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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Do you have a new year's resolution to stay organized? Try my favorite productivity tool, Evernote

Sometimes, I feel like am very organized, then other days I feel as if I am anything but organized.  But generally I feel I do a good job utilizing task lists, to do lists, documenting ideas, mileage, meeting notes, instructions, web pages, tips, etc.  Over the years I have used many techniques to record this info, from paper, 3M sticky notes, to notes in Outlook.  But hands down, the best tool I have ever used for this is Evernote -  http://evernote.com/evernote/ .  As busy leaders, a tool like Evernote can prove indispensable to maintaining organized information in a hectic work world of information overload.

Evernote is a free productivity tool that I feel basically acts as my second brain many days, allowing me to easily find chunks of information that I probably would have otherwise forgotten or lost.  Evernote is available on the following platforms: 
And even without a software or app install, Evernote is always available just through a web browser.  So as long as you carry a smart device, you will have Evernote at your side, ready to record info you do not want to forget.  

There are a million ways to user Evernote, or maybe more, judging from all the blogs post and list of uses you will find from a quick perusal of Google search results, from a query such as this: https://www.google.com/search?q=way+to+use+evernote .

I keep all sorts of information in Evernote, which allows you to store related information in notebooks, which are pretty much what they sound like.  You could have one giant notebook, or organize notes into a notebook for every subject.  I am not a big filer – I use about five main notebooks for a majority of what I file.  Much like my email filing technique, where I stopped being an email filer several years back and now I rely on search queries to find information, saving me the countless hours of filing emails, or in this case notes.  I keep the following notebooks in Evernote: Systems, Work, Personal, Recipes to Try, and Best Recipes.  A way I find useful that allows you to further make notes searchable, and findable, is by adding tags to notes in Evernote. As many tags can be added to a note as you want, allowing you to quickly find the note at a later time, but if you don’t tag notes, Evernote still has a robust search system built in to help you find your notes.

And this is where Evernote really shines and ends up being what I call my second brain.  I have Evernote on at least three computers, three tablets, and my phone.  What is great is that all of these devices keep their notes in sync, such that I can save a note on my phone during the busy work day, then fire up my tablet in the evening, to find the note waiting for me.  So I may clip a web page in my web browser, using the Evernote Web Clipper Extension - http://evernote.com/webclipper/ , which I can then later access on any of my devices when I need it. The web page is fully indexed, so I can search for a word or subject that was on the page, without having to remember what web site I had found the info on.

I also file lots of emails into Evernote.  If I receive an email that has information I need to keep, then I forward it to an email address that Evernote has attached to my account.  I think this is one of Evernote’s most powerful and often overlooked features.  To find out the email address to send notes to for your account, in the software, go to the Tools menu and choose Account Info.  On a mobile device or tablet, click on your name to see Account Info.  You will see an address to email notes to, which will then be automatically placed into your notebook.  This is fabulous and makes retaining a few really important emails all the easier.  I often send receipts, software licenses, and other things I need to keep to my Evernote email address so I can find them easily later.

If you have not joined the Evernote revolution, and you are looking to start the New Year out better organized, then I highly recommend you try out Evernote and see how it works for you.  Do you have an Evernote super tip?  Then feel free to leave a comment and share it with the world at http://ctotechnotes.blogspot.com/

This blog entry is cross posted with the great folks at SchoolCIO

Monday, November 11, 2013

An inspiring story that says a lot about education

November 2013 Issue of Wired magazine
If you have not picked up the November 2013 issue of Wired magazine and read the cover story, “The Next Steve Jobs”, then you missed out on a truly inspiring story of a teacher, struggling to get by with little to no resources in the drug war ravaged Mexican border region.  While the star of the article is an impoverished young girl, 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, who responds to her teacher’s radical change in teaching methodology and becomes one of the best students in all of Mexico, the real story is about the teacher, Sergio Juárez Correa.

Correa struggled to reach his students and meet state testing standards (sound familiar?)  He knew that with virtually infinite access to information online (which his students did not have access to), the days of him being the bearer of knowledge for his students were numbered, and it was not producing results for his students.  So as Correa struggled to learn about how teachers are changing their instruction and having tremendous success, he decided to make a change in his classroom. So he told his students that they do have it extremely difficult and have none of the modern advantages, such as laptops and high speed internet, which students across the river in Brownsville, Texas have.  But he knew his students had potential to learn and to love doing it, which often seems to be lost on students and teachers neck deep in state and national mandates.
The methodology employed by Correa was at least partially modeled on the pioneering and increasingly cited work of TED darling Sugata Mitra.  But rather than leaving students unattended, Correa changed his role and now took a back seat in the classroom, as his students became investigators, cooperatively working on problems and debating answers in order to find solutions.  He largely did this without the use of technology, and had amazing results.

