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Nascant vision of technology post III: Do you view IT as a fire department or park service?

February 7, 2011

What’s your model of IT? The fire department or the park service? What I’m about to say is probably going to be a gross simplification of both the fire department, the Park Service, and IT, but I’m trying to think these ideas out, and would welcome some feedback to improve this metaphor.

Let’s start with your local fire department. One thing you’ve got to admit, they’ve got a pretty clear mission statement:

The mission of the Hamden Department of Fire and Emergency Services is to protect lives and property from the adverse effects of fire, medical emergencies and exposure to dangerous conditions created either by nature or man. We will respond to emergencies in a professional and courteous manner and strive to reduce the rate of emergencies through public education and code enforcement. Ethical values will remain the core of every decision made by each member of our Department.

The job of the fire department is to respond to emergencies, prevent fires and save lives. Firefighters shine in emergencies. When your house is on fire, or you’re in an accident, seeing the fire truck round the corner is a welcome relief. And when there isn’t a fire, the firefighter’s attention turns to preventing fires. There are lots of things out there that reduce the risk of fires—flame retardant bedding, sprinkler systems, and emergency lighting. Fire departments do thier best to advocate for these things, and in some cases, the most important or significant measures are written into law or a fire code that is enforced by a fire marshall. It’s why we have to remind our kids all the time not to leave their bookbags pilled up in front of the entrance to the chapel, or why there’s a sign reminding in the chapel reminding us of its maximum capacity. All of these things are necessary, but they are not transformative. These preventive steps, designed to keep firefighters from having to go into “emergency mode;” as good as they are, they will never prevent fires everywhere throughout the city, and they will never empower every resident to be a citizen firefighter. In addition, the job of fighting fires is so exhausting, and the need for quick response is so great, you’ll rarely see firefighters out in the community—they spend most of their time at the station, doing maintenance on equipment, and preparing for the day when the emergency call comes in.

Let’s call this vision of service protect and respond.

Let us contrast this with the National Park Service. They, too, have a pretty clear, but much broader, mission statement.

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.

Notice that this mission, at first glance sounds less serious—there’s nothing in here about protecting lives, it’s all about “enjoyment, education and inspiration of future citizens.” I do think Park Rangers are concerned with preventative measures that save lives—think of efforts to create fire brakes, many of the safety warnings you find along trails, and even the incredible efforts they undertake to rescue lost and stranded hikers. But their primary mission is one of education, and this education takes place in many forms. The Park Service is concerned with trying to help visitors make better use of the park itself. This is why you’ll find them out and about the park, interacting with visitors, offering suggestions for trails to take and discussing the history of the park. Park rangers are the ones who are out maintaining the trails, and they often undertake efforts to create new trails and facilities when they notice a need or trend in the use by visitors. One of the key things park rangers do is they educate their users to make better use of the park itself. Rarely, does a park ranger lead you on a hike to the top of a mountain, instead, he/she gives you advice, a map, and points you in the direction of a clearly blazed trail.

Let’s call this vision of service educate and empower.

While a fire department is an invaluable resource for a city or town, imagine what would happen if you turned Yellowstone over to the fire marshall? Flame retardant trees, banning of all matches and flammable materials, visitors not allowed to to cook food on a camp stove, fire hydrants installed every 500 feet along major trails, safety rails along every trail, and blocking off sections of the park deemed to remote to be able to respond to emergencies. This is surely a bit of a caricature, but the basic idea seems valid. Having visitors enjoy the park and find new uses for it would be pretty low on the fire marshall’s priority list. The main focus would be safety and quick response to emergencies, and this would have a dramatic effect on the overall look for the park, to say nothing of the enjoyment visitors would get from visiting.

I think this metaphor can be extended to talk about two different visions of IT. You can view IT as a fire department, whose job is to protect and respond, or you can view it as a park service, designed to educate and empower. Let me try to explore this by looking at some specific decisions an IT department could implement, and ask whether those decisions belie a fire department or a park services world view.

