iJoel @ Work

Tips and thoughts on productivity and technology best practices in education


Documentation is extremely important when it comes to education and technology. It can help with several things: keeping everybody in the department on the same page, new hires (see section below), remembering that procedure you used a year ago (so many of the things we do in education are on an annual basis, it can be easy to forget what you did last year.

Take a structured approach to your documentation, placing items in a way that makes them easy to find. I have a couple of different tools that you can use for your documentation:

Igloo is probably my favorite tool for documentation - easy to use, flexible, and does team documentation REALLY well.

  • Igloo is an online portal that works really well for creating a documentation source

  • Igloo has modules like, pages, wiki, folders, calendar, to-do, blogs, forums, comments, notifications etc that can be added to pages

  • You can view the history and activity and changes on any page

  • Igloo's custom pages, organizational structure, tags, and search make it really easy to find information

  • Igloo's feeds and notifications make it easy to stay current and up to date on changes to documentation

  • Igloo is free for up to 10 users

  • Igloo's weak points are:

    • putting your documentation in a third party,

    • the To-Do system is not the easiest to use and doesn't work great for project management

Atlassian Confluence:

  • Confluence is similar to Igloo and is very popular, especially with larger organizations, but I haven't personally used it, so I can't say too much about it other than give it a look. I will say that when I did look at it (found a 40 minute recorded webinar on their YouTube channel), it felt a bit "heavy" to me. In other words, very powerful, but also more complicated, and probably a little too bloated for a district of our size.

  • Also free for up to 10 users

Google Docs:
Google can handle just about anything you throw at it, although it may not handle it in the best way, or as well as software designed for a specific task. In a way this is both a strength and a weakness - at the end of the day Google Workplace is a bunch of folders, documents, and general purpose apps, making it extremely flexible. It is a tool with virtually no learning curve if you are already using Google Workplace. But because it is a general purpose tool it doesn't handle some specific documentation functions well, such as wiki, tagging, notification updates, or activity/news feeds.

    • Google Workplace is used heavily in education, so it is a natural fit for your documentation needs

    • Use a Teams folder to store everything, use a Group to keep the group on the same page

    • Use templates to keep your articles consistently-formatted

    • It can be good using Google for your documentation, it helps you know Google's products really well

    • It can be relatively easy to take your documents out of Google and use them elsewhere

    • Google is free for education

    • Google's weak points when used for documentation are:

      • no support for tags

      • no wiki (and manually creating linked articles feels like busy work)

      • no system to automatically notify the team when documents are updated

      • no real to-do project system

      • keeping your documentation in the same system as everything else can make search less effective

In addition to documenting obvious installation procedures and inventory, here are some articles that I have found useful:

  • Network Change Log: I keep a running document that lists the date and time a significant change is made that may affect end users in unpredictable ways. For example, wireless and network switch configuration changes, server updates, firewall changes, making a change to how a system behaves, etc. I roll this log over at the start of each school year.

  • What's New: If you aren't using a system like Igloo or Confluence that automatically informs your team members of changes to documentation, create a Google Sheet with a column for date, article, and notes. Create an entry in the spreadsheet whenever you change your documentation and link to the changed article. Ask you team to subscribe to changes made to the spreadsheet. This will notify your team members when the documentation has been updated.

  • Years At A Glance: Create an ongoing list of major technology changes made in each school year. Document the major OS versions deployed that year. This creates a handy document to go back and say, when did we install those projectors?

  • Better Next Year: Hind sight is 20/20. Keep a list of all of the things you would do differently in the future. Look at it as you get ready to do the same procedure in the coming year.

Project Management

Tech Departments that work in schools (as well as just about anywhere), always have projects: migrating to a new system, updating servers and network equipment, unboxing thousands of iPads/Chromebooks, etc. Ever wonder how far along your staff are at updating the desktop computers in the elementary building? Having a tool dedicated to managing these projects can be very helpful and keep the entire team on the same page.

