Outside the Broward County, Fla., Public Schools administrative offices, the air shimmers with heat, the sky is hazy with humidity, and by 9:00 a.m. the air already feels stale.

The air inside feels quite different.

Head past the first-floor desk with attendant behind glass who directs visitors to their destinations, past the warrens of gray-walled cubicles, down hallways lined with cardboard boxes filled with report cards ready to deliver to schools, and into a small conference room. There, the air-conditioned air nearly buzzes with enthusiasm.

That’s because in the room are gathered the Broward County Public Schools’ eight key players responsible for a four-year, $400 million effort to redesign education through the effective and innovative use of technology. Each of the eight seems eager to begin, to share their stories of how they are turning a school district that operated with some systems as old as 30 years, running on an old AS400 mainframe computer, into a leader in technology.

Broward County Public Schools, with 264 schools and more than 275,000 students, boasts 39,450 permanent employees and is the sixth-largest public school district in the nation. It has an annual budget of $4.14 billion, with more than $100 million of that designated for technology.

“Typically, schools use blackboard and chalk,” says Vijay Sonty, CIO of Broward County Public Schools and administrator of the mighty budget. “We wanted to take a new approach, to reinvent education.”

With that in mind, he and the rest of the Education Technology Services team created a four-year plan–an Information Technology Blueprint–that outlined 82 projects.

Now two years into the program–and with nearly 40 of those first 82 projects fully completed as of press time–the team can confidently predict completion of the projects at the end of the projected timeline.

In fact, the success of the program seems nearly guaranteed, in large part because of one of the projects implemented–a project management process created by Microsoft and Pcubed and heavily customized for Broward County schools.

The initiative, called Project Management Office (PMO), allows Sonty and his team to easily manage the various and often-changing ed-tech projects. District administrators can track projects via a web-based system to see exactly where they stand–what percentage of a project is complete, who is responsible for it, the date it started, the date it is expected to be finished, and so on.

Since the implementation of the PMO, more than 90 percent of IT projects get finished on time, says Becky Schmaus, PMO manager. “Before that, it was a lot less,” she says, drawing out the word “lot” to indicate just how few projects actually met their deadlines.

The PMO is just one of the dozens of innovative projects in Broward County. The district reportedly operates the largest video conferencing network in the world, with more than 350 interconnected conferencing systems–at least one in every school. Each school building also has wireless internet access and laptop carts, and the district operates its own virtual middle and high schools, which have enabled it to bring home-schooled students (and the funding that accompanies them) back into the fold. What’s more, administrators have access to a wealth of school and student data, and teachers have access to lesson plans and curriculum content, through a single sign-on portal.

Where did these initiatives come from, and how was the Blueprint–the original list of 82 projects–prioritized and created? The process began about five years ago.

Creating the Blueprint

“The district has a huge reserve and is able to fund all of our projects, but we have a mechanism in place as part of our funding that we have to show a five-year plan of what we’re embarking on,” Sonty explains.

Sonty, previously senior vice president and CIO at the Interpublic Group of Companies Inc., reportedly the world’s largest advertising and marketing communications organization, joined Broward in the fall of 2004. At that point, the Education Technology Services team had been two years into a three-year research project, working with consultants to look at the school district’s current applications, technology, organization, and staffing.

During the third year of the research, and Sonty’s first year at Broward, he rearranged staffing a bit. “We organized ourselves into how other industries did it, becoming more ‘customer’-focused, creating process owners, realigning the department,” he explains. He added a number of IT positions, including managers for information security, projects, conferencing services, and instructional technology.

Then, the team created the Blueprint, or list of steps necessary to complete the designated IT projects, each of which would effectively use technology in the teaching and learning process. The ultimate goal of all projects is to enhance student achievement.

The school system “had already done a lot of work, and that allowed me to zero in,” says Sonty. “We have a great staff, they’re dedicated, and they’re motivated.” And they had plenty of brilliant ideas, he says. These ideas–most of which have been carried out already–covered areas such as:

  • Development and delivery of curriculum content–Through partnerships with technology vendors such as Cisco Systems, Broward has deployed wireless network solutions to classrooms and campuses for projects such as using video on demand to deliver digital IP video content–including curriculum content, training, video conferences, and synchronous and asynchronous meetings–to the district’s desktops. In addition, multiple school sites can sign up for daily scheduled video conferencing classes that correspond with ancillary materials and lesson plans–thereby extending learning beyond the classroom.

  • Assessment–Teachers can access the district’s data warehouse instantly to see a student’s history record and apply this knowledge to aid in the student’s future success. Information maintained in the data warehouse includes attendance, test scores, and overall classroom performance. A Virtual Counselor resource also provides a self-service application, allowing students and parents to check records and receive basic guidance feedback.