Would technology have hurt or enhanced what was done is his classroom?  I think it certainly could have assisted in enhancing a great teaching and learning environment, but I would also argue that if Correa had unleashed his students to lookup facts using Google, his results would not have been the same.  The power was in asking the students to think about problems and work cooperatively on solving them.


Teaching and leadership make a huge difference in student learning – clearly shown in this story, but they also too often stifle it: sadly, the article the quotes the chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros as saying “The teaching method makes little difference.” 

This blog entry is cross posted with the great folks at SchoolCIO

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Education has yet to experience digital transformation

Gartner Symposium 2013
This past week thousands of IT leaders descended on Orlando for Gartner Symposium.  This was not a conference about the nuts and bolts of IT, as much as it was about trends, strategies, and the new reality of the impact of everything and everyone becoming digitally connected. While the conference was not focused on education, it was abundantly clear that K-12 education is lagging behind many industries in transformational uses of technology.  Gartner Senior Vice President Peter Sondergaard's keynote termed what is happening globally as "digitalization", saying "Every budget is an IT budget. Every company is an IT company. Every business leader is becoming a digital leader..."  The message was that all industries are being dramatically altered and technology is the common thread behind massive transformation. Sondergaard insisted that industries and leaders need to understand and harness the innovative power that technology.   


While technology in education has been a key ingredient in innovative classrooms as demonstrated in numerous classrooms, schools, districts, and the Project Red study, there are many examples poorly implemented technology in schools.  For schools to be truly transformed by digitalization, they will need to leverage technology to educate every student with customized learning content and feedback supplemented and supported by well-trained educators.  The learning model itself at some point probably needs to change, lest many schools will continue to be only marginally impacted by technology.  What are your thoughts?  Have we truly transformed education through technology, or do we have a long way to go?  What are you doing to start your transformation?   Your comments are welcome at http://ctotechnotes.blogspot.com/

This blog entry is cross posted with the great folks at SchoolCIO

Gartner Symposium 2013 provided some mind blowing factoids preceding keynote speakers

Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt at Gartner Symposium 2013
This week during Gartner Symposium 2013 ( Twitter search at https://twitter.com/search?q=%23GartnerSYM&src=hash ), some notable keynotes were delivered by the likes of Steve Ballmer of Microsoft and Eric Schmidt of Google.  But preceding each of these keynotes were some mind blowing statistics about technology - these will get you thinking about how much technology is changing society.




I took a few snapshots of these factoids...






This a small sampling of amazing statistics - the full list is available from Gartner at http://gartnerevent.com/NA_SYM23_Factoids/#!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Judson ISD Connect! wins its fourth and best award yet!

Judson ISD Earns National Digital Achievement Award

Each year The Center For Digital Education recognizes school districts and other educational institutions for their contributions toward excellence in digital learning. Judson ISD is the winner of the K-12 District Education Application/Project category.  The winning project is the district’s mobile app called “Judson ISD Connect.”  This app for iOS, Android and Kindle allows students or parents to check grades, attendance, calendars, spo
 
rting events, news, district events and even features a “report it” button to anonymously report bullying, fraud or crime. Judson ISD Connect was created by Judson ISD’s Technology Services Department, using an innovative web development platform from Conduit Mobile.

This award is the latest that Judson ISD has earned. Last year shortly after the app was released it became winners of the Webby Awards, Horizon Interactive and the Lovie Awards (International Competition). While those awards are great, this latest recognition from the DEAA is special because of its unique focus on the connection of digital technology and its application to education.  

Links that may be helpful:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Web innovation in government and education?

On Friday I had the pleasure of spending time with a very interesting and exciting group of web innovators.  No I did not spend a day the Googleplex or at Twitter.  I got to spend time with the winner of the DigitalEducation Achievement Awards and the Digital Government Achievement Awards.  People might think that government and education are the backwaters of innovative web services; they would be wrong.  There is a lot of talent and innovative use of web services at all levels of government and education.


The overarching message I took away from talking with fellow award winners was that all of us should be looking at providing data for our customers in formats friendly to their consumption devices.  The talk was all about responsive web design, allowing web content to work regardless of device of the end user.  The other take away was that our customers, who in our case are students and parents, want data immediately.  Long gone should be the days when a parent finds out that their student is doing poorly in a class, at which time it is way too late to work on helping them increase the grade.