You could use a simple shared Google Doc to manage your project, but if you have lots of tasks that need to be constantly managed and checked off easily, I recommend looking for a project/task management tool. Look for something with the following features:

  • Works on all of your devices

  • Easily create projects, tasks, and sub tasks

  • Share projects with team and assign tasks to team members

  • Notifications when items are updated

  • Project/task notes

  • Attach files to projects/tasks

  • Comments on projects/tasks

  • Due Dates and Priorities - maybe project timeline management

  • Templates for easily adding projects that you do every year (See the Manage Cyclical Projects Using Templates page)

Look for a tool that creates a nice balance of ease of use and features. For example, start dates, project timeline management, task dependencies, budget and time tracking or Gannt chart views might be nice, but if the day-to-day features become too complicated or cluttered to use because of the more advanced features that you don't use as often, go with the simpler approach.

Also use your tools with other resources for example, maybe you need to update all of the computers to the next OS, and that involves doing a backup, updating the OS, and restoring the data for every computer. Create an overview projects with the general tasks in the project management software, such as Backup Elementary Computers, Update Elementary Computers, and Restore Elementary Computers, and link to a shared Google Sheet that lists every computer in the district, with a tab for each building, and has check boxes for the status of each of the steps. Using the tools together allows you to keep tabs on the project and the macro and micro level, and everybody on the team can quickly and easily see where we are at. Also, many of our projects are cyclical - things we do in the summer, things we do just before school starts, things we do over Christmas break, things we do at the end of the school year. Look for a tool that can help you Manage Cyclical Projects Using Templates.

Here are a couple of apps that I can recommend:

  • ToDoist or Flow

    • Great for team projects and tasks

    • Assign tasks to individuals

    • Comments, Notes, Attachments for tasks

    • Notifications

    • ToDoist is simpler and quicker and is easier to view

    • Flow has more features like project notes and timelines, Calendar and Gannt views (that don't get in your way), plus a Slack-like Chat

  • OmniFocus for advanced personal projects and tasks

Tech Support

Education staff come from different backgrounds, and they all have different areas that they focus on. They can have different schedules and abilities to respond to calls to action in a timely manner. It can be struggle getting all of the district staff on the same page, and getting the information they need. One of the things you can do to improve this is always keep your message simple and consistent. Whether you are talking about a new piece of software, a policy change, or how to get support. In our district, we start with one statement: it's on the Tech FAQ. You can call this the Tech Portal, Tech Page, Tech Site, or Hyper Space—whatever works for you. But every message that you want to convey, every policy and procedure that should be followed, all of the links a person needs, all of the training resources should always be in one place for your staff. And you always tell them to check there. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Create a Tech Portal
Our Tech Portal has the following main sections:

  • Support: The Tech Ticketing system and Knowledge Base.

  • New in 20-21: Every year we update this page, and it lists all of the technology-related changes (and supporting information) that are expected with the new school year.

  • Links & Training: This page has a summary of links to just about every system used in the district. It also provides links to the knowledge based articles for each of the systems.

  • New Staff: This page is dedicated to onboarding new staff (see more about this below)

We try to keep the site neatly and clearly organized - it only has four sections, and they are clearly labeled. Information is presented in a clean, organized manner which is easy to read.

Place a link to the Tech Portal on all staff desktop computer docks/task bars and all the staff mobile devices.

Use a Ticketing System
Use a ticketing system to keep track of tech support requests. Get your staff to use it. Train your tech staff to enforce it. Use tags to categorize tickets. Get a system that integrates with email, so its simple for district staff to use and your message to staff can be simple "send an email to support" (literally, use support@yourdomain.com for your support address).

Get a ticketing system with a knowledge base and create articles for everything that you want/expect district staff to do. We use FreshDesk.

Technology Memos
Create a district-wide mail distribution list and use it to make important technology-related announcements. Use the opportunity to reinforce the tools you use and refer to the Tech Portal for additional information.

iPad Help
Create a similar "tech portal" designed for students and parents, with articles appropriate for them. Place a link front and center on all of their mobile devices.

