Case study: City of Offenbach

Interview partner: Norman Jahn, Head of Department IT

The IT equipment of schools is currently undergoing major changes. Triggered by the DigitalPact and reinforced by the Corona pandemic, new pedagogical concepts are being pursued that focus on homeschooling and digital media in the classroom.

This is where the lead IT department of the city of Offenbach, in cooperation with the neighbouring municipalities of Hanau and Main-Kinzig-Kreis, comes in and pursues an ambitious digitisation programme. As the first school authorities in the whole of Hesse, digital whiteboards were introduced at all schools in Offenbach and two neighbouring municipalities at the start of the 2021/22 school year, in addition to various tablets and laptops. The networking of the schools with WiFi is progressing well. For the central and uniform management of the devices, the cross-platform device management of the Stuttgart-based company Relution was introduced.

The solution, which focuses on compliance with strict data protection guidelines in addition to optimised functions for educational institutions, supports not only devices with iOS, iPadOS, macOS and tvOS, but also Android and Windows devices. The project report describes how and why the team led by Norman Jahn, head of the IT department for schools and DigitalPakt leader in Offenbach, was able to purchase digital boards before any other school authority in Hesse and how he successfully uses the mobile device management application Relution to manage currently 6,500 different devices.

High expectations: Digitisation at Offenbach’s schools

Mobile Device Management as a success factor (MDM)

When Norman Jahn, head of the IT department for the schools in Offenbach, also took over responsibility for the DigitalPakt Schule, he had no idea what a boost the Corona pandemic would give to digitalisation. Since 2019, every school in Offenbach has already had a mobile IT room with iPads. “We started with 300 devices and wanted to acquire more devices step by step, but then the Corona pandemic and homeschooling accelerated the process enormously,” he recalls.

In his function as DigitalPakt leader Offenbach, he takes part not only in state-wide but also in nationwide coordination meetings. In addition, the city of Offenbach participates in the state working group “Digital School Hessen”. With his current team of eight, he is pursuing the goal of digitising all local schools as quickly as possible. To achieve this, the challenge of a Europe-wide tender has already been taken up.

In the meantime, the city of Offenbach manages the end devices of pupils and teachers as well as digital boards on different platforms comfortably and smoothly with the German solution Relution.

DigitalPakt and the infrastructure for schools

In recent years, Jahn has experienced one thing over and over again: many teachers expect that after the implementation of the Digital Pact, “everything in the schools will be digital”. This expectation is understandable, but it cannot be realised in the near future without further ado. First of all, it is about the basic technical equipment in all schools - and the manageability of different devices and software.

“We started with a few pilot projects and included all types of schools from the beginning, so that everyone is on the same digitalisation level,” Jahn explains. His team and he have set up the WLAN infrastructure at the schools and ensured that the fibre optic infrastructure at every school has a bandwidth of at least 1 gigabyte per second to meet the expected significantly higher demand, incidentally also in the power grid. In August 2021, 20 percent of the schools in Offenbach were equipped accordingly, and the rest were in the planning stage.

In addition, the IT experts have equipped all educational classrooms with a digital board for presentation. For this purpose, the city of Offenbach has started an inter-municipal cooperation with the Main-Kinzig district and the city of Hanau and is the only municipality in Hesse to launch a Europe-wide tender for digital boards. In the Main-Kinzig district, 200 boards will already be hanging in the classrooms at the start of the 2021/22 school year, in Offenbach just under 160 boards. At the end of August 2021, the teachers will have put the first digital boards into operation. “In the run-up, we received the media concepts of the schools, which are the basis of the pedagogical-technical deployment concept of the Digital Pact” explains Jahn. “The schools wanted to purchase digital boards. The fact that the teachers have devices that are compatible with the boards and that we already know the devices of the pupils, who are provided with a device from the inventory, plays into our hands.”

“Found the right software at the right time” - multi-platform management with Relution

The boards use the Android operating system. Most of the devices for pupils are iPadOS tablets, two schools use Samsung devices, also with the Android operating system. In addition, there are many teachers’ laptops with Windows 10. The management of these devices and the gradual introduction of student terminals is the last stage in the Hesse digitalisation plan for the time being.

The world of devices is therefore colourful, and software for the management of the different platforms is indispensable. After a thorough selection process, the choice fell on the mobile device management solution Relution, which is used in Offenbach as a white-label solution under the name LD Mobile as part of LogoDIDACT.

During the research, Jahn and his team initially liked another solution because it covered the desired functions at first glance. However, it quickly fell through the cracks during further analysis because it only supported the iOS platform and could also not guarantee digital sovereignty by operating in its own infrastructure. In the course of the research, Jahn became aware of Relution through the MDM tender of EKOM21, the municipal IT service provider in Hesse: “We were just looking when we got hold of the EKOM21 service catalogue. We found Relution very appealing right away.” The functionality matched their own requirements for managing a wide range of devices in schools, multiple platforms are supported and the strict EU data protection guidelines are adhered to. The decision was made after the software was presented to the school board in mid-2020. At the same time, the service provider responsible for the school server with the educational software had presented the new version of LD Mobile as part of LogoDIDACT. “So we had found the right software in parallel and from different perspectives,” says Jahn. “LD Mobile is an elementary part of our server software for us - behind it is Relution with connectivity to LogoDIDACT.”

