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Education IT shares lessons learned from Windows 8 tablet deployments

Diana Hwang

When it comes to deploying Windows 8 tablets in a secure way, enterprise administrators can learn a few things from IT pros in the education industry.

Many school IT decision makers have already deployed Windows 8 to desktops, notebook PCs and tablets -- despite their end users' affinity toward Apple Inc.'s iPads.

In the Clear Creek Independent School District in Austin, Texas, 30,000 Dell Latitude Windows 8 tablets are being deployed to students and faculty, starting this year, over a two-year period.

"K-12 is really no different than most business enterprise situations, except that we usually deal with things in chunks, rather than smoothly," said Kevin Schwartz, chief technology officer of the school district, at a recent education roundtable in New York. "A lot of this comes from the three-way pressures for standardization, annual budget cycles as opposed to quarterly, and the heavily scheduled student learning day."

"In most cases ... we see everything here that businesses do ... we just add in these additional constraints," he said.

Other colleges and school districts are deploying Windows 8 tablets and notebooks, as well. At Southern Illinois University, approximately 2,800 incoming freshmen, transfer students and faculty will begin receiving Dell Latitude tablets this fall, and 30,000 student Google Mail accounts will be migrating to Microsoft Office 365. This past spring, Maine's Department of Education said it would deploy Hewlett-Packard Windows 8 notebooks to its students.

In the case of Southern Illinois University, students were comfortable with the Apple iOS platform. However, after reviewing the business case and studying the total cost of ownership and return on investment, the university found it could save $4 million over a four-year period by deploying Windows 8 tablets to every incoming student and faculty member.

The university also chose Windows tablets due to the availability of digital courseware for that platform. Schwartz said Clear Creek students selected the Windows 8 tablets over iPads during research tests.

Windows 8 tablet support eases transition

While Windows tablets provide a new platform for students and faculty, enterprise IT admins are concerned with support and provisioning.

Windows 8 did not bring on additional support costs for provisioning, according to David Crain, CIO of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. The school already uses Microsoft System Center, Configuration Manager and antivirus.

"This [Windows 8 tablet] just plugs in," he said. "I'm running 8,000 to 9,000 enterprise machines using this ecosystem, and there is no additional cost for functionality."

Crain noted that overall, students came around to the newer tablets quicker than the school's faculty, despite their familiarity with iOS.

Security and management are also just as important in education as in the enterprise. CIOs, chief technology officers and IT admins must constantly worry about a virus entering the network and infecting thousands of devices or taking down the infrastructure.

Security policies must now cover end users across all types of devices.

Schwartz noted the key to keeping students' data and devices safe is to train them on digital citizenship.

"Students need to know how to behave with these [devices]," he said.

Training students is an important part of deploying the Windows 8 tablets for the school's IT department. Crain said his students received some training on using Windows 8 and the Microsoft Store, but he acknowledged that more needs to be done.

Windows 8.1 will be released on Oct. 18, and the process of updating the deployed tablets will need to run smoothly.

The desktop virtualization alternative

Rather than deploy new devices to support Windows 8, some educational institutions rely on desktop virtualization. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) supports 5,000 different devices for its faculty and classrooms. Three-quarters of the computing equipment, including iPads and PCs, is used in classrooms.

However, like an enterprise, virtualizing a classroom can be a complex problem for IT administrators.

"We are trying to do a more strategic approach, but one challenge we have [is] the 600 different software licenses we support across the environment," said Linda Hartford, CIO of NWTC in Green Bay, Wis.

For example, NWTC chose to virtualize AutoCAD to cut costs instead of running the application on expensive workstations.

"I can buy several servers and virtualize the software. It's cheaper," Hartford said, adding that managing and upgrading thin clients was simpler for NWTC.

NWTC is rolling out a pilot this quarter to support a bring-your-own-device program. Students will be able to connect to a virtual environment and access what they need using their own PCs, laptops and tablets.

Hartford said she believes the lessons she has learned from virtualizing NWTC's environment can apply to the enterprise, including how to support all devices and how to allow people to collaborate closely in any environment.

She also stressed the need for quality over quantity and for using an incremental approach by first deploying new technology to the people who are most willing to embrace it. This will speed up deployments across the rest of an organization instead of waiting for a mass rollout.

There are limitations to using desktop virtualization and thin clients, however. Issues such as inadequate wireless bandwidth can affect performance, which needs to be monitored.


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