September 18, 2020

One in a Million

I suppose that school IT departments are a necessary evil, but that does not change the fact that 999 out of 1,000 of them are just evil.

Too many school leaders are so terrified of anything that plugs in that they surrender unprecedented budgetary authority and power to folks unworthy of such responsibility. Rather than provide support for the professional educators and children one would think they are there to serve, far too many school IT personnel add unnecessary complication and obstacles to the mission of a school. In way too many schools, teachers report to IT staff who put in place cumbersome policies that conflict with educational priorities and make computers too unreliable to have a significant impact on teaching or learning.

In 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools. Over the next several years, I helped countless schools “go 1:1.” Until around 1995-96, most schools with 1,000 laptops employed one nice lady you went to when your computer broke. She patted you on the head, wiped your tears and called the vendor to repair the machine. In the mid-90s, everything changed. The World Wide Web decentralized computing by tying computers back together via networks, schools spent a king’s ransom worrying about nonsense like backing up kids’ data, securing the 7th grade computer lab against the Soviets, and installing draconian filtering systems that with each passing year made the Web less reliable or useful to students. Administrative ignorance of computers now had a new friend, paralyzing fear of what kids might find online. Now schools suddenly required an army of IT gatekeepers who if incompetent enough could convince their schools to hire all of their friends.

In the K-6 school where I work regularly, we managed approximately 60 laptops last year with no security, networked storage or IT personnel. I wrote the number of each laptop on its underside with a Sharpie and kids knew that if they wanted to continue working on yesterday’s file, they should go back to the same laptop they were using. Everything worked just swell. There were no maintenance issues and computers behaved as one would expect, not the figment of a computer kids have come to expect after the IT Department is done “fixing them.” Schools routinely buy a $1,000 computer and quickly turn it into a $200 “device.”  I know we constantly have to defend computers for students, but does anyone EVER question the ROI for school IT personnel?

The scenario I just described often leads me to wonder if schools really possess the maturity to have computers. We’re not preparing kids for the future if the computers they’re forced to use don’t function normally or if we confiscate a kid’s machine after they make it operational (see LAUSD iPad clown show). It’s no wonder we can’t have nice things.

Today, I saw the promised land.

I’m in Mumbai working at the American School of Bombay for a week. This is my third trip here since 2004 when I was hired by the school board to perform an audit of their computer use. This morning, I taught 60 tenth graders for three hours. We began by having all of the students spend an hour or so programming in Turtle Art and then set up three areas where kids could choose to work on MaKey MaKey projects, Arduino engineering, or wearable computing/soft-circuits.

Great stuff happened, not just because I’m a badass who can teach 60 kids I’ve never met before to program, build robots and make wearable computers, but because the school’s IT Department was there to help! Let me say that again real slowly… “The ———— IT ———- Department ——— Was —— There —— To —— Help!” Mull that over a few times.

When I arrived, the materials I requested were waiting for me. When kids hadn’t bothered to download and install the software last night, the team helped me get software onto individual laptops. When we needed Arduino manuals, the team downloaded and printed ten copies. When we were missing an item, it arrived minutes later without an interruption in the instructional program. When kids needed help, the team pitched-in and they did so with a smile on their face and pride in a job well done. They love what the kids are able to do with the materials they support. (I should also mention the terrific science and math teachers who demonstrated genuine interest and delight in the work of their students.)

The leader of the IT Team received a second-hand note from me saying that I needed some sort of bucket-shaped item for use in one of the MaKey MaKey projects I hoped to interest kids in. He went to KFC last evening and scored a half-dozen chicken buckets for our use – EXACTLY what I needed, but didn’t know where to source in India.

I see kids go to the Help Desk and (wait for it) receive help. Yup. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Every kid who has approached the Help Desk has left happy. Every time I go to the Apple Store “Genius” Bar, I want to take hostages.

The school IT Team here at ASB is fantastic, but there is obviously a culture in place that expects and supports such greatness. There must be great clarity in their customer service mission. I am honored to work with them.

PS: The network works perfectly and as a guest I have complete access to Facebook and Twitter – booyah!

* ASB is a BYOD school, but the device is a laptop of a minimum standard. This adds complexity to keeping every user up and running, but again, no problem at all.

9 thoughts on “One in a Million

  1. Agreed, ASB is a terrific school and the IT leadership and support are five-star, top shelf and world-class. I have worked at a few of those other 999 schools you mention where technology drove the educational policies, not the other way. At ASB, education drives the technology policies. It is a privilege to work here.
    I witnessed students today who were engaged and risk-taking with new approaches to using computers. Thanks for sharing your expertise with us!

  2. Our school system:

    1. Blocked us from using any other browser other than Internet Explorer. We came to school one day, and when we tried to use chrome or firefox we got a message saying they were being blocked by an administrative policy and would we like to delete them. People lost all their bookmarks.

    2. Is doing something that is preventing Scratch 2.0 from running: The same laptop that doesn’t work at school works at home without any changes.

  3. This is a great example of how computers should be and need to be supported in schools all over the world.

    Teacher devices in our district require an “administrative” password to install anything. Every teacher is fortunate enough to get a MacBook Air, iPad, and Apple TV to use but CANNOT install any software on their own on any of it. We are told NOT to update to iOS 7 or OS X Mavericks because the district tech department “isn’t ready” and they aren’t sure when they will be. Talk about turning almost $2000 worth of powerful equipment into tethered devices.