I urge you to take some time (or have your school or district web gurus do so) to look at the award winners linked above. They have some truly innovative apps and web sites, which we can all use as ideas to help us improve what our parents and students are demanding.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Help us help our customers please!


While this may seem a mundane topic, I want to talk about the stalwart backbone of most IT departments:  the help desk.  The busier my wonderful IT staff gets, the more devices and schools they support, the more we are increasingly needing a robust system that can support the increasing demands placed on our busy staff.

Like many schools IT departments, we never allocated a lot of budget funds to the help desk.   We have used a few different systems, which to some extent always seems to be just OK or good enough.   Maybe we got a deal on the software, maybe we could not afford something better, or in the case of our current system, the help desk came as part of a larger software bundle.  It was easy to justify using something that we basically got free as part of another department’s larger software bundle purchase.  But at the end of the day, we now know that the software indeed was a very small insignificant part of the software package.  It has basically been ignored by the company for years, in spite of many customers’ requests for features we feel are needed for increasingly hard pressed IT staffs.

After doing some looking around at what is being offered currently in the help desk market, there are clearly a lot more players and options to choose from, then there were ten years ago.   SaaS and the cloud have had a huge impact on this market.  There are many very affordable cloud based systems available that might be a great tool for IT departments.  Here is a decent (but by no means comprehensive) list of some cloud based systems: http://web.appstorm.net/roundups/communication-roundups/10-online-support-and-help-desk-apps/ . There are still many traditional hosted systems as well, which still can be very attractive offerings and competitively priced.

And from my research, cloud does not at all necessarily equate to a help desk being inexpensive. One of the most comprehensive help desk systems I have seen, which offers a plethora of advanced features for change management, etc. is incredibly expensive and probably not within the reach of most school IT departments.


So what does our IT department need in a help desk?  Well….good question.  I have started a long list of what we would like to see.  While the list is not done, it gives a pretty good idea of what we are wanting.  And my guess is, that many other IT departments, in schools and other industries, would probably like an affordable help desk systems that offers these same set of features.  The features list is available on my CTO Technotes blog at: http://ctotechnotes.blogspot.com/2013/09/my-requirements-list-for-solid-it-help.html

This blog entry is cross posted with the great folks at SchoolCIO

My requirements list for a solid IT help desk

After looking for a while at many help desk systems available, I have been refining a requirements list for a new system for our IT department.  This list is not complete, but I have the feeling that if an affordable help desk system can meet these requirements, we will be very likely to take a serious look at the system and give it a thorough test drive.
  1. System should offer robust API access, ODBC access to data, OR direct access to SQL tables.
  2. System should offer possibility to manage IT equipment orders with associated tickets needed for setup, installation, etc.
  3. System should have Active Directory integration to handle user data and authentication.
  4. System should be browser based and works in all modern browsers.
  5. It should also should work on mobile phones, tablets, etc.
  6. System should allow option to utilize SSL security.
  7. System interface must be simple and intuitive.
  8. System should feature a Quick ticket for phone support - ie one screen problem and resolution recording for phone support.
  9. System should feature end user ticket creation through web, email.
  10. Help desk staff should be able to update tickets through email.
  11. System should feature automated email notification of user on tickets creation, updates, and closure.
  12. System should intermediate all email between help desk agents and end users - and keep all communication fenced within the ticketing system.
  13. System should offer comprehensive/customizable customer satisfaction survey at the closure of every ticket.
    1. Satisfaction data should be exposed through the API.
  14. System should feature a method for recording of how the ticket was created (web, email, phone).
  15. System should allow creation of FAQs/Knowledgebase - this should be categorized and searchable
    1. Should allow tickets to be converted to FAQs.
  16. System must allow for unlimited end user web access (no licensing or limits for end users.)
  17. System must allow for concurrent agent licensing - OR preferably unlimited  agents.
  18. System should allow linking of individual help desk tickets to global issue, allowing resolution of global issue to update/close all linked tickets and send corresponding email notification(s).
  19. System should feature a Global Notification Banner or method to inform users of issues or outages.
  20. System should have ticket categories.
  21. System should have configurable, rule based SLAs.
    1. They Should be able to be tied to ticket categories.
    2. SLAs should adhere to business hours, holidays.
    3. SLAs should allow to for certain statuses to not affect SLA(ie awaiting parts.)
    4. Should readily show technician which ticket(s) are in danger of not meeting the SLA.
  22. System should support custom work-flows based on categories and for approvals as needed.
  23. System should allow for multiple service/help desk projects to provide functionally separate service/help desks – i.e. one for Human Resources and another for Technology Support.  These should have separate queues, but allow for tickets to be reassigned across queues.
  24. System must offer robust customizable reporting capabilities in both text and graphical formats to track trends, call volumes, technician totals, category totals, average service times by category, average service times by technician, SLAs met, etc.  
    1. Reporting data should be exposed to the API.
  25. System should support automatic rule based escalation - this may be tied to SLA rules.
  26. System should have configurable tickets statuses.
    1. Statuses should allow for creation of statuses that do not count against tickets resolution time.  
  27. System should allow for file attachment to ticket by users and/or agent.
  28. Add multiple users to a ticket.
    1. Any ticket email notifications should go to all users on ticket, once added.
  29. System should allow for two way email communications within the system - no end user ticket replies should ever be sent to the agent's personal email - they should go directly into the system.
  30. When looking up users with identical names, we should be able to see distinguishing data from Active Directory (title, location, etc.)
  31. System should support configurable locations that can be part of a ticket.
    1. Reporting should report on location.
  32. System should have ticket agent collision detection.
  33. Allow tickets to be emailed by agent.
  34. System should track a parts inventory with pricing information.
    1. Parts should be able to be added to tickets and provide a cost on the ticket.
  35. System should allow for ticket escalation based on time.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Staffing for the back to school tidal wave

