Cool Tool | Great Parents Academy

CREDIT Great Parents AcademyHere’s a way to get your GPA up — as a parent, that is. Founded in 2012 and based in Atlanta, Great Parents Academy provides supplemental math curricula for children ages kindergarten through fifth grade. Through its interactive web-based software, LoveMath™, and gamified, character-guided lessons, it motivates children and facilitates parental engagement in the early educational ecosystem. It engages students, parents and teachers via a three-component approach in LoveMath. “Learn” guides students through about 150 lessons per grade. “Engage” is a private social media network which allows parents, students and teachers to interact and engage in their students’ math achievement. “Motivate” randomly rewards students based on effort and achievement within LoveMath with more than 100 different options, which can be tailored by parents and include rewards within the home, such as cooking dinner or staying up late, as well as commercial rewards through partners such as the Georgia Aquarium. Check it out.

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EdTech Mobility

A major challenge, or a browser tab away?

GUEST COLUMN | by Ilan Paretsky

CREDIT Ericom picFor a while now, advancements and innovation in education technology, or edtech, have targeted many areas – such as learning and training software, student testing and grading systems, third-party educational applications and content, portals, school security, learning management and other solutions to enhance the classroom experience. And the field has certainly come a long way – so far, in fact, that technology companies are now focusing heavily on enabling users to take advantage of mobility, BYOD and other 1-to-1 initiatives while allowing existing IT infrastructure and staff to meet the challenges involved.

Providing better mobile access to complex software and networks is one of many keys that will help unlock the education technology puzzle.

Over the years, K-12 schools all around the country have gotten off desktops and onto laptops. That transition is complete. In 2014, it’s now about getting off traditional laptops and onto web-based systems and mobile devices such as Google Chromebooks, iPads, Android phones and tablets, etc. This shift is not only about serving the interests of convenience, BYOD, flexible teaching and student collaboration. Going mobile has been saving, and will continue to save K-12 schools hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions), and perhaps more importantly – countless hours that should be better spent doing what schools do best – teaching our children.

The challenge for K-12 schools going forward is figuring out how to “merge” IT systems, networks and software, which have traditionally been designed and built for desktop computers and laptops, with contemporary web-based mobile environments underpinned by connected devices such as tablets and smartphones. And although this is a challenge, it is also a huge opportunity.

Regarding edtech innovation, there is no “wrong thing,” because technology companies that participate in education are all part of this great team effort to improve the experience for students and teachers everywhere. Crowdsourcing and gamification, content aggregation, and a bevy of apps for students, tutors and parents all serve specific needs. However, more value can be realized in the near-term by focusing on optimizing existing technologies and programs that not only take advantage of mobility but more importantly extend the ROI of existing systems. Is it more important to keep coming up with novel educational tech concepts that teachers don’t necessarily need, or to get better at moving existing systems onto the right platforms?

This is one of the crossroads at which the industry currently stands. Moving forward, tech companies that are involved in the education space should place an equal amount of focus on adaptation as they do on innovation. And adapting desktop-based solutions to mobile devices is not necessarily only about creating mobile-friendly versions of apps and websites. Going deeper, it’s about making existing IT infrastructure and learning environments accessible and device-agnostic, extending the boundaries of the classroom for teachers, students, parents and administrators.

Furthermore, technology companies should be more aware of what schools are being asked to spend money on in the coming years. For example, school districts around the country are increasingly using grant money and public funding to focus on things like data center upgrades to support 1-to-1 and BYOD initiatives, state testing and assessment requirements for mobile and remote access for inclement weather days. Teachers can already do a lot of this – however, the difference now is that remote access must move away from just our home PCs and laptops, and into the browsers of tablets, smartphones and Chromebooks.

A lot of the innovation happening in edtech today continues to focus on new ways to learn and teach. But realistically, the focus should now move toward optimizing the complex IT infrastructures of K-12 school districts and their immediate needs. After all, with only so many months in the school year, the one resource that teachers and administrators cannot get back is time – and that’s what browser-based access provides. It’s all about making software easy to access, making it brutally easy for the end user – our teachers, administrators, students and parents – without requiring IT to install or manage anything at the endpoint. Utilizing HTML5 technology, which is supported by all popular browsers, access to Windows desktops and applications is easy and many K-12 schools are realizing the benefits.

There are a ton of statistics out there that demonstrate the recent groundbreaking rise of mobile devices in K-12 education. This isn’t about that.

My point is simply in regard to how schools and technology companies are going to take advantage of the intrinsic benefits that Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones and other connected devices offer when coupled with existing IT investments and merging them with new application paradigms. Beyond merging access to traditional Windows education software with newer web-based applications, I believe that providing better mobile access to complex software and networks is one of many keys that will help unlock the education technology puzzle.

Ilan Paretsky is VP of marketing for Ericom Software Inc., a leading global provider of application, access, virtualization and RDP acceleration solutions. The company works with a broad range of K-12 schools and in higher education to deliver browser-based access to Windows desktops and applications.