Onboarding New District Staff

New teachers and support staff are bombarded with tons of new information when they are hired. In addition to getting to know their new colleagues and assignments, they have to prepare for that first day of school. It is a lot of information to process at once. Part of that information overload and a big part of what everybody needs to setup to do their job is technology related: setting up our desktop and mobile devices, using our office phone, using projectors and audio enhancement equipment, printing, etc. As I indicated in the Tech Support section above, we have a web page of our Tech Portal dedicated to onboarding new staff and getting them their technology up and running.

In developing this page, we tried to think about being a new hire, and all of the things we would have to do to setup our workspace, including the little things we know how to do as "tech people" to optimize our environment. We listed each step we would take, and wrote support articles on how to do each item. An outline of what we walkthrough:

  • General Information: We link to a couple of articles on the history of technology usage in the district and a page which introduces members of the tech support staff.

  • Acceptable Use & iPad Policies: Links to the ubiquitous "Acceptable Use" and "iPad Policies".

  • Setting Up Your Computer: This section walks staff through a series of steps to optimize the computer, such as: Customizing the Dock, Logging into iCloud, Setting up Chrome Profile. the articles talk about the benefits of taking these steps - providing sync agents to sync their data to their other devices. Links to articles for setting up other district software, We also setup default Bookmarks for each staff member with organized links to district resources.

  • Getting Started with Your iPad: This section has links to an iPad user Guide, Using Self Service to install district apps, the Classroom App, Signing into iCloud and Google. We inform them of the iPad Help site (installed in their iPad) , etc

  • Google Workplace for Education: This section links to articles on using Google Workplace, including an article that walks staff through setting up their Chrome Profile so it syncs between desktop and mobile devices.

  • Setting Up Your Phone: This section links to articles on setting their PIN and customizing their voicemail greeting, as well as using the directory.

  • Using the Projector and Audio Enhancement System: This section links to articles on how to use the classroom projector and audio system.

  • Printing/Scanning/Copying: This section links to articles on using the copiers for printing and scanning, and how Follow Me Printing works.

  • District Policy Reviews: Our staff are required to review certain policies every year, and this article tells them how to do that.

  • Apps and Services: This section refers them to the Links & Training page of our Tech Portal, which lists links to virtually every online system the district uses (see above).

  • Meet your Technology Integration Specialist: This section list the Tech Integration Specialist for each building.

The district provides a New Teacher Orientation day for new hires just before a new school year starts. Technology gets two hours to cover technology topics. One of the first things I stress at these training sessions is that they are going to hear a lot of things today, but not to worry about taking notes or memorizing the things they are shown — the purpose of today's training is just to introduce them to what we have, so that they can go back to their classroom and remember, "oh yeah, I can sync my Schoology courses to the PowerSchool Gradebook". They don't have to remember all of the specific steps because the Tech Portal and Knowledge Base will walk them through everything. I even suggest that they open the Tech Portal New Staff page on their iPad, and use the iPad as a manual as they setup their desktop computer.

Onboarding New Tech Staff

This is where your Documentation (see the section above) comes into play! I have a process that I use to bring new staff into the department, driven by a shared Google Sheet. The New Tech Staff Training Checklist spreadsheet is organized into topic areas and walks the staff through each training item in a natural progression. Each item has a link to the appropriate documentation articles. There is a column where they can indicate when they completed the training. I walk through most of the items on the sheet with them, and then ask them to review the articles again on their own, so they hear everything at least twice.