    Most recently, the article linked below shows why our district is NOT ready to disperse and manage a 1:1 iPad initiative this year. The initiative was planned to rollout this fall but has now been postponed until January. Somehow 47 iPads went “missing” and the theft was not reported to the police department until well after someone “discovered” they were missing. Couple this with was happened in LAUSD, and our administration is trembling at the thought of deploying “uncontrolled” devices in the hands of children.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/suburbs/oak_park_river_forest_forest_park/ct-tl-oak-park-ipads-stolen-20131113,0,4420626.story

  4. As someone who sells robots and gives away the associated software, I’ve seen and heard it all: Hard disks on “deep freeze”, networked data storage for no good reason, teachers unable to install basic things like browsers. I’ve also been a direct victim of IT incompetence myself a couple of times.

    At this point I’ve come up with roughly the following strategy:
    1. Here’s the standard installer that any home user can install. Hopefully you as a teacher can use this, or at least your IT department will do it for you on short notice.
    2. Here’s an executable in a zip file; maybe you have no install privileges, but you can sneakily run this.
    3. Maybe you can’t modify your drive, so consider putting the executable on a USB stick and save everything to that.
    4. Maybe you can’t run an exe, but somehow can run other files (like executable jars), so here’s the executable jar version.

    If steps 1-4 fail, then I try to call IT on behalf of the teacher and mention that since the district has already spent the money acquiring robots from me, maybe they should help protect that investment.

    I’ve had steps 1-4 fail at a weekly workshop I was running personally. It took IT three months to act (we used borrowed laptops for those three months). All they had to do was install one program. I actually found that I was able to boot Linux off a USB stick plugged into their ordinarily nearly non-functional computers, and was considering just using that option when IT finally showed up.

    In my opinion, the USB stick idea is not insane – maybe we should just make a simple image pre-loaded with everything an educator might want: Scratch, decent browsers, Arduino environment, etc. 16 GB flash drives probably cost $5 in bulk…:-)

  5. It’s a shame that this article is about you, Gary, and how amazing you have been since introducing laptops to schools in the 90s. I have read many of your articles, and am pretty sure you have mentioned that in every single one of them.

    I also recall you writing an article about BYOD being stupid policy, yet here you are extolling its virtues!

    I am dumbfounded that, for someone so passionate and informed about education, you would write the drivel that you did in the first few paragraphs. It is one of the most self-serving and arrogant things of yours that I have read. I am bewildered by your continual generalisations and insults towards schools and professionals, but hey – they get you readers and attention, which is what your continual use of hyperbole seems to be after, rather than seeking to be positive about education.

    But then again, if one school principal or IT administrator reads this and changes their ways to a more functional and “learning friendly” system, then I guess it was worth it.

    And hey – you got me to read it!

  6. Tim,

    Your hacks around unreasonable and thoughtless policies are truly inspired.

    As for Deon, I will try to resist resorting to personal attacks. I would however like to clear up some misconceptions and raise a few questions.

    As for the accusation of hypocrisy regarding the pleasure I shared with having worked with true IT support professionals and BYOD, allow me to repeat. BYOD is TERRIBLE and unjust policy that limits the quality of experience kids can have with computers and increases teacher anxiety. When I make a statement like that, I am largely talking about public schools with scarce resources and the ridiculous equivalencies made between any “device” that happens to have a battery.

    That has zero to do with a well-resourced wealthy school where kids are required to purchase a laptop computer meeting minimum specifications (typically above those required by most adults). BYOD as an urgent policy is frankly a way to shift the cost of Common Core testing to children. If all you use a “device” for is looking up answers to a teacher’s question, preparing a report on a topic you don’t care about for a non-existent audience, or to take a damned test, then a Nokia phone you find in the street might do the job quite nicely.

    Aside from why people read what I write if they don’t like me, I wonder why some folks get so defensive of entire classes of workers they do not know? If you work in a school with an IT staff as awesome as the one I described or are a school IT employee who does a terrific job, then Mazel Tov. I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT YOU!

    The reason for biographical information is because some people may be reading me for the first time. The fact that I have worked in hundreds of schools gives me something I suspect you lack, perspective. I get to see patterns and make policy recommendations based on those patterns. I’ve also been blessed by having worked with some of the leading educational thinkers of our era and their collegiality has helped me shape views that often run counter to conventional wisdom.

    In MY EXPERIENCE, school IT is often the tail wagging the dog. Policies and practices are put in place that impede learning and cost a fortune. This is the fault of school leadership more than the IT personnel they employ.

    Should I keep careful records on the ways in which computers, kids and teachers are unsupported in the dozens of schools I work in each year? Would you believe that data or would you still take offense at some imaginary slight? Have IT budgets not skyrocketed? Are teachers not frustrated? Are learning opportunities not aborted by overzealous often unaccountable IT practices?

    Should I not have told the world about a group of men and women who their tushies off to make teachers look like rock stars?

    Lastly, I have written several hundred articles about education, a 450-page Ph.D. dissertation about changing the educational reality for kids society abandoned, and a book or two. Very little of what I have written is on the subject you seem to be so worked-up about. Perhaps you should tone down the hyperbole.

    Best,

    Gary

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