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Nascent vision of technology VI: planning IT as a park service that embraces change

February 26, 2011

In my earlier post about contrasting the park service and fire department model of IT, a frequent comment was that you need both. In this article, I want to stretch that metaphor a bit further (perhaps even past the breaking point) and try to work out what I think is a vision for the idea IT department.

Why are there so few fire stations in the national parks? It’s not that they don’t have fires in national parks, nor is it that there’s nothing valuable to protect, as many of our national parks are truly priceless. Furthermore, forest fires, when they get out of control, often threaten homes and lives. But fires are far less frequent in national parks, and most often, they are caused by acts of god or negligence on the part of visitors. Hence, the park service has a tremendous campaign to educate its users on the dangers of forest fires. Overall, the park service seems to have settled on the idea that it isn’t cost effective to maintain a full scale fire department in the park, and instead focuses on education about fire prevention, and calls in reinforcements in those rare (but increasingly frequent) moments where fires occur and spread out of control.

I’m not going to try to push this already strained metaphor much further (I’m sure that many national parks do have fire departments), but I got to thinking about this after reading this article on the 37 Signals Blog, The End of the IT department. If you’re not familiar with 37 signals, they are wonderful small software development company that produce the incredible basecamp software used by millions to manage projects large and small. Their blog is one of the leading blogs in the startup/high technology world. In short, they are technology gods who know of what they speak, and they are deeply committed to making incredible useful software that is easy to use.

I encourage you to read the whole article, but the basic thesis is that technology is becoming easier to use, especially with the possibility of putting so many services in the cloud, and big IT departments are becoming less and less relevant.

Here are some key quotes:

The problem with IT departments seems to be that they’re set up as a forced internal vendor. From the start, they have a monopoly on the “computer problem” – such monopolies have a tendency to produce the customer service you’d expect from the US Postal Service. The IT department has all the power, they’re not going anywhere (at least not in the short term), and their customers are seen as mindless peons. There’s no feedback loop for improvement.

You no longer need a tech person at the office to man “the server room.” Responsibility for keeping the servers running has shifted away from the centralized IT department. Today you can get just about all the services that previously required local expertise from a web site somewhere.

The transition won’t happen over night, but it’s long since begun. The companies who feel they can do without an official IT department are growing in number and size. It’s entirely possible to run a 20-man office without ever even considering the need for a computer called “server” somewhere.

The offices of a small tech startup are a far cry from your average school, but the point remains the same. Technology is getting easier to use, users are becoming more savvy and capable, infrastructure is becoming easier to maintain, and servers are moving to the cloud. So when a faculty member can envision tuning email over to gmail and using dropbox for shared storage, and getting more benefit than the current IT offerings, it’s time to start thinking about how IT can stay relevant.

My advice is that school IT departments should embrace this trend, do everything they can to make their infrastructure easier to maintain, give more choice to their users, and focus on becoming a customer service focused organization. Every member of the IT department, down to even the network admin who used to never leave the server closet must become deeply familiar with the mission of schools—education, by deeply investing in getting to know what goes on inside the classroom, and trying to align every IT action to improve the experience of the customer: students and teachers.

I’ve been asked to lay out my dream initiatives for technology, without regard to feasibility or cost. So here are a few concrete steps for what I think an IT department could do. Many of these ideas were inspired in part by the excellent post on Successful Tech Integration, at What Ed Said.

