Take your IT guy out to lunch!

Head of Technology, Director of IT, IT Manager … many names for the same thing. When the beige computers began to appear in schools someone generally took control of them. Mostly this was a teacher, and more likely it was a computing teacher. Initially these boxes appeared in the library, after all they had CD-Roms, so held information – so logically this was where we held information. Eventually the beige boxes grew in number and found thier way into a computer ‘lab’.

A ‘lab’ infers some sort of science, and indeed, computer science was the lable we placed on ‘learning about computers’. They were technical things, and students needed to know how they worked. Given the history of ‘micro computing’ then teachers saw the beige boxes enter ‘labs’ or ‘libraries’ – but they were always a tool that required some ‘expert’ use. During the 90’s these boxes were hooked up to the ‘information super highway’ – usually a room full sharing some basic modem (squeek). For teachers, using the internet was a fairly painful experience. The 90’s saw teacher develop only a basic understanding of using technology in the classroom.

  • Publisher – yes! lets make a leaflet about some inquiry based lesson
  • Word – wow! now you can type up your essay or at least cut and paste
  • Power Point – a presentation, usually linear, paste in photos and text
  • CD-Roms – exploring information (multimedia) using a set of ‘schoolie’ CD-Roms
  • The internet – Netscape, Yahoo and Alta Vista – search and locate information

So for a decade, we added an ‘ICT” component to our syllabus’ and using one or more of the above activities meant we hade met the outcomes. But ICT means information ‘communication’ technology – and we missed that part – the communication element was never really explored in any depth. We took ‘communication’ to mean how computers communicate – baud rate, modems, full duplex, half duplex etc., – we focused entirely on how we turned analog information into digital ‘bits’. Even today, the Australian syllabus still talks about modems and how we transmit and receive ‘data’ purely from the technical point of view.

At some point, we decided that allow students to store work on a ‘server’, rather than the Floppy Disc. This meant that students became ‘connected’ to the system. We assumed this was a dangerous thing, largely due to the media hype talking about ‘hacking’ and of course the various movies in which kids gained access to nuclear weapon consoles.

So we decided it was best to have someone to police this risk, and at the same time look after all their beige boxes – enter the IT Manager. Historically, the IT Manager evolved in the commercial sector as the poor guy that every other department threw work at, largely to be able to claim that the reason that (x) has not been achieved is that IT hadn’t done (y). Every smart department manager knew how important it was to make massive demands of the IT department – it was like insurance against under performance. No one up the food chain really knew what IT did, so didn’t question why the department managers didn’t achieve some goal. IT Managers learned to protect their interest. They learned to narrow the angle and IT was largely conducted in a trench-war culture.

In schools the IT Manager locked as many software features down as possible. Standard operating procedure. Access to databases and servers was also restricted. This made the IT environment simpler to ‘manage’ – as long as kids had access to MS Office and some hard drive ‘share’, then teachers we’re happy. At least with a server – you didn’t have to issue and collect floppy discs. That practice is still not dead! Today the collection of work is on a Flash Drive. We haven’t moved on at all.

A lot of voice at NECC was given to blaming ‘access’. The IT Manager has been hearing this for decades. But giving you access, means you will later complain that you didn’t get enough access, or access that is fast enough for the purpose you intended. So there is not real ‘win’ for the IT Manager to break down decades of standard practice, learned out of the trenches.

As Dean Shareski said in a recent NECC reflection

We have no idea how small we are. My guess is about 300 of the 17,000 attendees have any sense of what powerful online communities are all about. That would represent about 2% of an edtech community. These would be the teachers that you’d like have the best shot at building a network. Reading some of the teacher reflections in the last NECC daily made me shudder somewhat. The focus on buying stuff, teaching tools is missing the boat big time. It’s easy to understand why an average teacher would have no idea of how and why. While it’s been written about lots, when you see it in this context it’s quite amazing.

So how many of the Edubloggercon people were IT Managers or IT Directors? – from that 300? I’ll put my hand up. I get the shift and have seen what can happen if the barriers are removed. But, and it is a big BUT. Unless the teachers – on the WHOLE network – understand what this access means, then it poses a threat to the world of the IT Manager – who is predomenenty focused on ‘up time’ and ‘security’ – and not learning outcomes. Many IT manager are not teachers in the first instance.

IT Managers are people. Just as a Web2.0 teacher gets frustrated by the ‘lack of access and opportunity’, at the same time, the teacher raised on MS Office and beige boxes is happy to know that the IT Manager is looking after everything for them, and has been doing so for at least a decade. Teachers all to often dismiss what IT Managers are doing – if you’re not on class, then it aint really working. IT these days is not about the beige boxes. Its about telephony, multiple databases, firewall security, AUPs, wireless control, course management software, IWBs, digital media and staff development.

Opening the firewall to read/write web is not hard. However getting teachers to appreciate that ‘the blocker’ is therefore removing site-security, and so places the ‘ownership’ of the risk with the teacher is difficult. I want it, but don’t ask us ‘all’ to take responsibility for it.

NECC illustrated how many teachers were doing amazing things in their classroom, and negotiating this with their district. I also talked to people who could not identify any ‘innovative IT managers’ in their district. The IT guy is not the problem folks. If you want more access, more funding etc., then you need to cite how ‘others’ are doing things – show them who is doing innovative things, get them to talk to these people and connect with thier IT manager to discuss the issues involved.

The IT Manager is resilient to people complaining. There is no benefit to allowing a more open network, if some teacher comes in and complains that a kids saw a bikini on YouTube today.

If you want a read/write classroom, then you have to INCLUDE the IT people as a valuble link in the learning process.

This to my mind creates IT people who are open to working towards change, as they can see through the conversations with the teacher – how the changes they can make – help the kids. Kids are the enemy remember – they break stuff!.

Show them what you are doing … you probably won’t get what you want on day one, but then if you’re the only teacher who is pushing for change … then it’s not that they don’t agree with you, it is that they need ammo to make the ‘push’ work. Enlist them in your advocacy as much as the teacher in the next room.

I think IT Managers need to spend more time in classrooms, more time at conferences such as NECC, more time getting connected via the web. They need to understand the ‘shift’. They have the technical skills, but probably lack the context to know why it is important.

What is not acceptable is for the IT Manager to dismiss Web2.0 classrooms as being ‘un-safe’. This can also be because they have stopped being ‘progressive’ and trying new things. Locking down everything is safe. These are harder to convince to get out the trenches.

What? you want to put a MacBook on the ‘wireless’?. Give kids a router? what for?. Add another ADSL line just to watch videos? Second Life? that requires ports opened … etc.

Just my thoughts, I see both sides of the ‘line’. But if you’ve got a IT Manager, stuck in the trenches, then you need to find some common ground. If you enlist an army of teachers to complain that you want more access, then to an IT Manager – it’s nothing new and unlikely to draw them out into the open – that is if they don’t mow you down with in hail of network policy enhancements just to teach you a lesson – cause they know it’s safer in the trench than running the cross fire of administrators, supers and parents.

Go on, take your IT Manager out to lunch, or better still, take them to NECC or some other Edubloggercon. We know you only want to talk to us when you a) want something b) want something fixed – so perhaps by making them an important part of your overall teaching and learning strategies – we might even return the call.