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Cool Tool | PLEx Science Series

CREDIT Filament GamesInteractive learning games reach a new level with one of the first complete collections of game-based curriculum from Filament Learning, a division of the award-winning developer Filament Games. The PLEx (play, learn, experiment) Science series furthers the student learning experience by turning abstract science concepts into concrete learning objectives with integrated curriculum. The high-quality virtual games provide labs and exercises that allow students to explore complex science subjects in greater detail while they log their experiences and observations in a learning journal. It also gives teachers tools to review student performance with warm-up discussions, end-of-lesson activities and assessments, creating a personalized learning environment that offers immediate student feedback and real-time data on student progress. Like all Filament Learning games, PLEx is aligned to state standards, including Common Core, Science Literacy and Next Generation Science Standards. Educators can now purchase the first suit, PLEx: Life Sciences, which introduces students to the world of life science through Cell Command: Cell Unit, Crazy Plant Shop: Heredity Unit, Reach for the Sun: Plant Unit, Fossil Forensics: Diversity Unity and two bonus games. By fusing high-quality science games with standards-aligned curriculum, PLEx creates an efficient learning environment for both teachers and students. Check it out.

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Managing Desktops

VDI or session virtualization: which is best for your school? 

GUEST COLUMN | by Dave Burton

CREDIT NComputing CovingtonManaging today’s modern desktops is a costly and time-consuming operational reality for IT departments across educational institutions. Even simple day-to-day maintenance tasks, such as applying patches, upgrading applications, onboarding new users and maintaining security can cause a huge headache for IT. As a result, more and more IT departments from schools all over the world are turning to desktop virtualization as a low cost, powerful alternate technology to traditional PCs.

One size does not fit all, and a smaller organization attempting to fit a solution designed for a large enterprise organization is like fitting a square peg in a round hole.

There are two main types of virtual desktop computing for IT teams to consider: one-to-one desktop virtualization, commonly known as VDI; or, one-to-many — known as session-based desktop virtualization.

VDI vs. Session-Based Desktop Virtualization

VDI uses a hypervisor to run a user’s OS in a virtual machine (VM), decoupling it from the PC host hardware. Typically multiple VMs run on servers in a central data center, isolating the user desktop environment from the physical device and enabling the user to access their virtual desktop from any computer or other access device from any location. Since the computing resources are centralized, management and maintenance is streamlined and easier for IT to deal with.

VDI also requires constant bandwidth and solid network connectivity between the endpoint devices and the back-end servers, so it is not a good fit if offline mobility is required or if schools have slow WAN links to the data center. And if an educational institution plans to implement pooled VDI (the most common approach), then two systems management infrastructures are needed: one for the pooled VDI environment and one for everything else (desktop PCs and notebooks).

Conversely, session-based desktop virtualization allows users to share one virtualized server desktop environment in the form of individual sessions instead of separate operating environments per user. This shared environment can run on servers in a central data center or on a physical PC in a workgroup, computer lab or classroom. A hypervisor is not required for small user environments making it extremely simple to setup and deploy compared to that of a VDI. In the case of larger deployments, the shared desktop environment can run inside a virtual machine on a server. Multiple VMs on multiple servers can scale a deployment to thousands of users.

One advantage of the shared environment is that each user session has a small impact on server resources compared to VDI, and can often support up to 100 users per virtual or physical server. With VDI each user has their own OS, their own set of applications and their own memory and virtual CPU allocation. All of that duplication can dramatically limit the number of users each server may support to as little as one-tenth that of the shared environment. Infrastructure costs will always be lower with the shared desktop model.

A possible disadvantage of the session virtualization approach is that sessions are not completely isolated from one another on the server the way virtual desktops are. The users share the OS and applications installed on the server so standardized environments where users’ needs are similar are a great fit for this approach. With VDI, each user has their own separate OS instance that may be customized when needs vary, for example when users require high-resolution graphics and other CPU-demanding applications. 

One Size Does Not Fit All

The critical difference between the two architectures is how the OS is used with the virtual desktops – one-to-one or one-to-many. Although the end-user experience may be very similar for the two approaches, there are big differences for IT. In addition to the impact on server infrastructure and cost, the administration experience is vastly different and it is worthwhile to understand how the differences between the two architectures affect them.

Some virtualization solutions were designed for large enterprise organizations, while others are specifically designed for small- to medium-sized organizations (SMB). Large enterprises often have large IT organizations with a variety of specialized skills and are prepared to take on more complex solutions, while many SMB organizations tend to have small IT teams that must support multiple locations on a tight budget. One size does not fit all, and a smaller organization attempting to fit a solution designed for a large enterprise organization is like fitting a square peg in a round hole.

Educational institutions have fundamentally different requirements when deciding which IT solutions to purchase. They need to allow every student to develop the skills required to succeed in the knowledge economy and access the proper applications, often without the budget and resources to fund or manage a computer for each student. They also need to easily manage the desktops and not rely on teachers or other staff to be IT managers.

What’s more, most students have low computing and user personalization requirements. In this situation where centralized applications are accessed by end users, session virtualization is an optimal solution because it is low cost, energy efficient and requires less computing power in the datacenter. This is also a big plus in computer labs that lack adequate power supply and other related infrastructure.