  • Professional development–A technology certification program gives staff members the chance to improve their technology competencies. Educators learn strategies for integrating technology and using internet-based curriculum, digital tools, handheld computers, scientific software, and more.

  • Virtual instruction–Students have the opportunity to enroll in virtual courses taught by Broward County teachers to earn high school credit. Broward County also implements an adult online eLearning program that offers instruction toward career, technical, and adult community education.

However, the first–and most necessary–project was to focus on infrastructure.

“We wanted to leverage our investment in our old environment,” says Sonty. The old systems were running on mainframes, and it would be cost-prohibitive simply to take them out and replace them with new ones. “So we left the core systems and surrounded them with new technology,” he explains.

The team created a service-oriented architecture (SOA) using IBM’s WebSphere technology, allowing users to access information from the mainframe using a portal and web services framework.

Once the Blueprint had been approved, senior management met multiple times to look at the plan and prioritize its projects. Each person ranked these projects individually, and then everyone agreed upon which were the highest priority.

To gain buy-in from the school board for this Information Technology Blueprint, Sonty created a simple, 9-square “Blueprint Action Plan Matrix.” The matrix, three squares across and three down, showed the number of projects identified by the Blueprint, their priority (high, medium, low), and their time frame (short, medium, long).

Each square within the grid showed the number of projects completed, in progress, and not started. This was a simple way for stakeholders to glance at the grid and see immediately that, for example, 16 high-priority, short-duration projects existed, with four completed and 12 in progress.

“I come from an environment where I had to respond quickly and get results in a quick time frame,” says Sonty. “The concept was simple: get some quick wins.”

At the time of Sonty’s arrival, the district’s Education Technology Services division “wasn’t viewed well,” he says. “My predecessors didn’t get along with senior management, with board members.”

But with the clearly outlined Blueprint, along with simple visuals such as the Blueprint Action Plan Matrix, the district’s tech team made it clear that the necessary research had been done, the correct projects had been identified, and they were ready to begin moving forward.

Now, says Sonty, “We’re making things happen.”

Proactive IT management

A key project that recently was completed is the PMO. Sonty was “passionate” about being able to monitor projects closely, “to know where we were and to have it all rolled up into an accountability list,” says Schmaus. “It had never been done at that level.”

The PMO can be sorted in any number of ways, so that anyone interested in learning where a tech project stands can simply look it up. Reports can be generated based on start date, closing date, person in charge, priority of project, duration, and other criteria (story, page 18).

“Before, we couldn’t say off the top of our head what was going on, what projects were needing top priority,” Schmaus says. But that’s changed. The new system also has improved inter-departmental workflow and communication; often, one person’s job relies on what others have accomplished, and with the new system it’s easy to track what others have done, Schmaus explains: “Angela, who handles one piece and Chuck, who’s doing his piece–she can’t do her piece until Chuck is finished, and this way she doesn’t have to chase after him.”

The tool is not meant to manage minutiae. Projects that take an hour or two are not entered, but anything with a scope of more than a few weeks is tracked. After the tool was implemented, staff meetings began to change. “Vijay goes around the room and says, ‘Tell me the status of your projects.’ And if you tell him something, it better be 100 percent what’s on the system,” says Schmaus.

Another area Sonty is passionate about is minimizing the resources necessary at each school. Because Broward has about 110,000 machines (about 80,000 Macintosh-based computers and 20,000 Windows-based computers, as well as other devices), the time spent helping end-users work those machines could be prohibitive if not managed well.

For inventory control and asset management, the district last year installed the LANDesk Management Suite from LANDesk Software, a system that allows tech-support staff to take control of the machines, issue patches, and resolve problems remotely. Before LANDesk, “the biggest problem was, we didn’t know how many devices we had,” says Chuck Stanley, director of technical support services.

The LANDesk software is used within Broward County’s outsourced network operation center (NOC), where officials monitor the status and performance of all the thousands of routers, switches, appliances, and even applications on the network–live, in real time.

The NOC resides in a windowless room deep in the heart of the district’s main administrative building. There, three JDL Technologies employees sit in front of computers watching data scroll down the screens. On those screens, they can spot any problems; if a server goes down, or if service is interrupted for any reason, they can see it and respond to it.

Before LANDesk was implemented, about 40,000 machines were being serviced per year–and the district was spending approximately $20 per machine each time it was touched.

“Forty thousand times $20, that’s a big deal,” says Sonty. Now, all of that support is done remotely. LANDesk required an initial investment of between $2 million and $3 million, says Sonty–meaning the system will pay for itself in tech-support savings alone in about three years.