If you have good documentation, and good knowledge base articles, getting new tech staff up to speed can be relatively straightforward. You can link to the articles you have and if your they understand what is in the articles, they are a long way to be ready to help district staff. Our Tech Staff Training generally covers these areas:

  • Introduction to the department

  • Building tours and introduction to key staff (business office, principals, special ed, etc)

  • Broad overview of district technology and network configuration

  • Tour of technology examples: Data Center, Technology Closest, Classroom example, Lab example

  • Provisioning: How users, devices, and apps are provisioned

  • District and Policy Info and Review

  • Introduction to the Tech Documentation system (see section above)

  • Network Design Discussion

  • Server Discussion

  • Overview of Backup systems

  • Overview of Phones, Security Cameras, Copiers

  • Introduction to Support Tools (Status Page–see section below, Tech Database, Tech Portal, Ticketing System, Remote Desktop tools, Project Management software, MDM system)

  • Applications (provide an overview of core applications used in the district)

  • Station Setup (Have them use the New Staff onboarding tool of the Tech Portal so they are familiar with all of the information we have there–see section above to setup their desktop, mobile, and phone)

  • Skills & Apps - Links to the important knowledge base articles for district-used apps

Network Monitoring

Internal/Departmental - Network Devices
It is important to monitor the critical components of your network, like network switches and servers. For switches, we monitor using the SNMP protocol so we can get get statistical information such as transmission and error rates. For servers, we monitor the specific services running on the server, for example we would use an SMB probe to monitor our file server. Monitoring the services protocol itself tells you if the service is running (as opposed to simply pinging the server's address. We also monitor the temperature of the data center and the Internet upload and download usage. Monitoring these services allows us to receive notifications if a switch goes down, if services go down, if the air conditioner has failed, and if our Internet usage is bottlenecked. We use InterMapper to monitor our network devices. InterMapper provides a map of our network and devices and provides notifications to tech staff if there are outages.

End User Services - Status Page
As our staff and students rely on more and more Internet-based resources, we need to provide them with a way that they can easily determine if the system is down on the vendor's end. We use the StatusGator service along with UpTimeRobot to provide a customized Status Page for our district users.

We use UpTime Robot to create monitors for vendors that do not provide their own status page, and we share those monitors with StatusGator. StatusGator then creates our customized status page, which lists all the services we use and their current status. Clicking on the status indicator will take you directly to that vendor's status page.

A link to the customized district Status Page is pushed out to all staff and student devices (its actually integrated into their Tech Portal).

Databases - Rapid Application Development

Life at work is a database. Lists of equipment. Equipment specifications. Lists of people. People with attributes and needs. Masses of data and workflows. Which students need a hotspot? When do they return it, and did the return everything, and in what condition? How many staff mobile devices do you have? How many in the elementary? How many assigned to certified staff? How many with only 8GB of RAM?

Spreadsheet work OK for some of this stuff, and you can filter and sort them. But they aren't great for workflows like check in and check out, or making nicely-formatted reports. That's where a database application comes in. The database allows you to build workflow interfaces and custom reports.

FileMaker is my tool of choice, due to its simplicity and ability to quickly build small little customized applications. FileMaker is cross platform and works on desktop, mobile, and the web. You can run a server or pay an online host, allowing you to share your data with multiple people.

We have used custom FileMaker database to manage healthcare programs, technology inventory, locker management, employee data and just about everything else you can think of. The nice thing about FileMaker is how you can customize something to exactly meet your needs. When COVID hit, we created a FileMaker database to manage hotspot collection, distribution and collection. We could create a simple interface for our PSAs to easily check them in and out, while in the "back end" we had access to all of the data and could run reports about where the HotSpots were.

Stakeholder Communications

Communicating with staff, parents and students is getting more and more important. Over the years we have seen this migrate from phone calls and newspaper articles to websites and emails, to automated calling systems, to FaceBook, to App notifications, and now even more sophisticated approaches.

We use ParentSquare to communicate important information to different groups of people. ParentSquare provides a portal (somewhat like FaceBook) that shows you a feed of messages and announcements. In addition to traditional messages and announcements, ParentSquare has a number of tools that provide very sophisticated and useful functions. Here is an overview of of ParentSquare's features:

  • Syncs to your SIS for staff, parent, and student contact information. Creates relationships of families (parents and siblings) and rosters (teachers and students).

