When in Chrome: One district’s attempt to unhook the teacher from the front of the classroom!

 

When leading a district’s technology department, one’s main focus is often keeping the “trains running on time.” The opportunity to make any track changes or buildouts often comes during the summer breaks or in between vacation schedules. Unfortunately, most of this time is spent cleaning up data on the backend and disconnecting/reconnecting classroom equipment in the front end so that rooms can be cleaned. There have only been a few times in my career when I truly witnessed a district-wide equipment rollout that has had a transformative impact on the classroom level. One such instance took place in Lincoln Public Schools.

 

Meet Mark Gadbois, IT Specialist for Lincoln Public Schools and former middle school/high school science teacher. He leads a team of 4 in order to support 7 schools, 3500 students, 400 teachers, and over 2000 devices. With the district providing a Chromebook for every teacher, Mark and his team found themselves thinking of ways to support integration between the new devices and the classrooms’ mounted projectors. Faced with buying hundreds of HDMI cables and creating yet another item to connect & disconnect during the summer months, they had to think creatively.

 

Mark opted to leverage Chromecast in every classroom. A Chromecast is a device designed by Google to plug into any HDMI/USB port on any display device. Using a laptop or mobile device, you are able to mirror a copy of the Chrome web browser tab to a projector wirelessly.  A few Chromecast shortcomings worth pointing out: it does not completely cast your entire screen but only the Chrome browser tab you choose and it will not show your mouse cursor. However, at $35 per Chromecast, this was both a practical and economic solution.

 

Brilliant! Why not? Heck, in reality, you can spend close to $35 on a decent 25 foot + HDMI cable anyway. The thought of just plugging an HDMI-ready device into your projector and walking away seems simple to an average user of such a device. However, from an enterprise IT perspective, there are several things you need to consider when planning such an endeavor:

 

  • Purchasing

When it comes to purchasing consumer-end devices, many education channels don’t tend to carry these items in inventory. In the case of Lincoln Public Schools, none of the district’s purchasing partners could secure the quantity of Chromecasts to meet Lincoln’s needs. Enter Best Buy Education, who not only had the stock but could also deliver the devices in time in “retail packaging.”

 

  • Management
    • Like any consumer-end product, there are very few central management or provisioning tools to manage a large deployment of Chromecasts. Without these tools, it leaves the provisioning of each device to be completed by hand.    Welcome to the IKEA-like model, where you exchange your time and labor for cheaper prices. This was the case for Mark and his team. They spent between 5-10 minutes in each classroom configuring dedicated Chromecast devices (steps included joining the network, naming the device, etc.). To power the devices, they used the USB port on the back of the mounted projectors. They also used the “audio out” ⅛ jack on the projector to feed the sound back down to the teacher’s desk for external speakers. It requires the run of a ⅛ stereo or RCA cable to provide a solution. Otherwise, most projectors have a speaker that can offer some type of mono sound.

 

  • Physical Security
    • How do you keep these 3” HDMI “dongles” from becoming the next hot thing to disappear from school? With a $35 pricetag for the Chromecast, most would say “what’s the point?” However, the real point is the loss of class time if teachers are left without the device installed and functional. Mark and his team engineered a one-of-a-kind security method that required a length of chain, blank keys, spray paint and glue. They sprayed the keys black, epoxy glued the keys to the Chromecast and chained the key to the projector. Simple yet effective! The process took no longer than a few hours combined to complete all 200+ devices.

 

  • Bandwidth
    • As this is a consumer product, there is no best practice guide or data around how much bandwidth is consumed by multiples of devices on the same network.  Mark understood that this territory had not been charted or documented, and therefore decided to create a separate wireless network (locked down by MAC address) where the devices would be allowed to roam freely without having or causing any network issues. In the first year of implementation, his team has only allowed teacher Chromebooks to connect to the casting network. As Mark stated, “The last thing we need is students taking over another teacher’s projector from around the school. Can you imagine those work orders?” To date, he has yet to see any significant impact of the Chromecast on internal or external bandwidth.
  • User Training
    • Everyone knows that when a new device shows up in the classroom, teachers will be looking for some type of training on how to use it properly. This was probably one of Mark’s easiest tasks. He has automated certain tasks to make implementation easier for his users. First, he pushed the app from the Chrome Webstore to all devices, then permitted certain Chromebooks the ability to join the casting wireless network. The end user only has to be shown how to connect to the casting wireless network and how to cast their Google Chrome browser window. This process takes less than 60 seconds!

 

Since the initial purchase (around $7,500 for 200+ Chromecasts) and deployment (with a duration of less than a week) last July, Mark has seen this transition as one of the most successful classroom deployments. The feedback from his teachers has been overwhelmingly positive and appreciative. They love the flexibility of not being tethered to a cable 6 feet from the wall in the front of the room. Instead, teachers are using the device to show multimedia content, share student work, and offer collaborative work spaces for their students. IT department endeavors like these sometimes gets lumped into the “it’s just IT magic” bucket and never get the attention they deserve.

 

This type of innovation by Mark and his team demonstrates the potential for increased engagement, for both students and teachers, via creative thinking by IT specialists. Encouraging your IT team to think out of the box can have a long-lasting, transformative effect in classrooms across your district. For more information, please visit Mark’s Deploying Chromecast in Enterprise website, contact him via email mgadbois@lincolnps.org, or follow him on Twitter @MMgadbois!