The tech team’s Quality and Customer Service department has nine full-time agents on the help-desk phones, with two additional “floor supervisors.” Then, there are four more help-desk staff members with a specific focus, such as server-administration support. Because each school has its own server, each school also has an IT “liaison.”

These liaisons are teachers who receive a stipend for serving as the conduit between school-level teachers and administrators and the district’s tech team. The liaisons reduce the amount of back and forth needed to solve tech issues. If a teacher has issues, he or she can contact the liaison, who then works with the tech team to solve the problem.

Plus, technicians in the NOC know beforehand what problems teachers might encounter and what they should be looking out for. That’s because Broward is using a framework called the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, or ITIL–and reportedly is the only school district in the country currently using it.

ITIL was a movement that started in the United Kingdom. It describes the processes that should take place whenever IT change is implemented, helping IT technicians provide the best service possible to the end user by reducing downtime.

“Our theory is that everything affects everything,” says Mary Baker, director of quality and customer service, who controls change management for Broward’s IT team. Team members needed a process to help them avoid problems, such as “when the tech guys want to put in a new operating system on the servers and they think now is a good time to do it,” Baker explains. “Then, they find out that the application group is planning on doing something else on the same day.”

The ITIL framework allows for change management by setting forth, in essence, a checklist that asks a series of questions addressing both service delivery, and support, procedures. It’s a process that asks: Does the change require training for end users? If so, what is the training plan? Who do we need to notify about the change, and when do we notify them?

For example, Baker explains, district tech staff might have planned to upgrade internet services and would need to take internet service down for a time. But if there were some teachers who had decided to do some scheduling at that time, they wouldn’t be able to accomplish their tasks.

“Communication was a big part of our learning process,” says Baker. Often, she says, “when we asked, ‘Who needs to know about this change?’ the tech people would say, ‘Nobody needs to know, it’s transparent,’ but actually it affects lots of people.”

Normally, says Sonty, help desks are reactive: “Something goes wrong, and you call them.” With ITIL helping Broward manage its ed-tech changes, district officials are able to be proactive, knowing about potential problems before they happen.

Focus on achievement

Broward’s Education Technology Services team has an overarching mission toward which it strives with every project: To use technology effectively in the teaching and learning process to advance student achievement.

Within that mission are four goals: (1) that all stakeholders work together to build a better school system; (2) that all operations of the school system will demonstrate best practices while supporting student achievement; (3) that all schools will have equitable resources; and (4) that all students will achieve at their highest potential.

One of the projects the team implemented to meet these goals was the development of video conferencing capabilities. With its 350 video conferencing systems, Broward County operates the largest such system in the world, according to Sonty. Each school has at least one video conferencing hookup, which educators can use for instruction, teacher training, and more.

The district uses the TANDBERG Management Suite of software and hardware for this system, which has a centralized bridge housed and managed in the main administrative building.

“With school-based people, you want to minimize pulling them out of the schools for meetings,” Sonty explains. “Video conferencing is important.”

The conferences look, on screen, like the Hollywood Squares, Sonty says. The system is voice-activated. Six attendees appear at a time, and when someone speaks, his or her picture pops up. But far more than six can attend: for one meeting, 45 people were conferenced in.

Video conferencing has been used for a number of different projects, including an eMentoring program, in which students receive credit hours for helping other students in their studies. Broward also has partnerships with the Smithsonian Institution, NASA, and other agencies to provide virtual field trips for students.

Another way the district’s tech team is striving to fulfill its mission is through 24-7 learning, which gives students and teachers “anytime, anywhere” access to information. To do this, it has created virtual middle and high schools. The virtual high school–which offers a fully online, diploma-granting program–was launched three years ago as part of a distance-learning pilot, and it was so successful that now the district’s

middle schools participate.

The virtual schools are a vital piece of the educational puzzle for students who fail classes, for example. Kids who fail a class can continue with their studies the following semester even as they take the problem class over again, online.

The virtual schools also are a vital element in the district’s goal to retain students.

Home-school parents can download accredited class materials. That way, those home-schooled students can be considered full-time students taking their classes online–which means, in essence, those students are members of the Broward County school system, and the district is able to receive the state and federal funding that goes along with them.

Broward County also offers a virtual university program, with online training for teachers. The teacher training comes from a partnership with Atomic Learning that creates training from videos on how to use the district’s various software applications. But Broward took Atomic Learning’s technology platform and delivery system and uses it to create its own “home-grown” how-to videos that it streams via the web.

Now, Broward County teachers have access to materials that are fully integrated with Sunshine State standards, so they can continue the training they need to stay accredited.

Along with the “anytime, anywhere” initiative come two portals. One, called the Broward Enterprise Education Portal, or BEEP, houses the teacher training videos, as well as an enormous number of curriculum resources. An “Instructional Organizer” includes a unit-plan bank with lesson plans for any instructional unit a teacher might be working on. (Broward County employs 200 curriculum specialists who create these resources.)