  • Each teacher will have classes set up based on the SIS roster, so they can easily communicate with their students and/or parents

  • You can make a message (think of an emergency type message) or a post (think of a FaceBook post)

  • Any message or post can be targeted at the district, building, grade, or classroom level (based on your permissions), and you can choose to elect and combination of staff, parent, or student

  • Emergency messages can be sent to E-mail, App notification, Text message, Voice message

  • Automated attendance notification and calling

  • Messages/Posts can (optionally) have replies and comments

  • Messages/Posts can contain links, images, and files

  • A Directory is built in

  • You can create custom groups, with a moderator

  • You can ask for volunteers (module keeps track of what kinds of volunteers you need and how many on specific dates and times)

  • Conference Sign Up (teachers create slots, and parents can pick their time)

  • RSVP, Polls

  • Forms/Permission Slips

  • Fundraisers and Payments

I have to admit, when we started using SocialSchool4EDU, I was skeptical, but it has turned into what I think is a great service. First of all, I want to say a district could do this entirely in house if they could find the right person to do it and within a budget that worked. The district wants to inform community members of the cool and interesting things that are happening in the schools. they happen all of the time, throughout the district. But no one person in the district is aware of all of them. Community members use FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter, and those social media platforms can provide a good way to communicate this type of information with community members.

But most teachers don't know how to use these tools appropriately/effectively for this type of service. Additionally composing a good ("marketing") post can be time consuming — you want to edit the photo appropriately and spend some time on word-smithing. Many teachers just don't have the time (or inclination) to do that. You also want a coordinated approach — you don't want 100 posts all landing on the day before Winter Break with everybody posting their projects and performances at once, only to have nothing posted for several weeks, you want to keep a steady rate of posts, every day (even through the summer). And who is going to monitor the posts for inappropriate behavior?

That's where SocialSchool4EDU comes in. They know how to configure the social media accounts appropriately and flag for inappropriate language. They know how to edit photos and word-smith a good post. They can manage the posting rate in order to maintain a regular and consistent stream of posts, and equally distribute them between high school middle school and elementary content. They monitor the feeds for inappropriate content. And they provide quarterly reports on activity and "followers".

And it simplifies the process for our teachers - all teachers have to do is send an email to our designated account with a brief description and some attached photos. The SocialSchool4EDU staff then creates a "professional" posting to the District's FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.

Classroom Technology - Projection, Audio Enhancement, Whiteboard

Finding Yourself Needing to Update Old Projectors and Interactive Whiteboards?
Historically "interactive whiteboards" have become very popular in today's classrooms. Much of this technology is at the age where it is time to replace and update. But what should we update to? Interactive Whiteboards were an effective classroom tool when we started installing them in the early 2000's. But are they still the best bang for the buck?

There are many technologies to look at when considering upgrading an older projector/interactive whiteboard system: dumb TVs, smart TVs, modern interactive whiteboards, interactive panels, interactive projectors. They all have some combination of Pros and Cons:

  • Dumb TV's are cheap and bright and have no management burdens, but they are relatively difficult to connect to computers and mobile devices, and that is made more complicated if installing more than one or using a TV on a cart (which some schools have done because the screens are too small)

  • TV's and Panels are big black slabs when not turned on

  • Potentially lose the traditional dry-erase whiteboard

  • All "smart" options (panels, TVs, projectors, whiteboards) have various combinations of:

    • ongoing licensing costs

    • potential proprietary software lock-in

    • management, training, and support burdens

    • buggy software, the risk of software not being updated over time

    • various levels of integration with current technology

    • yet another network node

    • pens to manage

  • Interactive Projectors appeared to be a promising contender, and when they worked, I have to admit it was pretty slick, BUT I still had many of the concerns under the "smart" category above, and frankly in our testing the system was just not reliable enough.