There are also those users with specialized requirements for high level computing, user personalization and data storage, such as CAD and graphic design. VDI, in conjunction with multimedia capable thin clients, is an excellent solution as VDI can deliver a powerful VM along with storage and software resources to meet these user’s specific needs.

Conclusion

Educational institutions are increasingly turning to desktop virtualization to reduce the cost and resources required today 
to effectively manage desktops. IT managers must consider their user requirements and their use cases in order to decide which solution fits best for their environment. The architecture for session-based virtualization, in most cases, drives higher efficiency over the VDI architecture because of its use of a single OS and set of applications for multiple users. Using VDI offers an easy way to customize desktops for certain users or groups of users, especially when their computing and graphics needs are very high. Schools should consider deploying VDI when desktop flexibility is more important than immediate cost savings.

Dave Burton has over 20 years of experience in software and technology marketing and currently serves as the VP of global marketing at NComputing. He has a proven track record of leading successful product marketing strategy and related campaigns. He previously served as vice president of U.S. marketing and marketing operations at AppSense, where he contributed to the company’s $100+ million growth.

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Wi-Fi Upgrade

E-rate presents schools with new opportunities — and requirements. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Bruce Miller

CREDIT XirrusOn July 11, the FCC approved $2 billion to upgrade the wireless networks in schools across the country. This funding couldn’t have come at a better time. The influx of devices coming to campuses coupled with increased 1:1 programs and new technology-centric pedagogy places massive burdens on aging wireless infrastructures. Conversations about outfitting children with laptops and iPads, etc., are commonplace, but not so much are the discussions around the decidedly less thrilling connectivity infrastructure needed to support these devices. This is why the FCC’s most recent funding initiative is so crucial. Upgrades to Wi-Fi infrastructure are critical for mobile devices to yield any benefits to students.

Many administrators and IT staff are not aware of the bandwidth requirements for classrooms with 1:1 devices.

Currently, the increasing number of student devices on campuses is straining school networks designed for coverage. The connected school is rapidly becoming the norm: Internet on school buses, cloud-hosted applications, remote storage, digital attendance and emergency notifications via Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi networks that are “good enough” are no longer sufficient. The networks must withstand the immense strain by increasing devices, traffic and applications over the coming years. Unfortunately, several common hurdles will challenge schools as they plan their upgrades: lack of funding knowledge, lack of technical expertise, false assumptions and evolving technology standards.

Funding Knowledge

Over the next few months, administrators will apply for E-Rate funding. They will not find out if they’ve been granted funds until the spring. Between now and then, they will be asking themselves “what if we don’t qualify?” Many administrators don’t understand that there is a wealth of options available for alternative funding options, and that they can utilize resources they may not have thought of before, such as ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), state common core funds, and local bond initiatives. While pursuing E-Rate, administrators should begin researching all the options available to them within their state as well as how they reallocate funding they’re already receiving.

New Skills Sets

Teaching in a Wi-Fi-enabled classroom requires a new set of skills, both from a technical standpoint and from an instructional one. New opportunities exist when each student has access to the fast-growing ecosystem of web-based tools. Teachers will need to be utilizing these tools to create a more robust learning environment for students, and also to ensure the school’s investment is well utilized. Teaching is moving towards highly individualized adaptive learning with the help of technology. Furthermore, IT and administrators will face a new set of challenges and protocols when dealing with students bringing a personal laptops or tablet to campus and logging on.

False Assumptions

Many administrators and IT staff are not aware of the bandwidth requirements for classrooms with 1:1 devices. Having multiple classrooms per Wi-Fi access point will no longer suffice when 30 students in a classroom are simultaneously access web resources or watching video per teacher’s instructions. Classrooms that once found a low-bandwidth and low-speed wireless network sufficient now find they need something that provides the same solid connectivity as an Ethernet connection.

Evolving Technology Standards

Before administrators begin their upgrades, they need to understand the evolving Wi-Fi technology standards. The most common standard today is 802.11n; however this protocol is rapidly changing as Gigabit speed 802.11ac products are coming to market. 802.11ac offers 3-15 times the speeds that are supported by many new devices coming to the market, including the upcoming iPhone 6. But even 802.11ac continues to evolve – Wave 2 of 802.11ac will reach the market in 2015. Planning to support the devices and usage of tomorrow, not just today, is key to ensuring longevity in wireless networks and that the E-Rate funds last as long as possible.

What’s Next?

The E-Rate funds are extremely promising for schools, and there is a great deal of information that decision-makers will have to process to reach the best conclusion for their own students. Administrators must be proactive in planning for contingencies and to ensure this investment will have the best impact on their learning environment. In addition to securing the funding to improve their network, they will need the right information to decide what technology to purchase, as well as an update in policies and teaching methods to ensure this purchase has a true positive impact on students.

As the next school year begins and the announcement of who gets E-Rate funding approaches, administrators should prepare themselves for a sea change in technology – one that will help them fulfill their mission to bring the best learning opportunities to their students as possible.

Bruce Miller is VP of product marketing for Xirrus.

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