Students also can access the BEEP system. “There is already a lot of information there for them,” says Jeanine Gendron, director of curriculum integration. She adds that the student information is not yet available under a single sign-on: “That’s next year’s project.”

The second portal offers information geared toward the needs of district principals and other administrators. The portal, called Knexus (a combination of the words “knowledge” and “nexus”), gives administrators access to all the information they need for seamless review and reporting. Principals can access the database to look at specific schools to discover, for example, exactly what the school’s class-size average is. Because Florida has a class-size requirement, the principal can then add staff or make other adjustments to get under the required threshold (story, page 24).

Then, there’s an automatic notification system, offered through Parlant Technology’s ParentLink, which places calls and sends eMails to parents about absences or emergencies automatically. When Hurricane Wilma hit last year, for example, Broward was able to put out a district-wide call announcing its school cancellations.

However, district officials have found that the system can be used for much more. When administration of the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) is scheduled, school leaders can place calls to all parents to remind them that their children should be present if at all possible. The system is site-based, so if administrators at a particular school want to send out a message to parents that, for example, the band bus broke down and the students won’t be home until 10:00 p.m., they can do that.

“One school said the best thing they’ve done is stopped rumors,” says Angela Coluzzi, director of network integration. “There’s a rumor at school, and before it even makes it home, the parents hear the rumor and the truth, and it stops all the calls that have always come in from parents saying, ‘Is this true…?'”

She adds that the system, which was undertaken to assure policy and statute compliance, improve attendance and student achievement, and improve school-home relations, has attempted 11 million calls and delivered about 7 million messages since its integration.

The district’s tech team also recently implemented an ambitious technology refresh campaign–a massive, $68 million Digital Learning initiative designed to replace equipment that was reaching the end of its useful life in all elementary, middle, and high schools and centers. As part of this program, Broward bought 2,000 laptop carts, each loaded with 20 computers.

The cart program was the result of a study, conducted by the University of Miami, of four pilot schools in the district. In those pilot schools, every student was given a laptop he or she could take home.

But, because of the potential for theft and the fact that students (and, in many cases, their parents) did not know how to use the computers effectively, the study found it was more efficient to have carts with laptops available as they were needed in class (story, page 22).

Looking ahead

Moving forward, Broward is working on an initiative to make all of its digital content available via iPods, Sony Playstation Portables, and other mobile devices through Apple Computer’s iTunes University. The initiative, reportedly dubbed “iTunes eSchool,” will see an iTunes portal built specifically for Broward County schools. This portal will include all of the district’s digital content–from the videos for technology teacher training, to the eMentoring program’s content and more.

For example, when a space shuttle blasted off during the last school year, Broward had a direct feed, and students were able to watch the launch. The district also is in the process of securing a district-wide license to be able to stream content from the Discovery Network.

“Our goal is for the content server to be populated by video conferencing,” explains Daryl Diamond, project manager for technology and instruction. All of that content ideally will be available via iTunes eSchool.

The implications of this are enormous. For instance, teachers could create videos of their classroom lessons, and “kids who missed the class or who need modifications could take the lesson home and watch it over and over [via iTunes eSchool],” says Diamond.

However, to make this happen, all existing content must be catalogued and indexed, which will happen as part of Knexus Phase II. “Then, teachers can say, ‘I’m teaching a segment on volcanoes,’ and they can get two- or three-minute videos” pertinent to that topic, says Sonty.

Halfway through the Blueprint, Sonty is optimistic that Broward’s tech team can deliver the remaining projects on time and on budget and can “manage customer expectations,” he says. The main projects left to finish are those of long duration–such as Broward’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) portal.

At least one major challenge remains, and that is bringing teachers up to speed on the new technology. With more than 17,000 teachers and no way to train them on a mass level, the certification process is slow. To date, only about three thousand teachers have been trained. “Our technology is so advanced that our teachers are scared,” Sonty admits. “Getting them trained is part of the Blueprint.”

Sonty and his team are exploring solutions that will easily scale to the size and scope needed to get all teachers trained quickly. In the meantime, Broward continues to move forward with initiatives that are both creative and cost-cutting.

For instance, the district is working with IBM to track how much its servers are being used, and which can be consolidated; district officials recently took 26 Windows NT servers out of individual schools and consolidated them to a single server at the district level.

“We have to run our schools like a business and allocate resources wisely,” Sonty says. Only then will the true return on investment–student achievement–be realized.

Jennifer Nastu is a freelance writer living in Fort Collins, Colo., who writes frequently about education and technology.

LINK:

Broward County Public Schools
http://www.browardschools.com