Very few if any school technology departments are staffed to the levels seen in most companies of similar size.  By most measures, school technician staffing is at levels unheard of in the private sector.  Numbers like one technician per 500 or 1000 computers are rampant in K-12 institutions.  Other measures that look at how many FTEs (full time equivalents) the average technician supports are equally skewed; one technician often serves many hundreds of employees.  And these numbers don’t even take into account the huge students populations and enormous device count supported in districts. 

These numbers point to vastly overworked technical staffs at most K-12 institutions.  I would argue that many of these departments are slim staffed during the best of times, such as November and December, when typical K-12 workloads are about as light as they ever get during the crazy cyclical K-12 calendar.

When August hits, most school technical staffs are stretched beyond belief.  In what other industry do IT staffs face thousands of returning users in a just a couple of weeks.  Staffs have to cope with many routine items, such as disconnected equipment, accounts, forgotten credentials and the like.  These are often compounded by roll-outs of new technology and systems over the summer, much of which is guaranteed to result in more help desk calls and/or technician visits.

There are many strategies that can be implemented to at least help with some of the back to school crush, and many of us keep asking for more support staff to cope with the workload, but this often does not meld well with economic realities.  So after losing technical staff to budget cuts, while servicing an ever expanding student and device population, this year we decided to try a different strategy, often used in the business world, during cyclical peak periods. 

This year we budgeted for and are hiring multiple temporary technicians to service back to school work orders and to assist with the always ringing help desk phones.  And to further save funds to allow more technicians to be hired, my staff went the extra mile to hire their own temps, rather than rely on an outside agency.  This strategy will allows us to increase our technicians by at least 60% for up to three months, at about 55% of the cost of one FTE.  While we have yet to see how this will work out, we think this strategy will be much more economically palatable, while allowing us to offer up much quicker turnaround time to our customers.


We know there are dangers.  Our biggest fear is that these techs will lack the institutional knowledge of common issues and normal procedures.  We are hopeful that we can hire ones with good personalities that will keep our very high standards of customer service, but we will have to watch this very carefully for sure.

This blog entry is cross posted with the great folks at SchoolCIO

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A good forecast for successful cloud purchases

At this point in time, I would guess that every organization has at least some experience using the cloud.  But often, as IT leaders, we are often either bypassed or an afterthought, when other departments and leaders can purchase and turn up a cloud service, quicker than you can say purchase order.  Yet not having IT involved in cloud decisions can certainly negatively impact an organization.  Cloud purchasers often forget to ask about user and data management, and integration with existing systems.  An adopted  cloud system which does not play well with other systems, which has its own separate user repository, or for which security is an afterthought, can quickly turn into an nightmare for IT or for the adopters who did not know what questions to ask the provider.

Just the other day I was speaking with a small cloud provider, who had pretty good answers for most of my questions, but what was unsaid was the fact that this was the equivalent of a mom and pop cloud provider, which was most likely one car accident away from dissolution of the cloud company.  That could pose a big risk for our organization, especially if this was a critical cloud service.

An IT director in Schertz, Texas, Myles Clauser, recently shared a list of questions to ask cloud providers, before deciding if their service is right for your organization.  This is a pretty tough set of questions and you may be willing to accept a variety of answers, depending on what the particular service is, nonetheless this is a great set of questions to help vet the rapidly expanding list of cloud services:

Questions and considerations for using cloud providers:

1.       Ownership of all data must be spelled out. Many cloud providers specify that using their services means relinquishing ownership of the data.

