How One Microsoft-Centric District Embraced a Merge with the Google Ecosystem
by Matt Penner
Like many districts, at the Val Verde Unified School District (VVUSD) we were a tried and true Microsoft shop for years. Like many districts, we built a culture of technical innovation and excellence with the traditional histories dating way back to Apple II’s and Macintoshes, with various change overs as time went by. We even are one of the few districts who had NeXT workstations in classrooms and admin offices, earning us a place in a George Lucas Educational Foundation 1994 video Future Schools.
Since then we grew into a traditional Microsoft district with Windows desktops in every single classroom, office and lab, backed by domain controllers, a robust Active Directory design, locally hosted application servers and Exchange. VOIP phones, T1 lines later replaced by fiber, and projectors and document in every classroom were the norm. Teachers were taught to replace their transparencies with PowerPoint and live content from the Internet. Business departments were engrossed in the powers of Excel and calendars, conference rooms and global address books were managed in Exchange. All department and staff files were stored on file servers allowing us to image\replace a broken desktop with no affect to the user.
Any mention of non-Microsoft compatible technology was quickly shunned and discouraged. The only Mac island was our award winning video production program, and an island they were with running their own support.
The technology department was focused on Microsoft as a question of survival and ability to meet the district demands. Education always required robust and dependable technology or it simply wouldn’t get used. IT departments that struggled providing quality were often minimized and under supported. Only by standardizing and reducing technical variety could we provide the dependability that was required. This often required us to decline several requests. Cabinet leadership often reluctantly agreed, understanding the delicate balance between standards and the wild west adoption of unproven technology.
We started to see slight dents in the armor when iPads came on the scenes. We weren’t sure how useful they would be in our environment but they were sexy, sleek and Cabinet wanted them. That year all directors, Cabinet and principals received the newly released iPad 2. The IT department was tasked with putting district valued apps on the devices, but there weren’t really any. As a Microsoft shop iWork was only somewhat compatible and didn’t connect easily with our on-premise user files. Nevertheless, we were determined to use these new portable (and honestly the first decent) handheld tablets in our environment.
One of our elementary schools caught the iPad bug and developed a growing 1:1 program, successfully finishing a few short years later having a cart of iPads and an Apple TV in every upper grade classroom and curriculum changed based on the SAMR model. It was amazing model for the rest of the district, however, it was hard to reproduce, challenging for staff and the technology was quite time intensive to maintain.
Despite the challenges this proved there was a need for redefined instruction using technology and some fledgling options. Microsoft had yet to deliver and the equipment manufacturers were still building devices that were far outside the budget or technologically inferior. We dipped our toe into various options but quickly found out that the underpowered netbook devices had relatively short life spans traditional Windows devices were difficult to use easily in a classroom by teachers and students. 5+ minute startup times and weekly operating system, anti-virus and general application updates were severely impacting the minimal instructional time in our secondary grades.
Around the same time Google Docs for Education (GAfE) was released. It wasn’t the robust tools of Microsoft Office we were used to, but the entire concept of completely online files, collaboration and enterprise manageability showed this might be what we were looking for. In January of 2012 we signed up.
Traditional on-premise user files allowed desktops to be swapped out without issue, eliminated the fear of personal backups and was completely managed by our department. Yet they were trapped within our network and didn’t operate well with devices other than Windows. Traditional collaboration was cumbersome or expensive. GAfE made this so simple that not only did it work amazingly but the training was almost non-existent.
Manageability was very similar to our Active Directory environment. Tools like Google Active Directory Sync (GADS) and Google Apps Password Sync (GAPS) allowed us to manage the environment with the comfort and ease we were already use to. We mirrored most of our AD structure and only deviated where reasonable. Our IT staff used knowledge they already were accustomed to and easily jump into running this new ecosystem. We also used the same domain and conventions as our Windows environment, helping staff transition and aligned with our single user credential standard.