The first tests with the commissioning of 40 devices were especially convincing because Relution ensures the fast and smooth integration of the devices. Another important point: the comparison to other MDM systems shows that they are either exclusively designed for one operating system, are only offered as a cloud solution - often with hosting outside the EU - or do not have necessary functions for schools. “For us, this was a reason for exclusion,” Jahn sums up the decision. Because Relution not only supports the selected devices for digital teaching, but also offers on-site support in German. “With Relution, we can meet the high demands placed on our department. From our side, all devices should be managed, patched and kept up-to-date as much as possible. Relution is extremely helpful for exactly this, because it doesn’t work one-dimensionally at iOS level, but also supports Android and even Windows devices.” In addition to Windows 10, devices with the recently released Windows 11 version can also be managed. Relution has thus evolved into a Unified Endpoint Management (UEM) system. The special feature here is that, in contrast to classic MDM solutions for Windows, Relution does not rely on Group Policy Objects (GPO), but supports the latest standard from Microsoft.

Relution communicates with the MDM interfaces integrated in the Windows operating system on the device, the Configuration Service Provider (CSP). This enables Relution to manage Windows devices remotely via the internet, analogous to Apple and Android devices, without the devices needing direct access to the domain controller, which is usually only accessible in the intranet. Jahn sees this as a decisive advantage in the management of devices for teachers, for example, who should also be able to use their official devices at home in the private network and still benefit from central device management.

Another plus point of Relution is the link to the services of Apple School Manager (ASM) and, analogously, the integration of the Managed Google Play Store, through which apps can be procured centrally and then made available to teachers via the school app store in Relution for the preparation and implementation of lessons. Only pedagogically useful apps are included; there are no further costs for teachers and pupils. Access to the ASM or Managed Google Play Store can be controlled by selected teachers, or ideally IT administrators in the team around Mr Jahn.

In the current process, if new apps are to be sourced and deployed to students’ tablets, schools must contact the IT team to ensure that Relution is used to distribute the apps to the appropriate devices. Technically, Relution also supports a function with which teachers can request apps, but this has not yet been used in Offenbach.

Currently, the IT experts from Offenbach manage more than 6,500 devices with Relution: about 1,500 devices for teachers and almost 5,000 devices for pupils, which corresponds to about one third of all pupils.

The integration of the devices into Relution took place within a very short time. “As a user, I have found the interface to be very user-friendly. At the latest since Release 5 with the integration of Windows devices and the extended management functions for all Android devices, Relution has been the ultimate tool for device management for me. The software enables data protection-compliant management, can accommodate all existing IT devices across all platforms and is thus the famous ‘egg-laying willow’ for us. At the beginning, we would never have thought that it would work so well so quickly,” explains Jahn.

One of the benefits of Relution for students is that a device, regardless of the operating system, is always up-to-date and running. In addition, Relution ensures that all relevant apps are always available on the devices. Furthermore, the licensing of paid iOS apps is controlled centrally via the ASM. The City of Offenbach can thus distribute the licences conveniently to the respective devices with little manual effort. Another advantage with regard to the protection of sensitive data of pupils - Relution does not require the use of personal Apple and Google IDs on the end devices. In addition, relevant learning content can be accessed through the integration of local file shares. Relution thus facilitates the secure storage of work results and files on the central school server. Predefined web links or the provision of iBooks are further possibilities for the content design of a digital lesson. Teachers do not have to deal with all the technical possibilities of Relution, it is sufficient to select the apps and web links desired for the lesson via the intuitive Relution teacher console on the tablet or soon also on the Windows laptop. It does not matter whether the students are sitting in a classroom or homeschooling at home.

In this way, students can concentrate on the essentials in class and are not distracted by a multitude of apps they do not need. Overall, the user-friendliness of Relution is particularly important for teachers and the IT department: staff can easily familiarise themselves with the system without the need for programming or in-depth software knowledge.

Centralised management of the devices makes theft a non-issue. Apple, for example, offers a so-called “lost mode”, whereby the devices can be restricted in their use. Apple’s integrated search function also makes it easy to find lost devices.

Digital schools - closer to the goals

Teachers in Offenbach will have to be patient until they work at a fully digital school, despite all the progress made in recent months. With the digital boards, which have normal whiteboard wings on the sides so that they can also be written on by hand, the prerequisites for this have been created. However, all pupils still have to be equipped with mobile devices and some fine-tuning has to be done before the digitalisation of the school system can be completed.

Jahn’s IT team will soon be expanded to 28 staff members, also in order to be able to meet the special requirements of the teachers. For example, some teachers would like to be able to add additional apps to the school app store 15 minutes before the start of the lesson, so that they can then install them on the students’ mobile devices that they want to use for that lesson. To be able to coordinate more than twenty schools in this way, enough staff are needed in the IT team. Currently, Jahn and his team “manage” to provide the desired software within 24 hours. The next target is one hour before classes start. Special functions in Relution, such as the app request or the teacher console, help with this.

The ultimate role model, however, are the northern European countries, such as Denmark or Sweden. Here, all teaching materials are stored on servers to which the pupils and teachers have access. The children and young people do their homework at home on a digital device and store it on the school’s server. If necessary, the teacher accesses it with his or her mobile device and makes the homework visible to everyone on the board with a swipe gesture.

Such and other subtleties of digitalisation will still be a while coming in Germany. But Jahn has no doubt that with Relution he will also be able to manage all future devices and apps that are taken up securely and conveniently. “I look forward to the day when we can meet all expectations for teaching with digital media.”


Foto: gpointstudio/ iStock