2.       What format is the data stored in at the host site?

3.       Where is the live data actually stored? Where are the backups stored? (Are all sites within the continental US?)

4.       Is it encrypted – either in transport or in storage. This includes backups.

5.       Is there any possibility for vendor staff to review / copy / duplicate the data (with the exception of routine backups) without our knowledge?

6.       Is the data / information we contemplate storing in the “cloud” subject to any relevant Federal, State or other privacy requirements or agreements already in place? (i.e.: PCI compliance, HPPA, FIPS, CJIS, etc.) If so what documentation can the vendor supply that ensures that their storage and delivery systems comply with those requirements?

7.       Are there any limitations regarding access to the data – i.e.: are we notified in advance of planned downtimes, etc.

8.       Are there any QOS provisions in the agreement – i.e.: the data will be available 24/7, 7 days / week with a guaranteed minimum response time from their system based on agreed-upon criteria.

9.       If we delete data from a system what proof do we get that the data has been removed from backup systems, disaster recovery sites, etc.?

10.   What formats can we use to retrieve any and all data – i.e.: what utilities exist that will allow us to archive data in industry-standard formats for later retrieval by City staff without having to work through or with the vendor’s proprietary format.

11.   Since this is a web-based system can the vendor provide certification that their systems are updated regularly? This includes patches, antivirus systems, backend databases, web interfaces, etc.

12.   How often does the vendor perform security audits on their systems and when was the last one done? Can we see the results?

13.   What is their policy regarding informing us if a data breach occurs? Are they liable to us for any damages, remediation costs, etc.?


14.   If the vendor is contacted by an outside party (i.e.: subpoenas, open records requests, etc.) to provide information contained in one of our documents, how do they respond? If we are required to hold data for litigation purposes do they have a mechanism / system in place to do so or are we on our own?

15.  What provisions have been made to protect our data if the vendor closes its doors or is sold

This blog entry is cross posted with the great folks at SchoolCIO

Saturday, July 20, 2013

E-Rate: The Sequel?

E-Rate: The Sequel?

While many educators have been enjoying the relative relaxation of summer vacation, there has been a flurry of activity in DC around the federal program known as E-Rate. 

E-Rate has served as a catalyst for school technology growth to power research, communication and online learning, since its inception in 1997.  E-Rate has provided schools with funding for powerful networks, which have become pervasive, and crucial to the functioning of the education process.  School networks are now a crucial utility to schools, much like electricity.  But networks need to change; much like the electrical wiring at schools has needed to be increased from the days where all that was plugged in was a filmstrip projector.  The uses of networks in education are expanding daily and the numbers of devices and users on them is climbing rapidly, with the advent of 1 to 1 and BYOD programs, bolstered by a host of online learning initiatives.

Several groups, such as CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking), have been advocating on schools’ and educators’ behalf and have been pushing the FCC to revisit E-Rate funding, which has been largely static, despite a massive increase in needs.  Just over a month ago, there appeared to be progress, with President Obama’s announcement of the ConnectED initiative.   And just this past week, the FCC voted to overhaul the E-Rate program

A true technology leader, Sheryl Abshire, Chief Technology Officer at Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, testified before the FCC saying, “E-Rate needs to move beyond assessing whether a classroom or library has an Internet connection to determining whether that connection’s speed meets the needs of users who seek to access and use the most up-to-date digital content, courses, resources, services and tools.”   We could not have asked for a better advocate on our behalf and it appears the FCC listened.


So now the rest of us need to help out; The next step for all of us is to provide comments on the new proposals as the FCC provides details on the proposed programs, so be sure to keep an eye on the FCC’s site.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Technology Quick Fix

After the marathon season of conferences and presentations, I have succumbed to an unexpected mid-summer illness.  Maybe this was a random occurrence or my body’s way of letting me know you have been pushing too hard too fast for a while.

All the presentations I have given and the conferences, meetings, and seminars I have attended speak to my need to learn and share with others, as well as the need for those of us in the technology world to try to get some feeling that we are somehow keeping up with the monumental shifts that technology is bringing to education and elsewhere.  I have learned a lot and then again I have learned that there are a host of great tools and technologies out there, and they are getting better every day.  But I have also never been so clearly a believer that, as these technologies improve, they will somehow transform an under-performing school or teacher into the best of their breed. 

The more I see great presentations on new technologies, systems, and devices, the more I worry that these are often bought as a quick fix for low performance, bad leadership, or other struggles that school systems and teachers face.



