DoD schools build on IT lessons learned in new academic year

The start of a new school year presents a host of logistics challenges, with some school districts bringing students back into the classroom, others continuing with virtual learning and some offering a hybrid of those two options.

Supporting about 70,000 students in several time zones, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) has also seen its share of IT challenges. Its schools began the academic year Monday, offering both in-person and virtual classroom options.

Mark Patterson, DODEA’s chief information officer, said Thursday that the school year has been off to a good start, now that the agency’s more than 8,500 teachers have become accustomed to working with students outside the classroom.

Earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, however, Patterson said that teachers weren’t yet accustomed to teleworking or connecting to the agency’s virtual private network, but have quickly adjusted to this new reality.

“There were a lot of changes in a very short period of time. That’s where I think the collaboration and the change management came in. Communication was key — ‘How do I log into the VPN? What do I do?’ That constant communication helped that teacher, I believe, get more comfortable with teaching in an environment they weren’t comfortable with,” Patterson said in a virtual conversation hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC). “Some people will never get comfortable with this environment — it just doesn’t bode well for some people, but these teachers, they overcame.”

DODEA has also overcome some of the initial hurdles of sending equipment to teachers and students, having distributed 7,700 laptops to students around the world and 249 hotspots. That gear, Patterson said, helped ensure all students had access to virtual learning.

“Not every child has a computer at home. You have larger families with four or five children, how does that work around virtual learning with one computer at the home and five kids that have to get on to do their lessons?” he said.

At the Education Department, CIO Jason Gray said the agency’s IT modernization work last year “could not have come at a better time,” since it gave the agency a strong foundation to scale up its capabilities.

This IT modernization initiative included cloud consolidation and application rationalization, which Gray said allowed the agency to reduce duplicative services.

“Having a platform that could manage that was absolutely critical, because when you have a bunch of requests coming in, and if you didn’t have a centralized vehicle to manage all of that that know where your pain points were, that would have been a nightmare,” Gray said.

Through these assessments, the IT office also swapped out laptops with a 20-minute boot-up time with computers that started up in about 40 seconds, which led the agency to recover more than 1,500 hours a day in productivity.

“In the past environment we were working with systems that were really slow, where now the impact of the pandemic at the department has been rather insignificant,” Gray said.

Under mandatory telework, Education worked with its vendors to develop a workaround to enable new employees to log onto the agency’s networks remotely without having to come into the office to pick up a Personal Identity Verification (PIV) card.

While the agency and its vendors initially expected this workaround would take weeks to complete, Gray said the agency approved the project in five days.

Earlier in the pandemic, DODEA moved from in-person teaching to Google Classroom in a matter of days. In this remote environment, Patterson said teacher and IT personnel learned to implement new technology from a distance.

“It was a much different environment. Previously we would have lunch-and-learns, we would have done all these things to support a rollout. The help-desk tech used to be able to come to your desk and help you with your laptop, [but] that doesn’t happen anymore. The ability to touch and show people things wasn’t available,” he said.

Beyond its day-to-day operations, DODEA continues to look at ways to integrate new technology into its classrooms.

Patterson said the agency has stood up “champions” in each school and region that identify new technologies that align with the curriculum and align with the emerging trends in education. The agency rolls out an IT roadmap every year

Those champions, in turn, work with teachers and look to weave in new tools, but based on the curriculum and grade level.

“A kindergartner can’t remember a 16-character password with upper-case [and] lower-case [characters]. We’ve got to find different ways of providing access and capability to the younger students, to the [special education] students.”

Education employees have also been comfortable with telework – hardly surprising, considering employees have given high marks in surveys about work-from-home flexibilities. The agency in June 2018, however, rolled back the program and required employees to work in the office four days a week.

Before the pandemic, the agency logged about 60,000 video conference sessions a month, but more recently it’s surged to about 400,000 sessions a month.

Gray said attitudes have also shifted during the pandemic. Supervisors wanted better ways to track employee productivity during the pandemic, but now some have expressed concerns that employees are spending too much time tethered to their laptops.

“Sometimes people feel like they’re always connected,” Gray said.

Patterson said DODEA Director Thomas Brady has made similar observations.

“We went from working from home to living at work, and it really seems like that a lot of times, the way we are now,” he said.

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