2016 Technology Rewind

With 2016 slipping into the history books it is time to reflect on an exciting year of technology projects at Penn Manor School District. Here are a few highlights:

The year started with a ring. In January, we unveiled a new automated attendance call notification system. When a student is marked absent, their parent or guardian automatically receives an alert via phone. Attendance notification calls first launched at Penn Manor High School and expanded to all ten school buildings by the spring.

In March, Penn Manor received a District of Distinction award from District Administration Magazine for our open source laptop project and innovative high school student help desk. The recognition is a testament to the innovative one-to-one learning program and the work of terrific Penn Manor teachers and staff.

Summer was, as always, hot and brisk! As students and teachers left for an extended break, our summer IT plans kicked into high-gear. First up was a copier system refresh.  A fleet of 41 new multifunction copiers arrived in June, along with an entirely new print management software system. During July, the team upgraded more than 4000 student laptops to a current software image of Ubuntu 16.04. The team installed new Meraki MR32 wireless access points at Manor Middle and Penn Manor High School, boosting network performance at both buildings. And in August tech staff raced to prepare Pequea Elementary for the post-renovations return of students.

After six months of detailed planning, preparation, and production, the new Penn Manor School District website design launched at the start of the 2016-2017 school. The custom-designed WordPress theme was an ambitious visual upgrade. Big, bold photography now highlights student success stories, featured articles, and department pages. Penn Manor High School’s website received the new design in December. The other nine school buildings will undergo the same design upgrade in the first half of 2017.

During the summer and fall of 2016, we transitioned Penn Manor’s full-time virtual school program to the Edgenuity learning platform. Edgenuity’s catalog of online course material is also available for middle and high school teachers to use in day-to-day instruction.

Open source platforms remain the bedrock of our educational technology infrastructure. Students and staff enjoyed new features in Koha, Moodle, Nextcloud, and WordPress. And the Technology Team transitioned from IRC to Mattermost for real-time communication and messaging.

The Technology Team welcomed two new staff additions in 2016. Nate Moss joined as the building technology specialist for Central Manor and Letort Elementary. Nate’s Fun Fact Friday presentations became a favorite weekly tradition! Nick Joneic, a former high school student technology apprentice and building technology aide, became the Technology Specialist for Hambright Elementary and Manor Middle School.

On a personal note, I published my first book, The Open Schoolhouse in October. The book chronicles the 16-year history of Penn Manor open source technology projects, culminating with the one-to-one laptop program and student help desk. It was an honor to document the amazing achievements of our students, teachers, and technology staff—I have the best job in the world!

Happy New Year!


Mattermost – An Open Source Slack Alternative

The Penn Manor IT Team relied on a self-hosted IRC messaging server for many years. IRC is great for a technical crowd, but the old-school feel and cryptic conventions never resonated with students and teachers. We’ve experimented with IRC alternatives, but an affordable, school-friendly platform has been elusive. Slack was a promising option–and a few schools have tried it for professional development. However, Slack is cost prohibitive for thousands of district staff and students. Plus, we value free and open source software running on district servers, and try to avoid expensive cloud services storing student data in someone else’s walled garden.

At the start of 2016, we began testing Mattermost, a terrific open source, Slack-like messaging platform. Mattermost runs on Penn Manor servers, and is configured for private district staff and student use only. Instant messaging, group chat, and notifications are all centralized in one searchable web system. Features like direct messaging, emoji characters, drag-and-drop pictures, and shared files make it easy for students to start using Mattermost without first passing a calculus exam. Like Slack, Mattermost is organized around self-contained teams, and each team can have separate topic discussion channels.

The Mattermost project was named because the developers wanted to emphasize the importance of communication. The program shifts communication from email to a more fluid–and open–discussion stream. And when communication is transparent, collaboration naturally happens in the open. Even better, Mattermost serves as a communication hub for our High School Student Technology Help Desk. With Mattermost, students can collaborate and communicate when they are not together in the same physical space, or together during a given class block.

Based on a successful Mattermost trial, the Penn Manor IT Team has plans to expand the system to additional buildings during the 2016-2017 school year. You can read more about our transition from IRC to Mattermost on opensource.com.


District of Distinction Award – Open Source Laptop Program

Penn Manor School District’s open source 1:1 student laptop learning program has earned a District of Distinction award from District Administration Magazine.

Every student in grades 7 through 12 receives a laptop computer running the Linux operating system, as well as dozens of open source learning programs. With 2,500 1:1 laptops in grades 7 through 12, and 1,500 Linux laptops in its elementary schools, Penn Manor supports the largest open source learning program in Pennsylvania.

Free and open source software has saved Penn Manor more than $500,000 in technology acquisition costs over the past two years. However, our program is about much more than technology cost savings–we empower students with root access on the school issued laptops, and encourage exploration, experimentation, and tinkering. Read about our guiding principles.

Key to the program’s success is a unique student technology apprenticeship program, an honors-level, independent study course where student technologists work alongside the district IT Team on repairs, software setup and instructional tutorials. The Penn Manor Student Technology Team has been nationally recognized, and was recently featured in the Red Hat Films documentary, The Power of Open in Education.