Microsoft had started to dabble with the initial offerings of Office 365 (O365) and the question arose should we abandon GAfE or stick with Google? Fortunately, several peer districts were on similar paths and after much discussion we chose to offer both GAfE and O365 accounts to all staff and students. The concern of confusion turned out to be largely a non-issue. Staff used the environment they were most comfortable with and students easily navigated the dual environments without difficulty.
GAfE was already showing the feasibility with our district-wide vision and a few months later the first Chromebooks started entering the market. From a rich technology standpoint these were flimsy and underpowered Chrome browsers and our department had a lot of skeptics. Nevertheless, an entirely cloud based device with sub-10 second start up times and minimal maintenance was very attractive. It was certainly worth a try to test out a few of these devices.
In November, 2012, we purchased 4 Chromebooks. With the Google Admin Console we could easily manage the devices much like our Windows machines. Within months we knew these were worth a larger pilot, extending our purchase to 800 Chromebooks and carts the following Spring, and 5,000 the summer of 2013. This matched ~25% of our student population and aligned us with a reasonable four year refresh cycle.
We started GAfE/Chromebook professional development, training up our technology teachers to be GAfE experts and advocates and started a tour of trainings across the district. Teachers young and old were both misty eyed and overwhelmed, seeing Chromebooks passed out to them from a cart. However, soon the vision started to unfold with our education staff.
Very quickly teachers asking how to provide instruction with these new devices and new classroom management issues were appearing but these concerns were balanced with many of the benefits. Suddenly IT was more of a partner in instructional practices than ever before. The quantity of simple wireless devices suddenly made state testing more manageable. Other surprising unexpected benefits came available such as running registration wirelessly with little IT assistance and departments utilizing Chromebooks for staff trainings and even employee onboarding.
During this time, however, IT was set upon with more repairs than we could handle. Chromebooks were taking longer to repair and return and general support requests were also suffering. While devices had grown the technology department had not. It became a mathematical issue with far more growing support debt than staff. It was once again a time for IT and Cabinet to align the district vision with resources.
We discussed the growth in devices and the constraint that IT’s small staff was putting on the vision. We started to champion the notion that “an investment in IT is an investment in the organization” and Cabinet requested a JET Review. Fortunately, backed by district data and feedback, and the JET Review findings, leadership agreed and staffing was expanded with additional field technicians and a newly created entry level engineer position. Not quite enough to meet the overall demand but a huge improvement. This validated the need to invest in IT support along with devices and professional development, setting the path for additional future growth
Support and service once again improved and the benefits of G-Suite and Chromebooks were easily becoming a norm. Departments were using the technology as well making use of Google Team Drives, collaborating on cross-department documents, building processes with Forms and spreadsheets and many other uses.
At this time Microsoft was really starting to enter the discussion with advancements in Office 365, OneDrive and Intune. Suddenly our business teams, some of whom were more comfortable with advanced features of Excel and other tools, were able to make much of the learning and practices already in use in the education areas of the district.
Now in the present we have a healthy dual Microsoft\Google environment, ~25,000 Chromebooks, 1,300+ Windows laptops for teachers and mobile staff, wireless displays in classrooms for mobile instruction and classes offered in G-Suite, Google Classroom and O365. We have utilized many back end tools that help sync our G-Suite inventory with our library and IT Service Management systems. Students grades 1-12 all take home their devices year round, including summer, and receive new devices in grades one, five and nine following our four year refresh plan. Seniors, upon checkout for graduation, are encouraged to buy their devices for only $10 for use in their future education.
This adventure has truly been a culture change within our department and district, filled with many questions and hard conversations. Ultimately it has resulted in an incredible joint vision and understanding of what current successful graduates require of us. With growing support of the technology department fueling our ability to adapt and merge technology we have becoming a strong partner with our district’s education and business visions. As a result our students are thriving in an environment that constantly adapts to meet, and hopefully exceed, the goals to be college and career ready.
 Future Schools: Connected to the World, Master Communications Group & The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994
 JET Review Program: https://cetpa.net/page/JET