  • Make sure that every faculty member has 1 hour of 1-1 training at least once a year. When I used to work in technology, one of the very best things we did was schedule 1 hour “spring cleaning” appointments with each faculty member. This was an open ended conversation where we could see how the faculty member used technology, and what his/her questions and concerns were. We could see that this faculty member struggled to keep his files organized, while this other faculty member was pushing the very limits of her computer and needed us to upgrade the RAM. In these sessions, where we’d help faculty with everything from strategies for dealing with the email onslaught to how to quickly edit video, we earned tremendous reserves of good will that really helped faculty to trust when the network would go down, or we would need to make inconvenient changes to infrastructure.
  • Every member of the IT department should spend 1 hour each month in a classroom, simply observing. I know it seems strange to think that any good will come from having a network administrator sitting through 4th grade lesson on fractions, or a high school bio class, but I think this would be a powerful initiative from the IT department to connect with its users, and understand the unique needs of teachers and students. They might get to see first hand how the teacher struggles to get the laptops up and running from the laptop cart, and be able to offer ideas for how to streamline this process.
  • Embrace choice and freedom. As a debate coach, I have the occasion to spend much of my weekends at schools throughout my state. I can’t tell you how many schools choose to continue to block youtube, gmail and twitter. It turns out that youtube is probably the best source of easy to use, ready made nuggets of classroom goodness you’ll find, gmail blows the doors off of any email client I’ve seen in schools, and twitter is a professional development tool more powerful than any all day moodle workshop IT can offer. In the era of ubiquitous 3g wireless coverage (soon to be 4g), how does this make sense? How are you protecting students from the dangers of youtube when they all have smartphones that can access it anyway? All this does is create major inconvenience for your teachers and cause them to think you’re still stuck in 1990’s thinking where schools thought an predator lurked around every corner on the web, and no educational good could come from the internet. This hurts the credibility of the IT department.
  • Adopt a department policy of full disclousure and openness. I’d like to see IT departments produce privacy policies and descriptions of their practices that are as clear as the best privacy and security policies you find in the corporate word. Who can read student and faculty email, and under what conditions and procedures will they do so? How are users tracked on the network? How does the school filter and track user’s web surfing habits? What sites and services does the school block? Does the school curtail the bandwith available certain users or services bath? How secure is our wireless access? Also, why not give users a clear understanding of just how all the infrastructure at the school works together—how much bandwidth does he school have? How is internet traffic routed/shaped and prioritized? How much storage do users have? How often and where is this backed up? How are the school owned computers managed/imaged/newtworked? What is the reprlacement cycle? By putting all of this information out there in an easy to read FAQ or webpage, you invite conversation and room for improvement.
  • Just in time training. Devices around your school should literally explain to you how to use them. The fancy multifunction copier would be so much more powerful with a sign over it explaining in a few steps how to use it to scan documents to email. Every printer should have a clear and easy to understand name (HP 2300, or R123), along with instructions on how to set it up on your computer. Almost all faculty problems with smartboards and projectors could be solved by putting up a small “smartboard/projector troubleshooting” sign with steps and pictures right next to the smartboard or projector controls. Working with vendors like blackboard and blakcbaud to improve online help. You could put a short set of instructions on every laptop explaining what to do and try when you can’t connect to the internet. When comment time comes around, it would be great not just to send out an email with step by step instructions, but also link faculty to a screencast showing how to do this, and perhaps even wrap the generic blackbaud interface inside a custom school created frame, which would then allow the school to give specific, relevant to entering in grades and comments. New innovations like QR codes, make it possible to put up a small 2-d barcode next to the fancy AV setup in the theater that would link to a video explaining exactly how to use it.
  • Knowledge base and help request tracking Some problems, like not being able to connect to a networked printer are as common and predictable as the next security update of Windows. Rather than responding to each of these requests over and over, and one-on-one, why not set up (and use) a sophisticated help desk request system, that allows users to submit help requests via email or a web form (less preferable), and starts a tracking process on the request. Once the problem is solved, make sure it prompts the tech support person to enter the solution into the knowledge base, so that the next time the problem comes up for another user, that user might be able to find the solution him/herself from searching the school IT website (you do have a website for IT, right?). You could even make this a teaching opportunity—the tracking software could prompt and explain to the user how to clearly define the problem, how to submit screenshots that will be helpful in troubleshooting, and then do a search of the knowledgebase as the question is submitted to give possible solutions before the request is even processed by IT. Once a request is submitted, give your users regular status updates, and the opportunity to track the request online (just like FedEx), then once the request is completed, follow up with a detailed customer satisfaction survey, requesting detailed feedback, further questions the user might have, and suggestions for improvement.
  • Commitment to customer service. Apple’s genius bar is the model of support here. I love these guys. I’ve brought in beat up broken down power supplies, and they almost always replace them with no questions. Whenever I come in for consultation, they take the time to really hear what my problem is, make sure I’m satisfied, and often teach me one or two tips about using my iphone/ipod or computer I didn’t know before. If you read online about some of the horror stories geniuses have to endure, you know this is no mean feat, and it requires a ton of training to be achieve this level of both technological competence and and customer responsiveness, particularly when you are dealing with everything from users who have no understanding of what a window is, to pro users who are doing software development. I’m sure Apple has detailed procedures on how they train, support and evaluate their genius bar and its efficiency, and school should strive to copy and improve upon this model as much as possible. Heck, many schools should be able to hire these people away from Apple with the promise of better salary, more regular hours, and long-term, deeper relationships with customers.
  • Empower faculty with pro tools. I’ve written about this before, but I don’t understand why faculty toil away on slow underpowered laptops with 12 inch screens, when much of what they need to do is time critical (I need this presentation to open now, since there are 20 kids in my room about to go crazy) and greatly improved by having access to better tools (imagine how much easier it would be to compose a lesson if you could have a web browser and word document open side by side). All the friction that is created by working with a small screen, an underpowered machine, or an outdated operating system has a cost, and my guess is that this cost is far greater than the cost of a brand new 27 inch monitor, or a state of the art laptop. Plus, if IT invests in its customers by giving them these pro tools, they will greatly increase faculty good will, probably find fewer problems, and faculty will see that the school really is trying to empower them with the tools they need to do great things.
  • Technology grants. I’ve heard faculty describe a number of great ideas for things they’d like to try in the classroom, only to hear them conclude their comments by, I could never do this because I don’t have a X. What if a school created a well advertised ongoing technology grant program, where faculty were encouraged to apply for technology grants to purchase that X that might make their lesson idea a reality? The IT department could set up a thoughtful application process that encourages the faculty member to reflect on how the idea will improve learning, and then expect that after the faculty member tries it out, he/she would report back to the IT, and possibly the whole faculty on how the lesson worked as well as plans for the future.
  • Custom in-house software. It’s a fact of life that commercial software can never meet all the needs of a school. Ask any person at a school about what student information system they use, and they’ll tell you endless stories about all the workarounds it takes to get blackbaud/powerschool/senior systems to do all the things the school needs it to do. There are probably also hundreds of other tasks that are thought to be so complex that teachers, administrators and most often, the support staff have to cobble together their own solutions based most often on a significant amount of manual drudgery. Here is one great example. My school has a wilderness program that every 9th grade student participates in. Each student is asked to rank his or her first 3 preferences for trips and submit them on paper to the leader of the program. This faculty member then has to take all 200 of these preferences and enter them into an excel spreadsheet, and then go painstakingly go through them to match students to their top choices. This job usually takes the better part of a day.

