Sustaining the Unsustainable

This is was cross posted on the Classlink blog.

I recently completed a tech audit/assessment for a small district that pulled back the covers on the challenges many K-12 school districts face as they address the educational technology needs of their schools.

The school has three buildings, 1,200 students, and 500 plus networked computers.

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When I interviewed teams of educators from each building, I encountered a great deal of frustration with the reliability of the infrastructure and the poor level of technical support. It was no surprise given that there was only one, overworked, overwhelmed person in charge of the entire ed tech program.

National statistics like these are one thing:

75% of school leaders say they don’t have enough staff to meet their needs.
55% say they can’t maintain their network adequately.
64% say their IT budget isn’t enough to support the technology they already have.
70% say the IT budget isn’t enough to meet their district’s expectations.
63% said they can’t plan for new technologies.
76% have trouble implementing new technologies.

But seeing the reality up close and personal is quite another.

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Here were some of the audit’s findings:

The lone technology person divided their time among the following tasks:

  • Troubleshooting and resolving network problems reported by teachers and administrators.
  • Installing new computers and new software.
  • Implementing special projects like putting wireless in the elementary school.
  • Monitoring and updating the district’s firewall, spam filter, and content filter.
  • Monitoring, supporting and patching the district’s file servers and switches.
  • Monitoring and administering the district’s e-mail system.
  • Implementing daily backups of the district’s data.
  • Researching and pricing hardware and software requests to insure they are compatible with the infrastructure.
  • Implementing general network administration, such as adding new users, removing users who leave the district, recreating passwords, administering user rights and privileges, rolling over students from year to year.
  • Applying for, and complying with, E-rate and other state and federal programs and grants.

Is it any wonder that computers sat uninstalled for months, that requests for technical support often fell into a “black hole”, and that the network was unreliable?

When the tech person focused on installs… the daily network calls went unanswered.

When they focused on the daily network calls.. the installs stopped.

When something really important like E-Mail stopped working… both installs and network calls were ignored because the ‘emergency’ took precedence.

But the problems went deeper. Backups were done only once per week AND when the tech person (10 month employee) was on vacation, sick, or away for any reason…No Backups were being done! Tapes were never stored off-site.

Software installs and updates were rarely done because doing them meant visiting 500+ workstations. Patches on the firewall were not up to date, and this was just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, the list of problems went on and on.

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The district and the tech coordinator were trying to sustain the unsustainable.

To one degree or another, most districts in the U.S. face similar challenges. As I see it we have three options:

  1. Live with the problem (frustrated teachers, district data at risk, low productivity, and high levels of stress and overwhelm for tech staff)
  2. Throw money and resources at the problem (add more tech staff at a time of decreasing resources)
  3. Change the ed tech network paradigm (virtualize the servers and workstations, develop easy to use menus for the users, and provide 24×7 access to all appropriate network resources from home)

What does it mean to virtualize servers and workstations and how does this help solve the challenges of too many computers and too few tech support people?

What kind of menus are we talking about and how do they reduce the technical workload?

Doesn’t creating a network that is available 24×7 from anywhere with an Internet connection, create more, not less, work?

We’ll examine the answers to those questions next time.

pete

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11 thoughts on “Sustaining the Unsustainable

  1. You know, I often went to my students to fix technology problem I couldn’t. If a district is that short-handed and overwhelmed, why not create a training program for students to answer calls, do troubleshooting, and/or installing. We’re not using resources we have at our fingertips.

  2. Angie,
    Yes. It’s a good strategy and one of the recommendations made in the audit. GenYes and TechYes are well structured and proven programs for this type of thing.

    I do believe that as helpful as this is, it is still tinkering around the edges. We need a totally new approach to network design. The “Best Practices” we have adopted over the last 10 years will be difficult to sustain going forward.

    In fact, when (not if) we eventually go to 1 to 1 computing, we absolutely need a new approach. Imagine the district in this post managing 1,500 hard drives and physical devices. Even with kids helping it would be a ‘bear’.

    pete

  3. Hi Pete,
    I think the large districts have been “forced” into changing their thinking already. The District I’m currently working with has over 15,000 devices spread across almost 150 sites (that’s big by Canadian standards, perhaps more medium by US standards?) – you just can’t support that infrastructure effectively without automating software distribution, centralizing as many services as possible (i.e. anti-virus, etc…), virtualizing servers, creating standardized base images, etc…

    The catch for smaller districts is that the expertise, hardware and software required to create this kind of infrastructure is cost prohibitive on a smaller scale. So I think small districts have a couple of options:
    1) partner with other small districts to pool the back-end, support resources; or
    2) get creative!

    Not sure if you’re familiar with Lemon Grove School District? They’ve launched a customized tablet computer to all of their middle schoolers – it’s called the e-Pad. See it here:
    http://lemongroveschools1.net/13411012137296360/site/default.asp

    It has no hard drive, so the support on the device is limited to replacement, if something goes wrong (no local data, no local programs). They District has included internet access for all homes as well – I believe it might be through a customized channel wireless. The devices can connect to the District’s network from school or home – so that every child, regardless of family income, can have access to the technology. They haven’t had issues with theft – since the e-Pads will only work on the District network, they have little value to anyone else.

    The tablets basically run terminal server sessions to get all of their apps and access to data. I think they are provided with text books on memory cards as well – so all they’re carrying to & from school is their e-Pad.

    There’s a news clip here: mms://209.242.130.169/epad.wmv

    So, here’s a District that got really creative, designed their own hardware, customized wireless access and even provided access from home.

    The user device is virtually maintenance free, so no support time goes into updating software, troubleshooting software problems, etc…

    All of the programs, the user accounts, the data – it’s all running in one central server room that can be maintained by a limited technical support staff.

    And, instead of putting time & resources into more technical support, they’ve been putting it into teacher pro-d – so that the devices are being used effectively and true integration is the first priority!

    I think it’s something to look at!
    Heidi

  4. Heidi,
    Yes…to your entire comment. That is exactly the new network infrastructure paradigm that I am convinced needs to be examined and adopted by k-12 schools.

    Lemon Grove is a good example of what is possible in this new scenario. More reliability, more access (low cost machines), more mobility (from home, etc), and better tech support, at a much lower cost.

    Your comment pretty much outlines what I want to explore in my next post.

    thanks,
    pete

  5. Hello Pete,

    Sorry this post if off topic, but I couldn’t find any contact info for you on the site. I wanted to suggest an article for you: Engrade.com – it’s a free, safe online social network for teachers and students with lots of great teacher tools. Take a look.

  6. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  7. You are great …
    I have developed a big project last 20+ years, too.
    I really want to have a chance to talk to you.
    Please leave your phone number on my e-Mail,
    so I can call you back.

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