Because we love you, we wanted to give you a bonus edition of 11 Questions this month (our piece with Dr. Elizabeth Loboa ran in the August issue.)
David Nivens, CEO of Midwest Computech, answered whatever the opposite of a baker’s dozen is for us. Nivens has overseen the company’s transformation from typewriter repair shop to leading Mid-Missouri IT provider, so we asked him about the current lay of the land in educational IT. We also profiled Midwest Computech in Celebrations this month.
- One of Midwest Computech’s areas of expertise is working with schools to provide IT solutions. In just the past year, how have you seen the IT needs of schools change?
Wireless needs for schools are increasing at the speed of light — or should I say bandwidth? With most schools in the state focusing on 1:1 and BYOD initiatives [in which a school either provides a device for everyone or allows everyone to bring a device from home, respectively], the need for Wi-Fi quality of service is critical. As schools add devices, they need to be considering larger implementation of wireless access points that accommodate all types of devices. Most schools have some level of wireless access, but many are upgrading a standardization that offers faster speeds.
Many schools are also moving toward on- and off-premises hosting platforms rather than owning and maintaining the equipment themselves. Midwest Computech has implemented hundreds of on-premises data center and cloud solutions with our TruCloud brand. This platform helps schools budget and stabilize overall infrastructure costs with simple monthly flat billing and robust performance. In addition, systems are implemented and maintained by our certified team 24/7/365. This allows the schools’ technology staff to focus their efforts on serving teachers and students with end user issues instead of spending long hours in their data center on tech support calls.
- What is the biggest mistake schools are making when it comes to IT, and what can be done to fix that mistake?
While having a 1:1 initiative is becoming more critical, it’s important for schools to step back and look at the big picture. Many questions must be answered prior to a successful implementation, the biggest of which is how the devices are going to integrate with their curriculum. Having an integrated curriculum and technology plan is key to student learning.
Many schools have realized that 1:1 initiatives, particularly with internet-reliant devices like Google Chromebooks, can use a tremendous amount of bandwidth. In order to be successful, you must make sure that you are not putting the cart before the horse by purchasing devices before your infrastructure is ready. At Midwest Computech, we provide a mobile device assessment where certified engineers evaluate the school environment. This assessment includes everything from checking with their internet service provider on your bandwidth to making recommendations on their switching and wireless access point infrastructure hardware and configurations.
- How is technology changing the way your clients interact with their students?
Email has always been a major communication platform between students and staff, but things are changing rapidly. With most schools using Google Drive and Microsoft Office 365, students and staff have a more productive and efficient way to collaborate. Students now share his or her assignment digitally with the instructor so they can make suggestions, changes, and grade the assignment within the same folder or document. Video conferencing used to only be for enterprises and big business that could afford the equipment, and schools are now using Google Hangouts, FaceTime, and Skype to communicate on a number of instructional topics.
- And what about interacting with parents?
Interacting with parents is easier than ever. Much of the technology discussed above can be used when interacting with parents. Schools have really harnessed their websites and social media platforms to help parents get fast information on their kid’s grades and events. Portals with secure logins are found on many school websites that provide direct access to student information system software where data is recorded by the school for their child.
- What are the biggest security concerns for your clients in education?
Can you say ransomware? This type of malicious software blocks access to school data and threatens to publish or delete it unless the organization pays a ransom for the data. The developers of this destructive software often use untraceable methods of payment such as bitcoin [an independent online currency without any banking system or regulatory entity]. Ransomware can destroy data, reputations, credibility, and sensitive information that are vital to schools. Since 2012, the use of ransomware has grown insurmountable. Schools must have proper backup and disaster recovery devices and plans in place to protect themselves. Midwest Computech also provides arguably the most comprehensive protection available on the market today with our unified threat management solution. Our Safetynet solutions protect school data by providing on-site and cloud-based backups providing granular backups as often as every 15 minutes. These two solutions help school board directors and administrators rest easy know their sensitive information is protected.
- What do you think is the next wave of technology schools will be using?
This is a challenging question, since there are so many new technologies being utilized in schools today. Technology firms like Midwest Computech must be agile, nimble, and skilled at embracing new technologies. Virtual reality is taking shape in schools — with the implementation of BYOD and new hardware and software inventions, students one day may be able to do their math assignment in a virtual coffee shop. Sedalia 200 School District and others have implemented virtual carts this year providing students with unique learning experiences. Technology surrounding adaptive learning models will also be more available as schools become more informed on courseware that focuses on personalized education needs.
- What could schools better be doing to prepare for their future technology needs?
Schools should start with written technology goals and plans that align with their comprehensive school improvement plan. These written goals and plans should be specific and focused on student learning and protection of school information. It’s key for the school to identify the “why”: Why do we need this device? Does it support our curriculum?
- When it comes to security, what are common parent concerns?
I think most parents are concerned about two types of security as it relates to schools and technology: physical security and cybersecurity. Physical security includes things such as camera systems that prevent crime, bullying, and hazing and access control systems on the entrances to buildings. Cybersecurity deals with protecting student information including social security numbers and much more. While many schools use cloud-based student information systems such as Tyler SIS, it’s critical that they implement the proper firewall and content management systems to protect students against outside data attaches and inappropriate content.
- Nationally, what are the biggest IT challenges for schools?
Technology is a big overall challenge for schools now, and since we’re a technology company, I’ll focus on that. Today’s students are learning technology so fast that many of them are outpacing their teachers. This can sometimes put instructors at a disadvantage in the classroom. School boards and and district administers need to be mindful that professional development on technology is a critical component when comes to successful classroom instruction. With BYOD initiatives, teachers have to have a broad understanding of every type of device: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Android, and more. It’s important to make sure that the applications schools are considering for instruction address and are supported through many different platforms so all students can enjoy a great learning environment.
- Midwest Computech has many rural schools as clients. How are those school districts’ needs different from those of a larger, more urban school?
We’ve worked with literally hundreds of schools over the past 35 years we’ve been in business. Some of our schools are large while other are rural. The challenge for us, as well as many other integrators and technology directors, is the same. We’re always wanting to provide consistent and streamlined environments that support student learning through technology; unfortunately, many rural schools struggle with the necessary funding for implementing technology. The use of cloud services and on-premises hosted services has helped bridge the gap dramatically by providing cost effective flat pay and freeware solutions. However, as devices become lower cost, they also use cheaper components that break and require replacement. Rural schools have to be extremely careful when planning for the support and repair needs that come with larger device quantities. A good device rotation plan and budget is critical when considering all technology in schools. While rural schools may have less resources, with proper planning an alignment with a technology consulting firm (ahem, like Midwest Computech, ahem) can help stabilize and improve investments in technology.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
As a technology consulting firm we focus on being nimble and ready to serve the unique needs of school districts both large and small. While some technology companies struggle to provide all things to all schools, we understand the end goal is student learning and focus our efforts on this key principle. That means you have to be effective working with other vendors, partners, maintenance teams, and the school’s in-house staff to be successful. When a school aligns with Midwest Computech, we start looking at forest versus the trees. We have to always find answers to these questions: How can we best serve the staff and student? What technologies is the school currently using and how can we improve on them? What is holding the school back from successfully growing in the direction they want to go with their technology plan? How can we be good stewards of taxpayer dollars while providing a consistent, exciting, and stable platform the supports learning? We’re gaining traction every day in the education technology space and are humble enough to know that we will never have all of the answers. Only through collaboration with great staff and administration can we become servant–leaders in school technology.