Monday, September 10, 2007

This Is My Computer. There Are Many Like It, But This One Is MINE.

I think the necessary companion to Sherry's "The Start of the School Year" post, which reflects the one-step-forward-two-steps-back state of school IT in 2007, is this eSchool News story about tech support costs doubling over the last four years.

The suggested fixes in the article -- standardizing your platform, weeding out old hardware -- don't really ring true to me, because my impression is that on the whole, that's what schools have been doing over the four years support costs doubled. There wasn't a new Microsoft OS in that period. Some schools would have been making the transition to Mac OS X from Mac OS 9, and I'm sure some are still in the middle of that. And a few schools have added Linux on the desktop. But on the whole, 2002 - 2006 was not a period of proliferating platforms for schools.

My unscientific guess is that the reason tech support costs have doubled is because 1) schools have higher expectations for reliability because they've got more mission critical administrative functions running over their networks, and 2) because before they locked down all the systems, a lot of problems that would previously be fixed by teachers and students (or never fixed) are now 100% the IT staff's responsibility. Of course, there was a cost of all that teacher time, but it didn't show up in the tech support budget line.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that a lot of schools aren't being well served by their IT strategy. Standardizing around networks of Windows PC's is just not that cost efficient, especially given the amount of flexibility that ends up being sacrificed. If you're creating a locked-down monoculture, you should at least be getting more access in return. Sherry is not alone in feeling like she's getting the worst of both worlds right now.

When you think about scaling this system up for 1-to-1 initiatives, it seems completely unworkable. We really need a completely different paradigm. Think of a Marine battalion. How many rifle technicians does it take to clean and maintain every marine's rifle? OK, I don't really know, but I'm pretty sure the answer is ZERO, because every marine takes care of his own. We need a kid's version of The Rifleman's Creed and computers that are as field-strippable and user-maintainable as an M1 rifle to get out of this mess.


Sherry Crofut said...

Tom, Thanks for the mention of my post. I still worry that I should take it down. How long before word gets to my administration? Should I call my association lawyer? Even still, the response has been overwhelming.

I agree that locking down the system so that teacher's can't fix their own machines has made costs go up. In their defense though, I know our district was running a lot of illegal software, although I think it was done by teachers that really didn't know you couldn't by one copy of something and load it on 30 machines. I can certainly see that cleaning that up was probably worth the lockdown that we are having to endure. I just wish they would talk to us and include us in the decision making process. Frequently I feel like my knowledge has no value to the IT department.

John Pederson said...

Nice take on it.

Back in the day when I was rolling out laptops for teachers, I'd have them unbox them during their laptop orientation. (Of course, the machines came pre-imaged from HP.)

My first 20 minutes were about ownership and personalization.

Unknown said...

I am an IT Manager for a large school division in Canada. I am NOT a teacher... I am an IT Professional. My wife is a teacher and often grounds my thoughts and reminds me of the challenges our teachers face on a daily basis in today’s environment. I empathize with both you’re and Shelly’s situations, however, I can assure you that not all school divisions are in the same boat. What I found sad about your current school divisions is that there appears to be an “us vs. them” mentality that pits the teachers against the IT Department. The IT in our division is driven from the needs of many. We have an IT Committee which has representation from all stakeholders… teachers, consultants, IT professionals and yes, even students at times. We discuss initiatives, issues and make decisions on IT vision and direction. Certainly not everyone agrees with all the decisions but at least they have been part of the discussion and feel like a valuable, contributing member. It works very well for us. I also found it disturbing that student outcomes were not part of your discussions… I think it is important to remember who our clients really are. Our division has increased technology (PC’s, peripherals, software and services – both local and web-based) while at the same time reducing the costs associated with running a full-service IT Department so I’m a bit confused when I read that IT support costs have doubled between 2002 – 06. I should also mention that we have increased PC’s and other IT equipment while at the same time reducing the capital budget… it IS doable. I take issue with your statement “2) because before they locked down all the systems, a lot of problems that would previously be fixed by teachers and students (or never fixed) are now 100% the IT staff's responsibility.” is laughable! Fixed by teachers??? While some teachers are capable of solving some and in a few cases many of their IT related issues it is ludicrous to believe that the majority of teachers can solve computer problems. The statement borders on arrogance! Perhaps IT Department staff should start teaching some senior math and science classes… or perhaps the janitorial staff could teach some of the industrial arts classes… secretarial staff could teach office application classes. I have a huge amount of respect for our teachers and the job they do and when I hear a parent talk as if any one of them could teach (trust me, there are parents who believe teachers are glorified, over-paid baby sitters) kids I have no problem challenging them on their assumption! In the same breath, I find it is demeaning to have someone say that all or even the majority of teachers have the skill-sets, knowledge and ability to solve IT problems. Today’s reality is that ALL of us are being asked to do more with less… a trend I don’t see ending anytime soon. A teacher’s job is to teach and I think it would be a huge step backwards to ask them to now not only deliver an ever increasing curriculum, demands for accountability, etc., etc. but to also fix their computer problems.

My 2 cents.

Tom Hoffman said...


Obviously there is huge variation in the quality of school IT, both in terms of its collaboration with the rest of the staff and its overall efficiency.

I'm not claiming that all teachers are or should be capable of solving all kinds of IT issues. I don't expect the English teacher to set up Active Directory. But if there are a few teachers and students that can solve simple problems before tech support is called out, that's going to cut down on the visits made by the IT staff. Whether or not that is preferable, it at least has an impact on the budget.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely there is a HUGE discrepancy between the quantity and more importantly quality of IT Departments in school divisions… or any industry for that matter. The expectations of teachers and students are also varied among school divisions. I know that senior admin here would have huge issues if the expectation was that they were to resolve IT related issues. We hear time and again that school based staff are “tapped out” and I believe they are. Staffing levels also vary greatly between school divisions so perhaps your division has more spare “cycles” for teachers to do IT work. Hand-in-hand with IT work is also PD for training… another big cost item. We would be crucified if we had students doing IT work (or any work for that matter). The potential litigation if a student was injured or worse yet a death occurred as a direct or indirect result of a student working on a piece of IT equipment is a risk most divisions are unwilling to take. We have a huge number of tools in our arsenal that allows most IT issues to be resolved remotely so visits to remote sites is minimal (we have a HUGE division spanning thousands of square miles… travel is a huge issue here). Anyways, I appreciate the viewpoints and just wanted to give some insight into the education world from an IT professional standpoint :)