Yes many of these incredible technologies have great promise – but as school IT leaders we must always be willing to have some tough conversations with those we work with about making sure that these technologies are brought in not as a fix for bad teaching or leadership, but as a way to make great teachers and even better teacher.  This is really that only way that these technologies can really help schools excel in the long term.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Live streaming graduation broadcasts – Our guide to making it happen

About five or so weeks prior to the first of our district’s three high school graduations, my team was tasked with live streaming all three events, which would take place in two separate locations.  The difficult part was that we did not have the equipment needed and we would have to piece together a mobile production studio very quickly, leaving little room for testing and training once all the pieces were received and put together.

While I have some background with A/V and video, putting on major events like this are a team effort, so I knew that we would have to get several people involved in planning and testing, leveraging everybody’s skill sets.
We initially conducted some online research and consulted our peers through a listserv to see how they broadcast their events.  We had come across what we thought to be a very cost effective video production switcher from Blackmagicdesign, called the ATEM Television Studio, which looked like it would work well as the core component for producing the live event.  Several people on the listserv confirmed that this is a great device and would work well for us.

One thing that became apparent quickly was that the ATEM only accepted HD video inputs through HDMI and through SDI, but all we had was a couple of older cameras that did not output in HD.  While we wanted to keep costs relatively low, we felt that investing in older analog technologies would be a mistake, so we knew we need to go the HD route.

We found a loaner HDMI camera from our high school campus and we used a very low cost consumer Sony HDMI consumer camera for testing.  We ordered several HDMI cables of different lengths and costs.  This is where we found our first major issue, and by this point we were several weeks into the process and couple of weeks from the first graduation.  We found that only the short (and low cost) HDMI cables worked with the good cameras, while the only camera that worked with the long amplified HDMI cables was the low cost Sony, which was really meant to be either used as a wide shot cut camera or as a backup camera.  We had also purchased a great new Panasonic HD camera, the G-AC90 AVCCAM HD handheld camcorder, and when it arrived, we tested it and it only worked with the short cable.  We knew we had an issue, as it would be necessary to have one camera at least 100 to 150’ away from our ATEM production studio.   We eventually stumbled on the solution in the recesses of internet forums; The Blackmagic Design HDMI to SDI Battery Converter was the key.   This device allowed us to hook up a standard short (or longer if needed) HMDI cable to our video camera, and connect some really long (and less expensive than HMDI) SDI cables to move cameras away from our ATEM.

The next issue we found was that we needed a way to bring in analog audio from the sound boards at both graduation venues and convert that audio to digital.  This could be done on a good HD camera like the Panasonic mentioned earlier or the Sony I will mention further into this write up.  But we wanted the audio separate from the cameras if possible, so once again the Internet saved us and recommended the Behringer Ultramatch Pro, which allowed us to convert analog audio from the events’ sounds board coming in on XLR cables, and then output digital audio over a RCA to the input on the ATEM.

Another choice we had to make was choosing a service provider for the live streaming of the event.  One of my colleagues looked at several services and settled on Livestream.com, since they had a plan we felt was affordable, and which offered predictable pricing, unlike some competitors who charged more based on how many people viewed the stream.  We had no idea how many people would tune in, and we did not want to overspend on the streaming.  Livestream.com also recommended and showed the ATEM as a product it certifies to work with their service, which we felt was a major plus.  A major benefit of the chosen Basic plan was that we were able to setup Livestream.com to send data to our free Google Analytics account, allowing us a very good view into how many people watched our events, and to also know where they were located.

Another one of my awesome colleagues assembled the aforementioned gear and some additional parts, which included:

The end result was our mobile live production studio pictured below:
Judson ISD’s mobile production studio

Our first streamed graduation was an event in our Performing Arts Center.  We setup and tested a day prior and all worked well.  But we knew from this that our low cost consumer Sony camera was not going to be sufficient long term.  Our remote stream test watcher commented on how much worse the video looked when we were using this camera.  We also pushed the Panasonic’s optical zoom to near its max on this event, so we knew that the next two graduations in the Alamodome would require a much larger optical zoom, so we went ahead and bought one more very good Sony HDR-AX2000 High Definition Camcorder.  Both this camera and the Panasonic produced fantastic pictures event in reduced lighting situations and both featured XLR audio inputs, which we knew we would end up needing as well.

Our team learned fast from our trials and from each successive graduation.  The events went extremely well, and the quality of the LIvestream.com broadcasts and our production looked very good.  We had a huge success of the events with over 3600 unique viewers, who spanned all 50 states and over 30 countries around the world.  We knew we had many military families that would be watching, but we truly did not anticipate this level and breadth of viewership.

