School district moves forward on a trajectory for better learning outcomes with affordable devices and cloud environment

Tucson Unified School District, conscious of the need for constantly evolving technology, upgraded from Windows 7 to Windows 10 and is in the process of deploying Office 365 ProPlus throughout its 89 elementary, middle, and high schools. Students benefit from using the Office 365 ProPlus productivity suite and Minecraft: Education Edition to gain future-ready skills on robust Windows 10 devices.

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“We work to avoid falling behind the technology gap, constantly updating to provide the best technology for both students and staff. That’s why we chose Windows 10 and the Office 365 cloud environment.”

- Rabih Hamadeh, Director of Information Technology Infrastructure, Tucson Unified School District

Tucson Unified, Arizona’s second-largest school district, is a large and diverse mix of 89 elementary, middle, and high schools that educate more than 45,000 students. School leadership and a dedicated IT project team of 10 recognized the need for a robust technology presence years ago and committed to making technology a priority for the district. For years, the district ran the Windows 7 operating system on school-owned devices. Blaine Young, Tucson Unified Chief Technology Officer, knows schools must have a forward trajectory of increasingly effective, modern technology or they risk falling behind the technology gap. That’s why he and his team were thrilled to continue with Microsoft Education, updating from Windows 7 to Windows 10 and deploying Microsoft Office 365 ProPlus, Azure Active Directory P2, Power BI, and Intune. By embracing modern technology and the cloud environment, Tucson Unified is moving forward on a path of dynamic, sustainable technology for the district.

Technology looks different at each of Tucson Unified’s schools. “There are varying levels of technological resources available on our campuses—some students share devices, some have one assigned to them, and some learn in labs or libraries. We want to continue that forward trajectory of providing more technology to our students,” says Young. Microsoft Education solutions support Young’s district-wide goals: ”The technology must be adaptable to meet student needs, it must serve educational programs and objectives, and it must be secure.”

The draw for Windows 10, according to Rabih Hamadeh, Director of Information Technology Infrastructure at Tucson Unified School District, was how it supports Office 365 and the cloud environment and that Windows 10 devices, managed by Intune, were “easy to use, accessible, adaptable, easily updated, and secure,” says Hamadeh. “We work to avoid falling behind the technology gap, constantly updating to provide the best technology for both students and staff. That’s why we chose Windows 10 and the Office 365 cloud environment.”

Adaptable deployment processes save time and money

Covering more than 250 square miles and containing 89 sites, the district manages 50,000 unique devices—a real challenge until it moved to the cloud.

Tucson Unified received support from both Microsoft and Microsoft partners to facilitate the Windows 7 to Windows 10 upgrade and cloud rollout, and it was pleased that both options—an in-place upgrade to Windows 10 and a hardware refresh—were available. As such a large district, Tucson Unified does not have one standard device or hardware. Therefore, deployment and updating processes must be as adaptable as the technology it installs. The district considers the in-place upgrade a good solution for its collection of PCs, laptops, and mobile devices. “It also helped us spend less time on updating and imaging devices and reach our goal of having almost all our devices on Windows 10,” says Hamadeh. Because Tucson Unified could use in-place upgrades for Windows 10, it cut costs by taking advantage of existing assets, instead of replacing every device. And, thanks to strategic support from Microsoft and an internal team of engineers, Tucson Unified saved money on external contractors for both the hardware refresh and in-place upgrade.

Another adaptable process embraced by the district was co-management, in which schools concurrently manage Windows 10 devices with Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager and Intune.

“We have to make sure that we are centrally monitoring and upgrading our devices and not having to drive to sites to do that,” says Hamadeh. That’s why processes like co-management are so valuable for multisite school districts or organizations. IT can phase in highly secure, modern cloud solutions like Intune, which will reach every Tucson Unified school by the end of 2019, while still performing necessary maintenance from one location. Eventually, by moving to the cloud environment, the district will save time, money, and IT effort that used to be spent touching each device. “The fact that you can monitor, control, and download to devices through a cloud solution or based on Intune is big for us because we are a very large district,” says Hamadeh.

Security that suits a sprawling public school district

Rolling out the modern computing environment of Windows 10 and Office 365 ProPlus also provides Tucson Unified with the next generation of powerful, dynamic security features. “We’re always looking for security,” says Hamadeh. “Having the flexibility of access is good, but security is of supreme importance. We must safeguard our staff and students against hacking, malware, and phishing at all times. The combination of our internal teams’ monitoring and built-in Windows 10 and Office 365 security tools helps us do that.”

Security is such a priority at Tucson Unified that Young, Hamadeh, and their teams evaluated a number of platforms and vendors before deciding on Microsoft Education. Tucson Unified stuck with Microsoft because it needed a solution that could grow along with the district and that could provide service and support for a large and complex system. When it comes to security, Young explains, Microsoft doesn’t just offer a slate of features—it offers enterprise-level security that evolves with the landscape. For example, because the district owns and works with a broad array of student and teacher devices, Tucson Unified needed device-level security through Azure and Intune. The benefit of using Azure and Intune for security, says Hamadeh, is that “you get the real-time accessibility, security, and flexibility to use that system on campus and off campus.” Safeguarding devices means that students’ and teachers’ learning experiences can extend well beyond the walls of the classroom.

