and schedules
    7. How to generate transcripts
    8. How to use the system to get data for outreach
    9. How to integrate with Alert Solutions for messaging
    10. How to track parent participation in outreach programs
  5. Instruction Administration
    1. How to enter and retrieve test scores
    2. How to review gradebook data entry
    3. How to track behavior and incident logging
    4. How to implement progress grade scales
    5. How to implement standards based grading
  6. Special Education
    1. How to use the data system to support Welligent
  7. Counseling
    1. How to use the system for high school & college counseling
    2. How to use the system to support social skills development
    3. How to use the system to support the school wide positive behavior program
  8. Afterschool
    1. How to track program participation and attendance
  9. Information Technology
    1. How to import from Powerschool accurately and completely
    2. How to back up records for disaster recovery
    3. How to integrate with the current YPICS help desk system
    4. How to complete end of year processing
    5. How to complete start of year set up

Most importantly, how do we implement these changes in such a way that we do not interrupt instruction? How can we make this transition as smoothly as possible so we realize the benefits of the new student information system without burdening our staff, students and parents?

Making the jump from Powerschool to Illuminate, part 1

After nearly 9 years as a Powerschool using district, we are planning to make the jump to the Illuminate student information system, known as ISI. With an expected implemenation date of 7/1/16, no mean feat, this.

NOTE: A point of clarification, we are referring here not to IlluminateDNA, which is for content standards testing, but IlluminateISI, which is the SIS. We will frequently use Illuminate to mean one, the other or both. 🙂

We had to weigh the pros and cons of the two systems, and look at what we would have to learn to do to maintain system usability.

Powerschool Pros:

  • Institutional knowledge. Several staff members have been trained in Powerschool, and while no one person knows the entire suite of tools, there are folks with areas of expertise.
  • Large company, large userbase. Many charter schools use Powerschool, and there is a large and active user group where we can crowdsource answers. There are also established consultants who can train.
  • It does what we need. From attendance to grade book to historical records, Powerschool did 80% of what we needed it to do, or we were able to “hack” out a solution.

Powerschool Cons:

  • Limited access to help. There are only two designated users at each site allowed to contact the Pearson help desk, so the expertise tends to be held by a specific few. The general help desk resource is password protected, but not integrated into any existing authentication system (such as the Powerschool username), so we had to maintain a separate ID and password for access to the help desk website. Very few staff members used their access. Any additional training, such as CBT or videos, came at a cost, such as a license for $1500 for specific recurring task trainings. At a charter school, such fees come at a cost of other programs.
  • Data is difficult to export and visualize. We have all become Excel kung-fu experts in moving data in and out of Powerschool, but there is no built in visualization without buying yet another product. We looked into visualization tools such as SchoolZilla and Tableau, but the licensing costs were prohibitive.
  • Gradebook uses Java. The constant and ill timed (for us) java patches and redownloads of the gradebook made getting grades in on time regularly a problem. While Powerschool is moving away from their Java gradebook, this couldn’t happen fast enough, as the limited IT resources have to handle the patches and testing.
  • DDOS. Our Powerschool instance has had significant outages due to distributed denial of service attacks. Powerschool is moving to another hosting vendor, but this has given us pause due to multiple service outages over the last two semesters.
  • Company spun off from Pearson. Powerschool is now a separate company from Pearson, and I am concerned about the continuity of support and stability. My experience with another company rolling up and going public, only to be sold off for parts a few years later gives me pause.
  • Gradebook grade scales are always punitive. Powerschool has great difficulty, in my opinion and experience, in implementing progressive grade scales. At this point, you start the semester with a score of 100% and student success is measured in how well you control the slide downwards. There are only hacks and workarounds to reward students for mastery and competence, and the sins of their journey weigh too heavily on their grade.

 

In my next post, I’ll discuss the perceived advantages and disadvantages of Illuminate, and touch on some of the tasks that are before us.

 

Some thoughts on Teach. Empower. Lead.

The leadership team have been reflecting on our brand and the tagline of “Teach. Empower. Lead.” has led me to think about what they mean to me and my journey here at YPICS.

Teach.

Every person, from office staff to classroom teachers to administration is a person who has the opportunity to model positive behavior, share their expertise, learn from others and pass that knowledge on. If you are teaching and your students, parents, and peers are learning, then you will be successful. There is no replacement for the heart of a teacher.

Empower.

Everything we do is focused on the success of the student. Whatever decision you make, if it will help our students, parents and learning community be successful, then you can’t go wrong. This empowers our staff and leadership to make decisions without having to constantly check with others.

Lead.

One of the great things about the charter movement is the lack of overbearing structure and the abundance of opportunity to make your mark. As long as you are striving to improve and help others along the way, you will be successful.