For several months, the Information Technology Department at the WCSD has been researching, demonstrating and preparing to unveil Schoolwires, a web-based program that allows students, teachers and parents to interact and converse safely and effectively in a social network just for northern Nevada.
Ed Grassia, chief information officer at WCSD, said Schoolwires will bring a major facelift to the design of district websites while giving teachers and students more options for teamwork.
“It would replace the district website and it would replace all the individual school websites,” he said. “It is a web program, a social network piece, a collaboration point. It allows for payment online for field trips, allows us to do surveys, handles emergency communications and basically encompasses a lot of features.”
Grassia said the new website would have several intricate parts for each branch of users, meaning that students could create a website for a homework project that is separate from a teacher’s website for discussion about curriculum and methods.
“A math teacher at Spanish Springs High could make a website with a portal where to put up the homework every night. Kids can log in from home, work on the work and post it right there,” Grassia said. “Parents can also look in and see what is going on and the program features a mobile application where students and parents can receive a message when a teacher posts something new.”
The school district’s current website is extensive and cluttered, according to Grassia. He said some needless information is being offered to the public and much of the information that is needed is difficult to find. Schoolwires would help alleviate that frustration as well.
“We only have one place to put something so what we need to build is an intranet to separate our inside world from our public-facing world,” Grassia said. “Part of our goal, regardless if it is with Schoolwires or doing it ourselves, is to bring a lot of the information that is irrelevant to the public back inside for our use and making the website for the public cleaner and easier to navigate.”
Because the project is in its infancy, an estimated cost to bring in the Schoolwires system is still unknown. However, Grassia said, one of the reasons they have researched the program thoroughly is because it applies for ERate government funding and reimbursement, which he said will likely pay for “at least some of the cost each year.”
Grassia said the focus of bringing in a program such as Schoolwires, instead of allowing users on the school district’s network to use Facebook, comes from their obligation to secure the school’s network. The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires WCSD to provide a safe browsing experience for their students.
“We are looking at different means of social
networking other than Facebook because we have no control over Facebook, other than to say you can get to it or you can’t” he said. “We cannot protect staff or students in that environment.”
Protection of the school’s network is of the utmost importance for Grassia, especially in cases where students are able to bring in their mobile phones and access the Internet through the 3G network provided by their wireless carrier.
“Short of banning devices, patting kids down and saying they’re not allowed to bring them to school, there is no way to control it,” Grassia said. “In order for us to allow it we are looking into Cisco ISE licensing to begin looking at allowing staff and students to use their own devices within the district.”
Grassia’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative would allow laptops, mobile phones and similar devices to connect and browse securely on the district’s network. He said the connection would work in the way connecting to a motel Internet does. Staff and students would open their browser, type in their login name and password and begin browsing.
“We would verify who the user is, what device they are using and whether they are staff or student,” he said. “Based on that we can route their web traffic. They are under same confines of being on the network computers.”
While the installation of BYOD has its pros and cons, Grassia said the current financial situation has administrators brainstorming for alternatives to save money.
“We are talking about a one-to-one computing environment, where every kid has a device, and there are a couple ways to look at it,” he said. “The district can buy every kid a device or we can allow some form of personal device connectivity. However, based on the federal regulations and things we are bound to abide by, if a kid does bring a device in then we are making sure that we are offering that same level of protection.”
The BYOD and Schoolwires projects have WCSD information technologists working diligently to create and document studies to begin a pilot for the products. The pilot will allow a couple of schools in the district to use them, assess its uses and report back to the district.
Grassia said the pilot planning will be brought to the executive cabinet meeting in a few weeks and they will be looking for bandwidth improvements next year. The increased student population and use of devices has the IT department looking to expand the mass of the network.
“There is an ever-expanding need for bandwidth. We have over 100 sites, with over 20,000 computers and 63,000 students, over 7,000 staff, so if you start talking about BYOD we could end up with tens of thousands of devices on the network,” Grassia said. “There is so much more video and streaming media and files are getting larger. It ends up wasting class time is what it comes down to.”