There are a few things we learned from the process that we want to implement for next year.  One is having a much more powerful PC powering production, which will allow us to send a full HD and separate mobile stream.  We will be looking at a rack mounted might powered Intel i7 based PC with a rack mounted KVM to accomplish this.

We also found that we need to have a chat moderator watching the stream and chat as the live graduations unfold.  During one of the events, a couple of malcontents started saying inappropriate things in the chat, amongst the great comments like “I just watched my granddaughter walk the stage from here in Puerto Rico.”  We were able to ban these users form the chat, but next time we need to dedicate someone to this task.

Panasonic camera pointed towards ATEM production studio in the Alamodome


Live graduation unfolding in the Alamodome

Live Google analytics feed during a graduation

Monday, May 27, 2013

Bacon Wrapped Cheese and Shrimp Stuffed Jalapenos

Bacon wrapped jalapenos stuffed with cheese and shrimp
Memorial Day food timeout - I made these yesterday and they were delicious.

Get some large jalapenos, cut lengthwise, core, and fill with a mixture of cream cheese and white sharp cheddar (with some garlic and seasoning in it). 

Place in a peeled raw shrimp and put on the other jalapeno half, then wrap in some thick bacon and close with a couple of toothpicks. 

Then grill slow and low - they will need your constant attention - and you will need to spray to keep down the fire.

Enjoy the baconny spicy goodness.

What should we measure in our technology departments?


It is very easy to assume things are working well and that our IT departments are functioning excellently.  But if we really want to confirm that, what metrics should we measure?

There may not be a one size fits all answer on this, as there are so many variables in the equation, but ultimately there are a few key things that most of us should be tracking, to help us gauge workloads, productivity, and customer satisfaction.

At the core of many IT departments, sits a help or service desk. If we don’t have a handle on these numbers, then that is the place to start.  The service desk is a window into our IT operations that can shed a lot of light on our operations.  

There are lots of things to measure – time to resolution, technician workload, technician efficiency, recurring problems, and more.  Most of us strive to turn around trouble tickets as fast as we can, while at the same time making sure the customer is satisfied and received excellent service.    So I would start with measuring these numbers.   If you do not have a way to measure customer satisfaction with work performed, then it may be time to shop for a new help desk.

Going over these numbers regularly with your managers and staff helps promote an efficient service oriented operation.   If staff is thinking about how their work is perceived by customers, then they are likely to provide better service.  Bad service ratings and customer satisfaction may be meaningful indicators of a serious IT problem that is not resolved, or they may indicate an overworked staff or even possibly show an employee issue that needs to be addressed.

At the end of the day, tracking many of these service desk related metrics should help us better understand the work our staff is performing and hopefully allow us to improve our operations and our customer service.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Where are my backups?


Just one month ago, the small town and school district of West, Texas suffered a horrendous tragedy, with the massive explosion that devastated much of the small town and the West Independent School District. My understanding is that the explosion devastated much of this district’s technology infrastructure, servers, and backups.  And just now it is being reported that a lot of schools (and most likely their data) reside close to fertilizer storage across the country.  And unfortunately this week in Oklahoma City, five schools were ravaged by a horrendous tornado.

Data is unfortunately super easy to lose – if not to a major natural or other disaster, then just as easily to a failed hard drive, a broken water main, or a building fire.  Whether you are a technology director, superintendent, or a classroom teacher, this is the perfect time to ask several questions, where are my files and systems backed up?   Are the backups stored in different physical locations?  Are the backups in a secured location?   Can the backups be restored to a different place if needed? 
 
All of us need to be backing up our important digital assets (and our students’ assets.)   Very few of our schools sit somewhere immune to natural disasters.   San Antonio is thought to be a very good location in Texas much more immune to tornadoes and hurricanes than many parts of the state, such that we have many very large data centers here.  Yet the picture to the right is my son’s elementary school two years ago, with a major wildfire burning right behind it.  I am sure the staff of the school never thought a fire would threaten them, yet it came so very close. 

So before travelling down to San Antonio to ISTE, please take a few minutes and backup your laptop, iPad, servers, etc. to another site or perhaps to the cloud, lest some unfortunate disaster strikes you or your school.  Safe travels.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sweat the Small Stuff



I read a very interesting blog post on Linked In by Jon Steinberg.  In his post, he acknowledges that while there is value and a time and place for long term strategic thinking, the real work gets done when we focus on the details at hand.  As he states, “The real work gets done day in day out operating a little bit better.”