  • Network security: From colleagues at other schools, I’ve heard of some pretty extreme steps schools and school districts undertake to protect their network. Some schools completely lock down their networks so that only school owned machines can connect to the network, some even go as far as to ban usb thumb drives from all computers, ostensibly to block users from uploading malicious programs/viruses on to the network. This might be necessary at the Pentagon, given the recent wikileaks scandal, but thumb drives are incredibly important in schools when kids don’t have their own computers.
  • Content filtering. I know of one school, where a teacher must login to a read any teaching blogs, and he’s only allowed to read one blog per day. Counteless schools block youtube and gmail, despite the fact that you can find more educational content on youtube than you can in in all the textbooks in a typical school. Content filters are regarded as standard operating equipment at most schools, yet they represent a fire department approach to the internet—protect the students and faculty from inappropriate content. While it might sound crazy to let teenagers have unfiltered access to the internet, that’s just what most have on their smartphones, and surely as technology moves forward, opportunities to circumvent content filtering will become easier and more available. Don’t we want to work to educate students to be thoughtful consumers now?
  • Computer security. Many faculty I know at other schools can’t install any applications on their school computers. In one case, this prevented a teacher from being able to install dropbox, one of the most valuable programs I know for backing up, sharing documents between colleagues and moving students toward paperless classrooms. And the same is often true when schools start up 1-1 projects. Sure, the temptation is to lock down the machines so that kids or faculty can’t screw them up with a bunch of extra apps, but this is fire department thinking. Why not give the faculty and students freedom to explore and discover new applications and creative uses of their computers? After all, you can always re-image the machine if something really goes wrong.
  • Help desks. Help desks seem like an awesome invention. Just dial a phone number, and someone is there to respond to your problems, which often are things like “I can’t connect to the internet,” or “I can’t print.” Still, at some level the help desk seems like the exact model of a fire department—they are there to respond to emergencies. Do they train the users to avoid emergencies in the first place? Do your users know how to troubleshoot a printer that isn’t printing? And wouldn’t it seem that with all the technology we have in place, it’d be possible to get beyond the help desk model and have IT staff constantly deployed within the school, observing classes, offering suggestions for using technology, and because of cell phones and email, able to respond to any emergency that crops up?
  • Just in time help. One of the greatest things I find when hiking in a park is almost always, when I’m starting to feel lost, or wondering how far it is until the next trail, there’s a sign that tells me just that. I don’t think this happens by chance. I think it happens from Park Rangers putting themselves in the shoes of visitors, new to the park, and then trying to determine exactly where hikers will feel the need for a bit more guidance, and placing signage there. How do we bring this same level of “just in time”/”just what is needed help” to our schools? Here’s an example. My school has some amazing copiers. In addition to routine copying, they can serve as printers and scanners. As printers, their per page cost is probably half or less than the laser printer in each of our classrooms. Yet almost no faculty know how to print to a copier. The same is basically true for the scanner feature. Even though the copier can scan a stack of 50 pages in under a minute, many faculty are unaware that the copier can do this. Why? Because these features are buried behind menus in an unintuitive interface. But what if, right above the copier were a sign that said “did you know you can scan with this copier?”, and listed step by step directions on how to do so? What if there were a website within every school with a knowledge base filled with answers not just to questions like “how do I troubleshoot my printer” but step by step instructions (and maybe even a custom installer) to configure your computer to print to a copier. This is clearly park service thinking.
  • Professional development. In the fire department, most education is done by the fire marshall visiting your school and pointing out all the hazards on your campus. While this is necessary and helpful to save lives, it doesn’t really empower business owners be their own fire marshall and discover ways to prevent fire on their own. Often, this same approach taken by many technology professional development efforts. One expert, in the front of the room, describing how to use some new web 2.0 technology, while the faculty scramble to figure out how to use that technology in their class, and try follow along with the instructions. How much more powerful would it be to do something like Culver’s Techie Teacher Talks where teachers present how they use technology in their classes to other teachers in voluntary, hands-on workshops?

