Sandra Paul doesn’t typically don a safety helmet and work boots to perform her job as director of information technology and operations for a 7,200-student school district in New Jersey.
And yet, there she was during the 2016-2017 school year, at a construction site helping to install new boilers at a Township of Union Public Schools high school.
The reason for Paul’s involvement: these new internet-connected boilers would allow staff control from anywhere in the building and even out of the district. The boilers would heat the building more efficiently, conserving electricity.
“If you would’ve told me 20 years ago I’d be doing that, I would have said, ‘No way, Jose,’” says Paul, 56.
Paul has been a school IT director since 1998. Since then, her job, much like the jobs of other school technology leaders, has gotten increasingly complicated as more objects related to facility management connect to the school’s network as part of the “the internet of things,” where appliances and other non-computing devices require an internet connection to transmit data and other information.
While cellphones, laptops and other personal devices are a source of strain for school IT directors, the increasing prevalence and affordability of network-connected facility technology—including systems for air flow, door locks and student monitoring—has these directors thinking more about what’s ahead.
The affordability of network-connections for everyday objects was explained in a 2015 Deloitte study. Some sensors that produce electronic signals from internet-connected devices, for example, have seen dramatic price drops, falling from $2 in 2006 to 40 cents the year the study published.
In education, the internet of things is big business. According to one industry report, investments today in the internet of things for education could generate a $175 billion net value over 10 years. But the field has already seen big wins. One example cited in the report: $128,000 in yearly savings for the New Richmond Exempted Village School District in Ohio, thanks to a web-based system that controls all mechanical equipment in the district’s buildings.
Part of the growth in internet-connected technologies in schools will come from the growing popularity of career technical education programs, says Amy McLaughlin, director of information services at Oregon State University Student Health Services and project director for the cybersecurity initiative at the Consortium for School Networking.
She’s seen some career technical programs incorporate into their lessons internet-connected sensors that detect weather outside the building and agriculture classes that use internet-connected devices to detect moisture.
Student monitoring equipment can also provide a heavy strain on networks—in the case of security cameras—and more devices will emerge to follow trends of the day. McLaughlin says she’s seen a trend of schools installing network-connected sensors to warn of students vaping in bathrooms.
The more devices on a network, the more security points IT teams must monitor in a school—though enterprise-level devices are usually more secure than personal ones like cellphones and laptops, McLaughlin says.
She also had advice for vendors looking to add IoT devices to the schools they work with: be mindful of IT directors’ time and give them months of advanced warning before available training sessions.
For Paul, the trend of internet-connected devices happened gradually, with security cameras and telephone systems being early adopters. Overall, she says the internet of things is beneficial to schools that want to save money on overhead and a boon for creating new technology jobs. The next item she plans to test in the buildings is network-connected door locks.
Paul tries to stay updated on what other systems are connecting to networks, like lighting and refrigeration systems, so that she and her team of five people aren’t caught off guard. She also makes sure she’s at capital planning meetings to ask the hard questions of who will have access to new devices that connect to the network.
“I was trained to work with networking equipment—anything that has a computer in it. Now everything has a computer in it,” she says. “It makes it exciting, all the new technology. But it doesn’t make it easier.”