When looking at different options, you have to be careful to be specific about what problems are trying to be solved. For example, a projector that is over ten years old is not going to be very bright. When people indicate that they don't think projectors are the right tool anymore because panel technology is so much brighter, tell them that they can't base an assessment on their old projector - they need to see how bright a new projector can be.

Our Solution
After researching all of the options out there, we went with a different approach to updating our Interactive Whiteboards. We didn't update them! Instead, we elected to upgrade our projectors (we went with ultra short-throw laser projectors) and rely on using our mobile devices for the interactive whiteboard component. We found these benefits:

  • Easily installed in our existing locations (basically swap out the projectors)

  • Less expensive purchase and installation costs

  • Laser projectors do not require replacing lamps

  • No ongoing licensing costs, no proprietary software lock-in, no management or training burden

  • No software to maintain or troubleshoot

So a little bit about how we implement and use this system. All of our classrooms have a desktop computer, which is connected to the projector using an HDMI cable. We feed the audio output from the projector into the classroom's audio enhancement system, which consists of an amp, teacher pendant microphone, and handheld student microphone (which really don't get used), connected to four ceiling-mounted speakers. This has the added benefit of splitting the audio signal from the HDMI signal without requiring an additional box. The projector will pass the audio, even if it isn't powered on. The teacher computers have Reflector installed on them, which allows our iPads to wirelessly AirPlay their content onto the projector. This approach has several benefits:

  • Integrates and reinforces existing technology investments

  • Teacher free to move about the room while presenting

  • Any student can display their content to the projector

  • Teachers can still use their magnetic, dry-erase whiteboard

  • Using the iPad and existing software means no additional training (or support requirements) and builds off and reinforces using the existing technology investments

  • The mobile device and software are best-in-class and always supported and updated by the vendor (vs some proprietary system of apps installed on a smart panel)

  • The teacher can display and amplify both their desktop computer and mobile device without having to switch inputs on the projector or audio enhancement system, since the content is always coming out of the computer

  • Desktop and Mobile devices can both be displayed at the same time

  • Reflector allows multiple devices to AirPlay at the same time

  • Reflector can record the displayed content (it can even record both the iMac's camera and the iPad screen at the same time, mixing them into a single video stream!)

  • Reflector only costs $8/seat (only required for classroom desktop computers) and is easily installed and managed via the MDM

AppleTV vs Reflector
Many schools who have iPad student devices purchase AppleTVs for wirelessly displaying their iPads to classroom projectors. We went with Reflector instead of AppleTV's because:

  • AppleTV is $149, Reflector is $8

  • AppleTV requires an additional MDM license

  • AppleTV is another system (a whole computer, really) to configure, manage and update

  • AppleTV probably contains a bunch of features and content that you don't want to make available to the classroom

  • You have to find a location to mount the AppleTV, possibly even purchase mounting brackets

  • Additional cabling to manage: power, HDMI patch

  • Remotes to manage, replace

  • Theft

  • Reflector adds features (see above) like recording, multiple devices at once, and is easy to install

Managing the Transition
Teachers have been using Interactive Whiteboards and pens for years, and when they begin to hear that the district doesn't plan to replace them you can bet that will cause some concerns! The first key is to provide a complete, in-person demonstration of how the interactive software (we use Explain Everything) on an iPad can be used in a real classroom setting. Demonstrate actual "interactive whiteboard" type activities. Show how being mobile has advantages over being tied to the front of the room. Use the Apple Pencil/Logitech Crayon to show how handwriting is better on the iPad than the old interactive whiteboards. Reinforce how using these apps and skills directly integrates with our existing curriculum and technology and requires no additional costs, support, or training.

When the principals fully understand what the new system does, they can have an informed discussion with their teachers when they begin to bring their concerns forward, preventing the rumor mill from becoming a bigger issue than it needs to be. Next, provide the same demonstration to key teachers in each building.

Finally, during your back to school inservice, provide training sessions about the new projectors and how to use the iPad's interactive software. Many of our teachers were already doing this, but some weren't, and this is an opportunity to refresh everyone that this option is available.