    What if there were some in-house programmer who actively sought out hellish jobs like this, and transformed them into custom written pieces of software that perfectly fit the need? At many schools, there is—it’s called the computer science class. Why not challenge these students with a real world project where they get to work with a live customer to define a project and develop a solution? This is project based learning at its finest.

    It would be great to back up more complex/sensitive tasks with someone in IT who does have some expertise in software/web development to make solutions like this. This is certainly no easy task, but at a former school where the IT director took on this job and learned cold fusion development himself, he was able to transform Blackbaud’s horrible interface into a faculty portal that was beloved for how easily it did all the unique tasks we needed as a school, like displaying students disciplinary marks, recording athletic and activity comments, and even allowing you to select a group of people and find a common free period. It also became a great way for him to get more input from the faculty about features they’d like to see added to the portal, since somehow it seems easier to offer solutions for improvement about a clearly unfinished portal to the tech director than it does the the behemoth of Microsoft about the latest version of Word.

These are a few of the ideas I’ve got at them moment. Of course, my school, and likely every other school is constrained by real considerations of manpower and cost that make much of this impossible, but many of the suggestions above will only become cheaper as the the cost of technology decreases, and IT devices and infrastructure become easier to manage, freeing up time for members of the IT department to take on these tasks.

I would welcome critiques of the above ideas, or suggestions for even more things an IT department could do to help realize the “park service” vision.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2011 2:25 pm

    “Heck, many schools should be able to hire these people away from Apple with the promise of better salary, more regular hours, and long-term, deeper relationships with customers. “

    What fantasy school are you working at that can pay more than Apple does? Around here schools are lucky to get one half-competent IT person per 1000 students.

    • February 26, 2011 2:48 pm

      Apple store geniuses make between $14-$25/hour (29K-52K)/year, with an average of around $17/hr (35K), which is inline with what technology support mid level staff can make at many schools. I’m not sure schools can pay more, but the benefit of having regular hours and not having to deal with a parade of random and angry customers might help.

      These posts detail my thinking as I’m trying to help my school (a well-endowed private school) develop a long term technology plan, and we’ve been told to “dream big” without regard to cost. I completely recognize and sympathize with the problems faced in public schools where IT ratios are closer to what you say, but even here, I think the promise of technology becoming easier to use, servers moving to the cloud, and users becoming more knowledgeable makes it possible for every school to think how this will greatly reduce the cost of IT infrastructure and maintenance, which might allow these savings to be used to improve customer service.

  2. February 28, 2011 7:48 pm

    As an education student currently learning about technology in the classroom, I can see your reasoning behind your “dream initiatives.” The public schools where I live do not have an IT person on staff. If there is a problem with technology, they get to you when they can. With more budget cuts looming, I expect the problems to get worse. You admit you are from a “well-endowed private school.” Perhaps this helps you get some of your dream initiatives realized. Just imagine the learning that could happen if schools were properly funded and these dreams became a reality.

    • February 28, 2011 7:58 pm

      Michael, as a student who grew up going to public school, I definitely know what this is like, and sympathize. But I do think the curve of technology getting easier to use/manage, cheaper, and more powerful offers hope, but only if IT moves to begin to embrace these trends (thinking like a park service, rather than a fire departmet), regardless of its budget. For example—why not create student IT club, where students could provide teachers technology training and help?

      • February 28, 2011 9:56 pm

        The private school my son went to for 7th and 8th grade did have much of the IT work done by students (mostly juniors and seniors). Not the things that required root access or involved access to confidential materials, but setting up projectors, maintaining the calendar and web site. There was one tech staff person who was also a teacher. The much larger public high school he goes to now has one IT staff person also, but won’t even accept volunteer work from the PTA on their outdated web site, much less allowing students to do anything useful.

        • February 28, 2011 10:04 pm

          yep. That’s the outdated IT thinking that 37 signals thinks is going the way of the Dodo, and I agree.

  3. February 28, 2011 10:59 pm

    I always thought it would be cool to have tech grants that could also be used for homegrown software for the classroom (applets, modules, grading software, etc) written by students and/or a talented IT guru.

    • February 28, 2011 11:03 pm

      Absolutely. One of the most challenging and most fun projects I ever did when I taught computer science was to write a piece of software to randomly assign students to tables for lunch at out dining hall. There were all sorts of constraints (tables needed to be balanced by gender and grade, and some faculty wanted to assign a particular student or two to their tables), but it was awesome for both me and my students to work closely with a member of our staff to end this incredibly laborious task.

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