WASHINGTON, D.C. — Mops, pencils, security cards and other physical equipment typically are tracked in-house by school districts or by schools themselves. But the thinking is different when it comes to laptops and other computing devices, which more often are tracked by the individual school's IT department.
It shouldn't be that way, said Leonard Niebo, IT director of Brick Township Public School District, the fourth largest school district in New Jersey. Managing computer equipment should be a district and business process issue, not an IT department issue by itself, Niebo said.
The IT team should unbox, image and hand out the devices, Niebo said during a session at the Consortium of School Networking conference on Tuesday, March 6. That's where its responsibilities should end, he said. Each school department should be responsible for tracking and retrieving devices, with a little help from IT.
The same process that a school district uses to retrieve security cards from employees who leave should be used for computing devices, Niebo said. When an employee is terminated or moves on, that person's department needs to track down his or her device.
"It's going to take work; there's no magic bullet that does this," Niebo said. "Nothing's ever accomplished without enthusiasm and ruffling some feathers."
Pawn Shops, Decals and Geofencing
Being proactive also can save school districts some trouble. For example, Brick Township purchased kelly-green netbooks for student carts. That's a color students wouldn't normally pick themselves.
After buying the laptops, Niebo drove 10 minutes to a local pawn shop. He told the owner about the new carts filled with netbooks. If someone brought one into his shop, Niebo asked the man to let him know about it.
Three weeks later, the owner called him. Niebo's team picked up the stray netbook and tracked it down to the high school it came from. That kind of legwork helps the district keep track of its devices in case of an audit.
But hardware and software tools also help. Each district-owned device has a big sticker that identifies the netbook or laptop as the school district's property. If someone peels the sticker off, it leaves behind a burn mark that can't be sanded off and cleaned up.
On the software side, the district installed Absolute Computrace software on every issued device. Unlike the infamous case of Lower Merion School District
, Brick Township notified everyone that the tracking and theft recovery software was there.
Through a geofencing feature, the staff is notified when a laptop crosses the New Jersey state line. The geofencing is a lifesaver for audit reporting because it helps them find devices, he said.
One staff member never had her laptop at meetings and kept saying she left it at home or other places. But through the geofencing feature, the IT team tracked it to another state. Coincidentally, this person's daughter went to college there, Niebo said.
In a phone conversation, Niebo asked the staff member how her daughter liked the laptop. The line went silent. At the next meeting, she brought the laptop with her.
By establishing business processes, being proactive, doing the legwork and using software tools to help, the district is prepared for an audit. "If the auditors show up at the door, and your heart flutters, you have a problem," Niebo said.
Two years ago when the district had a federal audit, he was able to pull up the location of the 47 laptops the district purchased under Title II funding. The auditors were out of his office in three minutes, and the audit went "smashingly well," he said.
While these management strategies and technologies have been working well for laptops and other electronics, iOS devices have proved a challenge. Since August, Apple has changed its app deployment process twice. The switch from iOS 4 to 5 was especially difficult. Now it takes 80 minutes to push an app out to a device, Niebo said. The devices take much more time to set up. And students can undo the district's syncing job overnight.
One day, a mom came into the school office with her son. As part of his special education program, the student needed a $150 app on his iOS device. Niebo spent time syncing it to the district account.
The next day, the mom was back in his office. The app had disappeared. Niebo looked at it, and sure enough, the student had synced the device to his iTunes account at home. Niebo spent 20 minutes resynching it to the district account so he could get it back.
These consumer devices are harder to manage and take longer to deal with. But people keep buying them, and Niebo is looking for ways to manage them better.
Brick Township left conference attendees with the following takeaways: Be proactive, do the hard legwork, use software tools, refine business processes and work with other departments on those processes.
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