Posted: Oct 12, 2020

Background

Several NDIT teams including EduTech, Collaboration Technologies, Security and Network have built strong relationships with North Dakota’s school districts over the years. Recent efforts include bolstering cybersecurity with anti-malware provided at no cost to schools. The state also boasts one of the highest density broadband networks in the country with more than 90% connectivity statewide. And annual training and professional development opportunities through EduTech are a cornerstone to the state’s national leadership in computer science and cybersecurity education under the K-20W Initiative.

These strong partnerships recently yielded an opportunity for New England Public Schools to use a cutting-edge automation tool to configure 225 laptops for their students. The joint effort demonstrates the value of technology from a time and cost savings perspective, the innovative approaches schools are taking to support e-learning, and the positive impact the NDIT team is having on North Dakota’s students during the pandemic.

An Automation Solution

Shannay Witte, a 31-year veteran teacher with New England Public Schools, knew that planning for the new school year would require a fresh approach to technology solutions.

“As the computer science, math and FACS teacher and only technology staff member in our district, I knew we couldn’t get new devices to students the way we had in the past,” said Witte, who stated it usually took her three weeks to deploy 24 machines. “We really needed a quick, efficient way to get these laptops into students’ hands this fall, especially since we didn’t know how long we would be able to remain face-to-face.”

Witte reached out to EduTech’s John Gieser in June, as well as Jason Keller with the Network team, to address two key factors: configuring the computers and ensuring adequate bandwidth for the school.

The tool, Microsoft Intune with a newer feature called Autopilot, quite simply automates the manual process used to add software, applications, security, and other standard elements to devices. It also enables a ‘batch’ configuration for instances like New England where all 225 end users had the same profile.

“The evolution of these two products into a really feature-rich tool has positioned it to be a superior experience from where we were, and the timing and resources have aligned to help us make the switch,” said Chief Technology Officer Duane Schell.

“Even though we hadn’t used Intune in the past and this was a learning curve for everyone, Shannay knew it could play a huge role getting students connected quickly,” said Gieser. “Working together, we had the Intune portal, including security and permissions, set up by late July, and in early August I was able to hand the project over to Steve (Schild) for actual implementation.”

“Our devices came in at 1 o’clock on a Wednesday, and by Thursday at 3 o’clock I had almost all of them in the hands of our students,” said Witte. “By noon Friday I had them all deployed except for kids who were absent those days.”  

“The great thing about this tool is it enables faster delivery, setup and security – an especially valuable element during the current e-learning environment,” said Steve Schild of the newly named Collaboration Technologies team in NDIT.

Schild added, “When we receive the devices, there is essentially a checklist of what the end users need to have on that machine. We upload that information into a console and it configures the machines automatically.”

The result? What would typically take two to four hours per machine took approximately eight hours for 225 machines – a time savings of up to 900 staff hours.

“This has completely transformed what has historically been a very labor-intensive process,” said Schild. “Now, the setup and pre-configuration we can do behind the scenes allows us to get the necessary components on the machines in a fraction of the time it used to take. We can do more work in far less time – and vastly improve the customer experience.”

Witte added,” I certainly couldn’t have done this on my own and have greatly appreciated all of the help from the incredibly talented people at NDIT.”

So what does the future look like for the dynamic duo of Intune and Autopilot?

“This is a game-changer for how we support unified agencies in state government and agencies that receive NDIT desktop support,” said Ron Zarr, End User Compute & Collaboration Manager. “We are working with Microsoft to redesign the modern desktop deployment. There are 4,000 machines on order that will be deployed by the end of the year. Moving forward, we will have approximately 6,000 machines under our support, with 2,000 replaced annually.”

That math adds up: 4,000 laptops x 3 hours of savings equates to 12,000 staff hours just this year – equivalent to six full time employees. Projecting out the 3-year replacement cycle, NDIT will save approximately 6,000 staff hours per year, the equivalent of three full time employees.

“Besides the hours saved, this literally gets us in position for cooler options like possibly shipping laptops to homes without us needing to touch them,” said Zarr.

“This is a simple but powerful example of many efforts where technology is enabling transformation and giving us the opportunity to meet increasing workload demands in significantly less time,” said Chief Technology Officer Duane Schell. “This tool gives us the ability to let our IT experts do higher-level tasks by automating mundane, repeatable tasks, helping us focus on improving the customer experience and moving resources into more ‘grow and transform’ efforts.”