Port Alberni School District

Technology in harmony: the story of Port Alberni

The snow-capped Beaufort mountains frame the small mill town of Port Alberni, located at the head of the Alberni Inlet on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The 12 schools in the Port Alberni public school district have a total of 3,500 students—smaller than some typical high schools. That hasn’t stopped them from becoming mighty through technology innovation.

To that end, three IT professionals manage the whole district, one of whom does so remotely. Working closely with Jack Hitchings, the Director of Learning and Technology at the Port Alberni school district, these professionals are responsible for the management and maintenance of all of Port Alberni schools’ technology infrastructure and applications, deployment and support of all user devices, software training and support, and assistive technology. And despite this lean tech staff, in the last decade, Port Alberni schools have implemented an impressive mix of educational technology, starting with Windows-equipped computers in 2007 and most recently deploying Microsoft Intune for Education to manage about 150 HP Stream and Lenovo N23 devices.

Hitchings is an educator first and an IT professional second. He’s been working at the Port Alberni school district for 15 years and has led many of its education technology efforts. He does not consider himself a tech expert, but he is driven by finding technology that will work for his students and his staff. As a small school district, Port Alberni used to spend a disproportionate amount of IT time on security issues. This constant security battle was unsustainable, and so Hitchings and his team started to investigate an alternative solution. They decided to implement Intune for Education to complement their existing Microsoft technology, manage devices, and help maintain security.

Custom experiences, one cart at a time

With a small but mighty staff, Port Alberni schools needed to standardize and align technical support and training with the tools and devices they had available. It was essential for Hitchings to have the students be able to share devices with each other but still provide those students with specific learning tasks and custom experiences.

Intune for Education gave Hitchings and his IT team a way to both standardize devices and customize student experiences so that students saw their own work every time they signed on. He created user groups for each cart so that students from different grade levels could access their designated apps and programs. “With Intune for Education, we can easily customize what apps or group of apps we’re sending to a laptop cart, a lab, or a group of students,” Hitchings notes.

The Intune for Education mobile app management capability helps Port Alberni students learn both in and out of the classroom. “When we assign an Intune for Education license to a student,” explains Hitchings, “and add the student to a group, all the apps that we’ve assigned ‘follow’ that student. So, if the student signs in to another computer, the apps will be available on that computer as well. This is part of the Microsoft Azure Active Directory that we use in our Office 365 subscription.” Intune for Education works closely with Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) and Office 365 for Education to simplify identity management by getting automatically added as a management tool to Azure AD and Microsoft Store tenants.

Port Alberni uses Microsoft School Data Sync with Intune for Education—both of which work with Azure AD—to create, organize, and update student and teacher identities at schools. Port Alberni schools used the Intune identity management capabilities to enable a valuable bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategy. Says Hitchings, “If a student brings their own Windows 10 device and signs in to the store with their district account, they can now get access to all these resources on their device—at home, in the classroom, on their own device.”

Integrated security

The Port Alberni school district doesn’t have the resources or personnel to manage unwieldy or overwhelming technology. Thanks to a small grant, the district was able to consult with IBM, who offered Hitchings and his team the following advice, “Pick something and do it well as opposed to trying to be everything to everybody.” They picked Microsoft technology.

Hitchings explains, “We require high degrees of security, privacy, compliance, and compatibility for our systems working together. We were clear that we wanted to stay with apps within the Windows environment. What’s more, with a single Office 365 for Education identity, a student can sign in to a work station with a predictable set of applications.” Port Alberni students use apps and programs like Microsoft Teams, Sway, Minecraft: Education Edition, OneNote, and Office 365.

Port Alberni schools deployed Intune for Education because they knew it would quickly and seamlessly integrate with the district’s existing Microsoft for Education products, easily connecting student profiles with the suite of applications they needed to use. “Intune for Education gives us a tool to quickly deploy apps and tools that support learning and individual learners by getting everything in one place at one time, bringing the apps together, bringing the resources together, streamlining the process, and making it more efficient for students signing in,” says Hitchings.

Less time to value, more time for teaching

The icing on the cake for Port Alberni schools was how quickly they were able to deploy Intune for Education to manage their varied technology. “We used a USB to install Windows 10 Education, which took about 15 minutes for each device, and then joined the device in Intune to the group,” Hitchings says. “Literally, that was all we needed to do. When we signed in to the device with a test user account, the Start screen and apps began downloading and within a few minutes the student laptop was ready to go—customized for the user and the device.”

Rapid deployment and simplified management with Intune free up education IT professionals to shift from focusing on security patches to doing meaningful work that improves student learning experiences. Students can complete their homework on the same apps they used in the classroom.

A small school district doing big things with the power of Microsoft and Intune for Education, Port Alberni is preparing the students of Vancouver Island for a rich future. As the Director of both Learning and Technology, Jack Hitchings has the challenge, and the advantage, of knowing that those two topics are fundamentally two sides of the same coin.

With Intune for Education, we can easily customize what apps or group of apps we’re sending to a laptop cart, a lab, or a group of students.
Jack Hitchings, Director of Learning and Technology Port Alberni school district
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