In K-12 technology, many districts spend a lot of time devote to creating a technology plan, often driven by the necessity of having one for receiving priority two eRate funds.  These plans can add a lot of value to our organizations, but at the end of the day they can be meaningless if we cannot get our day to day activities right.  Better yet we should always be focused on ways to improve what we do, and how our organizations operate.   If we can’t master the details of the here and now, how are we going to achieve the long term goals in our technology plans?

Too often, I see colleagues, business partners, and other schools miss little details or worse yet, not even worry about the details. Not worrying about the details can make you and your organization look inept and worse yet, can cause projects to miserably fail.  All of this cascades and eventually destroys credibility and ability to execute goals and plans.

In our IT world, with tens of systems being more interdependent each day and thousands of staff, students, and parents relying on us, the details are becoming more important than they ever have been.  Missing a step, forgetting a small piece or data, or misunderstanding system interdependencies can all lead to huge problems, and slow down projects, kill systems, and ultimately put a bad light on IT.

So there may be good reason why we wake up at 3am sweating the small stuff; that small remembered detail can mean the difference between success and failure.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tablets, Laptops, and PC’s Oh My


If you were to read any educational technology magazine or site the past couple of years, you might think that there was only one device out there for use in the classroom.  While this may be pure hyperbole, it appears that the market for computing devices is changing again…..surprise!

This week saw Apple’s stock price tumble, largely seen as a barometer of things to come.   Will this also serve as an indication that the iPad’s dominance in the classroom may be waning?  Already it is predicted that Apple will be number two to Android this year in the overall tablet market.

From some of the press about trends in devices, one might think that PCs are a thing of the past, but when one looks at recently published numbers, that is hardly the case.  PC’s sales have been impacted, whether by tablets or by a lackluster Windows 8 reception.  Yet PC sales still are well above tablet sales.  And with Microsoft now executing a tablet strategy, Microsoft is still the major player in this game.  This week predictions surfaced that Microsoft may consider bringing back the Start Menu to Windows 8 with boot to the desktop functionality in an upcoming patch.  This alone could alleviate a lot of the pain association with schools and companies moving to Windows 8.  Who has the time or budget to train our staff on how to start a program, or shut down a computer?

While Apple’s iOS has made great inroads in education, Windows is still a dominant player in the market and it is a safe bet that Microsoft will continue to be a major player in education along with Google’s Android and Chrome OS. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Schools and districts should not ignore the mobile app tidal wave


How many smart phone users consume their favorite social media sites like Facebook, Linked In, or Twitter via a mobile web browser?   The answer is very few and usually they only do so if forced to use the browser by clicking a link that opens it.  Why is this?  Why do consumers want to avoid surfing web sites on their mobile devices’ browsers?  The answer is that most standard web sites, when looked via mobile phone’s browser, are hard to see, hard to navigate, and often don’t support mobile browsers well.  The end user experience in these browsers is about as pleasant as a trip to your local Department of Motor Vehicles to renew your license.
mobile apps on an iPhone
Social media providers have long figured this out and built apps for major phone and tablet platforms.  Stores are increasingly figuring this out and following the likes of Amazon with building mobile shopping apps. Banks are all over this bandwagon.  But schools and districts have not figured this out.
Schools typically still only provide a normal web site to mobile devices.  Sure, some provide a parsed down mobile version, but even these are somewhat hard to find.  Are schools’ customers different than retail or social media customers?  Heck no – they are the same people with the same preference for consuming web through mobile apps.  Most school customers are still getting Y2K versions of web sites built for Netscape Navigator delivered to their smart phones.

School CIOs need to address this shortcoming and get mobile apps built with easy to navigate user interfaces.  And to have a successful app, it will need to be for both Android and iOS.  Additionally, it must have data that is personally important to parents and students.  That means grade and attendance data is a critically important inclusion.  Other high value content such as menus, athletic schedules, athletic scores, and assorted news are welcome additions. 

Judson ISD Connect! mobile app
There are many roads to getting this done. Some are expensive, such as hiring a third party to build custom apps or hiring personnel with app development skill, but this may be a fine fit for a large district.  Sometimes more limited apps are included with a student information system (SIS) and are probably the best fit for small districts and schools.  Consider including this as a requirement when adopting a new SIS.  There are also low cost or free ways to get an app.  At Judson ISD we built an award winning app for a low cost without personnel dedicated to app programming, using the low cost web-based Conduit mobile platform.  A full presentation of our app and experience is available on Slideshare.

Or you may use a simple free service such as iSchoolBox, which may be a great way to test the waters and get your school into a mobile app (one app the hosts many schools’ mobile sites).  At the end of the day, the consumer demand is there and as CIOs and technology leaders, we need to stop delivering craptastic web sites to phones and tablets when our customers’ preferences have evolved well beyond this.