“Over the years, Microsoft has done enterprise well, which means its solutions scale well,” says Young. “That’s important when most organizations are running lean teams with limited budgets. When you buy Microsoft solutions, you get both economies of scale and a source for help as you plan for the next generation of services. It’s good from an investment protection perspective, and it’s good for mitigating risk.” 

Tucson Unified has more security features planned for rollout, including single-sign on, Windows Hello for Business, and Secure Boot. Teachers can expect these features to be enabled in the next year.

Future-ready skills through Minecraft: Education Edition and Office 365 ProPlus

The benefits of Microsoft Education extend beyond administration. Teachers at several schools within Tucson Unified are using Office 365 ProPlus and Minecraft: Education Edition to teach their students future-ready skills.

Michael Tinkey, a teacher at Booth-Fickett Math/Science Magnet School in the district, teaches a computer science course in which his students learn how to code in JavaScript through Minecraft: Education Edition. The elective course is a favorite among students, who often play Minecraft in their spare time. The class is both instructional and fun. For Michael’s Halloween class, students constructed haunted houses and then used Code Builder in Minecraft: Education Edition to fill their houses with monsters.

Running intensive apps like Minecraft: Education Edition requires a robust device and operating system, which Michael finds in Dell Latitude, HP ProBook, and HP Stream laptops running Windows 10. In a win-win for his students, Michael knows that teaching Minecraft: Education Edition isn’t just fun, it’s preparing his students for their futures. With this class, “we expose our students to the skills they might need in occupations like software engineering and programming, which are in high demand,” explains Michael. Minecraft: Education Edition allows users to modify different aspects of the game. “With every project, I make sure my students are able to read the code, go through and identify what aspect of JavaScript explains the functions of the code, and diversify the different inputs they’re using,” says Michael. Using Minecraft: Education Edition in a learning environment on a robust device helps students bridge the gap between something they enjoy—playing video games—and skills they need to put them on a path to actually making the games someday.

At Cholla High School, also part of Tucson Unified, teacher Julie Lindner uses Office 365 ProPlus to improve learning outcomes for her students. Lindner teaches Exceptional Education, and most of her students have learning or intellectual disabilities.

“Depending on the day,” she says, “I could have them writing. I could have them sharing. I could have them working together with a classmate to create a PowerPoint or Sway presentation. I could have them working on writing a resume.” Lindner knows that when her students graduate, they will likely use Microsoft products in their professional lives.

Lindner continues, “I really want students to be able to walk out of high school knowing how to use any of the Microsoft products. The more I can teach them about the Office 365 collaboration platform, the more prepared they’re going to be for the workforce.” Her students use Word to hone their resume-writing skills, and Lindner uses real-time collaboration features in Office 365 ProPlus to follow along with her students and comment as they work. Meanwhile, Lindner reaps the benefits of cloud-managed devices, noting that device updates are deployed remotely and, thanks to Office 365 ProPlus Click-to-Run, “take effect even without having to restart the computer.”  

The flip side of collaborating in real time is that students and teachers use Office 365 ProPlus apps to work and learn outside the classroom. Alternative education students can have difficulty getting to school, so they use Office 365 ProPlus to stay on track.

“For our students to be able to access their homework, for example, from home or anywhere else is very beneficial to us. We have a lot of students who do distance learning education for Alternative ed. And that tool being available not only onsite, but offsite as well, is very helpful,” says Young.

Seeing and sharing student progress

An important forward-thinking adoption by Tucson Unified is the use of Power BI for data visualization and sharing. “We use Power BI in two ways. First, we use it for visualization of the data that we use internally for a lot of our decision making. We also aggregate data on student achievement and make it available publicly. We put information out about how our students are performing and about performance at a school level or district level overall,” explains Young. Introducing and implementing Power BI within Tucson Unified was relatively easy, he says, thanks to the district’s existing Microsoft environment and familiarity with Microsoft tools. Tucson Unified has been learning from and sharing data for a long time, independent of any policy or compliancy requirements. “It is just the right thing to do,” says Young.

The same commitment Tucson Unified has shown in providing its students with the best possible technology-enabled education is evident in the way it uses Power BI to communicate with constituents.

“Families—students and parents—are our first and foremost priority, but we also do it for all the citizens within our city who take an interest in public education and how we’re doing as a district,” Young says. As a public school district that takes its responsibility to the community seriously, Tucson Unified uses Power BI to help make essential data available in a form that’s easy to understand and navigate.

An ocean of evolving technology

As a district, Tucson Unified is “always looking for the best possible solution,” says Hamadeh. It recognized that Microsoft Education and the modern solutions offered not only the best solution for today, but a way to continue its path forward. Having made the leap from Windows 7 to Windows 10 and from on-premises to co-management and eventually to the cloud, the district has seen firsthand how Microsoft has a history and commitment to evolve software and solutions, setting customers up for future success.

Although Tucson Unified is well on its way to completing its Windows 10 and Office 365 deployment, the district is nonetheless excited for the opportunities it sees ahead. “We’re really in our infancy of adoption,” says Young. “We expect over the next couple years to grow in our ability to leverage the environment and do creative things that help us as a school district in running the district, and in instruction, and for our students to learn. I think of it as an ocean to swim in.”

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.