City of Beckum School IT for the Data Center: UCS@school for the schools in Beckum
In the city of Beckum there are altogether nine schools, six primary schools and three secondary schools. My colleague Frank Bäcker and I take care of the network infrastructure, the telephone systems, the servers and NAS systems, as well as the end devices (including mobile device management). We are also responsible for the administration of the user accounts: In total, we support about 4,500 students and about 650 teachers.
In this short report, I would like to outline the developments of the past few years in the IT landscape of the schools in Beckum. Also I will describe the challenges we faced and how we dealt with them.
The initial situation
Before we started the pilot project with UCS@school in 2019, we already had a pretty decent IT structure at the Beckum schools. About 80% of the schools had Wi-Fi coverage, and there were about 900 school-owned Apple devices. Each of our schools had one computer room, the secondary schools had two of them. We found that the Wi-Fi authentication was not ideal because there were up to three passwords per person.
Since 2014 we have been using the “iPad suitcase” solutions in schools, managed by the Apple Configurator. However, the iPads have been used by many students. Thanks to colored stickers, users were at least able to distinguish the devices from one another and identify the iPad with their data stock. In 2016, we therefore introduced Jamf Pro as our Mobile Device Management.
In our quest to bring everything together and make the maintenance and use of IT easier, we looked for a system that was compatible with the existing equipment and set-ups. In addition to central user administration, we wanted a modular system for the future that could combine groupware, chat, cloud storage, etc. And it was important for us to integrate all Apple devices and to use Office 365 at a later date.
So instead of many small singular solutions, we needed a stable identity management system that would connect the schools to a large, centrally operated server. In the educational network, bandwidths of 100 Mbit/s to a maximum of 400 Mbit/s are available, in the primary schools only 250 Mbit/s. First we had planned to set up a separate physical server at each school which would serve as the school’s own cloud storage. But we rejected the idea because the bandwidths were not sufficient and external work would not be possible.
It was very important for us to have a modular system that could be expanded as required. Because with our small team of two full-time employees and one assistant, we cannot maintain 20 different solutions and provide first-level support for the schools. And the schools themselves (with few exceptions) do not have the know-how to administer a more or less complex solution by themselves.
The benefits of UCS@school
Of course we looked at several approaches. For example, we discussed iServ, which is used by colleagues at an intermunicipal comprehensive school in the neighboring community. We have reviewed the system critically. because it offers many features but
we didn’t need most of them at all or not in this way. For example, iServ’s exam timetable is a nicely designed calendar. But
I think it can be displayed much more simply.
UCS@school fitted better into our concept. On the one hand, we needed a good solution to connect the Apple devices, and on the other hand, the Microsoft Office 365 Connector from the Univention App Center convinced us. On the part of Microsoft, the interface is open to everyone, but only Univention has prepared it in such a way that we can work with it properly.
Cooperation with NetCologne
Another decisive point was that we were using a system that we did not necessarily have to operate ourselves. The DSL lines in the school area do not have enough bandwidth to adequately serve over 5,000 users. Of course, other aspects such as security (e.g. the firewall), speed and Linux know-how also counted – therefore a UCS@school solution hosted by an external provider seemed ideal.
In addition to external hosting, outsourcing support was also an important factor for us. It was important to us that NetCologne would also be able to cover this area and that we would get everything from one source. Support tickets would first go to NetCologne and from there be forwarded to Univention. This meant a great relief for us.
There are guidelines from North Rhine-Westphalia for the equipment of teachers with terminal equipment. Since BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is currently not planned, we had to purchase a few hundred additional iPads. There is one iPad per classroom in a media cabinet and each classroom is permanently assigned to a teacher. So the whole thing is basically person-related, the teachers take the iPad with them and use it too. At the moment we cannot yet provide school iPads for the pupils. This will have to be discussed again after Corona, when we talk about the further development of e-learning from home.
For reasons of data protection, the school administration does not want teachers to use their own equipment for business
purposes. Teachers can still connect their own devices to the Wi-Fi network, but these devices are not necessarily intended for the official use.
The pilot project started in September/October 2019 at three schools. Initially Univention employees set up UCS@school professionally on our own hardware. In the meantime, we took care of the tendering process to get all the necessary approvals, because we also had to commission NetCologne. In the middle of December we then placed the contract.
It all went very smoothly and without much bureaucracy. The contracting authority and all those involved cooperated excellently with us. In this case, we did not have to go through a tendering procedure in the usual sense, because the combination of UCS@school in the external NetCologne data center could not be provided by any other provider.
Planning of follow-up projects
At the moment our data protection experts are testing the Apple School Manager Connector. And we would like to use the online
services of MS Office 365. At the moment we only have Microsoft Teams on offer. We discussed this at the Univention Summit in January 2020 with the Cologne School Board, which has already drawn up a data protection package. We hope to receive information on this soon. Of course we have already had several inquiries, especially on the cloud topic.
In the wake of the Corona crisis, we recently had a conversation with itslearning, a learning management system that also has a connector in the Univention App Center,. After the Easter holidays, there will be a demo appointment with two or three headmasters who will check whether such a learning management system is useful for the schools in Beckum. However, I believe that we can meet most needs with the existing Nextcloud installation. But, if our schools see a need for such a system, I would be happy to be proven wrong. If there are longer-term restrictions in school operations, we would have to find a solution anyway.
Every now and then the schools asked us whether we could integrate a timetable, which we could do with WebUntis, for example. I can imagine that this would be a good idea for the future.
The crisis accelerates the digitization process – and promotes understanding
Of course, there are always minor problems, but nothing we cannot handle. It’s just a matter of getting used to it. Due to the Corona crisis, the adaptation process is certainly going faster now. In my opinion, the majority of people are happy that the city of Beckum as the school authority has thought about the topic and has implemented a uniform system for all schools.
All in all, everyone shows a lot of understanding for the fact that our small team cannot administer an individual system for every school. Most of them also understand that some functions are not or not yet available. Therefore, we are very satisfied with the progress made so far and the feedback from the schools in general.