These are really just a few examples. Almost every decision in technology can be pinned along somewhere along the fire department/park service spectrum. Cell phones in the classroom? Fire department thinking says they’re a distraction and should be banned. Park Service thinking says that kids could be just as distracted by doodling on their notebooks (though doodling has been shown increase focus and recall). Why not let the kids learn to use the cell phones responsibly?

Overall, I think the fire department model describes far too many IT departments at schools. Of course, when you have a specific technology problem, knowing that someone will respond immediately to your troubles is a wonderful thing. And certainly, there are somethings that you should take every precaution to secure, like critical school data, and we should think about the ways kids might use technology inappropriately, and put some reasonable safeguards in place to prevent abuse. Too often, I think we start with this thinking, and forget the larger mission of actually trying to educate users about the positive use of technology, and how we might empower them to explore and discover new uses on their own. Let’s see technology as a Park Ranger views a national park: as an opportunity to educate and empower every user.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011 7:48 am

    Why not both? At my school (Hamline University – ~4000 students) we have struggled mightily to have both an information technology department and an academic computing department. The former reports to the CFO and the latter reports to the Chief Academic Officer (those two are the only full VP’s of the school). IT is still better funded while AC is really just getting going in the last few years but I have high hopes that we can explore new ideas while making sure the fires are put out.

    Our CFO likes to talk about how phones just work and so should the computing backbone. That’s what IT’s job is. AC’s job is to help faculty, staff, and students pursue our academic hopes/dreams/ideas using the technology available.

  2. February 7, 2011 12:02 pm

    Fascinating post and a powerful compare-and-contrast metaphor. I imagine we need both – a balance to educate for deeper, enhanced use, as all as to address emergencies that come up along the way for folks. Of course, I agree that we need more “park rangers” spreading the ideas, knowledge of trailheads, etc. Contextual examples of how to leverage technology to achieve critical learning goals is a great reason and purpose to call a faculty together for interest-driven PD.

    • February 7, 2011 6:53 pm

      @ Bo and Andy, I think you are right that you need both, but I think the park service needs to be the overarching philosophy. I think a IT department driven by a park service model will always be able to mobilize to respond to emergencies, but if you design IT around a fire department model, it’s very hard to graft a park service approach on top. At my previous school, we had one academic technology person who was responsible for working directly with 100+ faculty to implement technology (and teach classes and advise the yearbook), while we had 6 people in IT whose sole job was maintaining infrastructure and responding to emergencies. I don’t think it’s really possible for 1 faculty member to have even a single substantial one-on-one training session with every faculty member even in an entire school year. My bet is if we’d flipped that structure (6 academic tech people, 1 person responsible for infrastructure), we’d have far fewer emergencies, and see technology used much more widely in the classroom. I also think that it is very important that even the most removed people from the classroom spend time in a classroom in order to see how the needs of a school are different from a bank or business. And by being in the classroom, even if only for 1 hour a month, I think IT would realize dozens of ways it could enhance faculty use of technology and better achieve its mission.

      • February 8, 2011 7:13 am

        7 IT people for how big a school? My son’s high school has one IT person (who is also supposed to be the webmaster, but is not competent at that job). I believe that the district (with 3 high schools, 2 middle schools, 4 elementary schools, and assorted “small schools”) has a half-time web person.

        There is no way that you can run a “park service” when you don’t have enough staff to keep the fire engine running.

        • February 10, 2011 12:12 am

          We were a private school of 1500 students, approximately. Our staffing was certainly quite luxurious, but I think the basic decision of which model one will operate under can be made whether you are an IT staff of 1 or 100. Often, it takes more work and creates more headaches to lock everything down and keep users from being able to get into any trouble than it does give some freedoms. Of course, there are some clear non-negotiables that call for fire department thinking, and one must make sure infrastructure stays running, but the clear direction of technology progress makes many of these tasks easier with time, and is part of the reason why IT staffs are getting shrunk in school districts.


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