Keeping Tech Support In Step With Technology

Maintaining a thriving, leading-edge learning environment requires a reliable base of tech support. But building that base is no easy task.

FACED WITH THE CRITICAL task of making sure her computers are kept up and running, Christine Lorenz, Technology Support Focustechnology director of St. Matthew’s Parish School in Pacific Palisades, CA, was being stretched too thin. In addition to managing the technology program, training teachers in technology, and teaching classes, she was the one and only member of the tech support team. Trying to do it all herself just wasn’t working anymore, so Lorenz hired two part-time tech support staffers to focus on network administration and hardware support for the 200-plus computers and various systems on the school’s campus.

The hiring of staffers, however, has turned out not to be a cure-all, Lorenz now says. Problems unique to K-12 tech support remain. “We found that although their main role is technical, the support staffers still needed special training in working with students and teachers,” Lorenz says. “What works in business isn’t always right for schools. One of my main roles is constantly questioning our decisions regarding technology to make sure that educational needs always come first.”

Lorenz’s dilemma is common in schools, where tech support quality doesn’t always stay in step with the expansion of technology. A report from the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), Taking TCO to the Classroom (classroomtco.cosn.org/checklist/support.html), reveals that schools have low levels of tech support compared to businesses of comparable size. Most businesses strive to have one on-site tech support person for every 50 computer users; however, many schools have fewer than one full-time tech support person for every 500 computer users. Making matters even worse (as it did in Lorenz’s case), the people responsible for providing support in schools often have other duties that may include teaching or fixing any technology—e-mail, phones, networks, and security systems.

Still, you don’t need a stack of research to know that a malfunctioning computer is a major impediment to technology integration. And studies do show that lack of timely technology support is a major factor in limiting a teacher’s use of technology in the classroom. The question is how to solve that problem, given the decreasing budgets and increasing complexity of technology found in schools.

The Bleeding Edge
Schools hoping to provide up-to-date technology opportunities to students often face a no-win situation. As they try to encourage innovative uses of technology by students and teachers, this creativity hits the so-called “bleeding edge” of technology. Lacking sufficient bandwidth, and thus unequipped to deal with anything out of the ordinary, less imaginative, overworked technical support staff may unintentionally end up discouraging the provocative use of technology. They find themselves taking a defensive, circle-the-wagons approach to technology implementation issues simply because they have no way to cope with any deviations, even when those deviations might be educationally appropriate.

Schools continue to experiment with ways to provide that leading edge without the bleeding edge. In California, the South Bay Advanced Educational Technology Consortium (AdTech; www.adtech.org) is an organization made up of technology leaders from 14 public school districts, along with university and vendor partners. The consortium members’ approaches to technical support vary widely, yet what is uniform among them is the belief that no single method has been fully successful due to limited funding resources and lack of qualified personnel.

When tech aides gain required skills, they often leave for higher-paying positions outside of education. This frequent turnover results in continual retraining and a lack of faith within the school community that problems will be solved quickly and completely.

Part-time aides. Some AdTech districts have followed Lorenz’s model and hired part-time tech support personnel. These individuals have varied levels of expertise, including some with only an “interest” in technology. While cost-effective in the short run as a way to increase support levels, very few of these aides are certified in network administration, hardware repair, or other advanced technology. And when tech aides gain required skills, they often leave for higher-paying positions outside of education. This frequent turnover results in continual retraining and a lack of faith within the school community that problems will be solved quickly and completely.

Hiring out. In two of AdTech’s 14 districts, the decision was made to contract out technical support services. While some service has improved and out-of-pocket costs have fallen, these districts have seen an overall slower response time due to limited on-site availability. Worse, these networks have been made so secure that it often hinders teacher creativity, as they cannot install new software or adjust configuration settings without calling the outside contracted support for assistance.

Student techies. One district from Washington state has found that student technicians in a “Generation Tech” program can add more support, especially for classroom technology use. Students are capable and willing, and thrive on being given responsibility for improving education using technology. “Without the students, we couldn’t possibly afford the level of technical support our teachers have come to rely on,” says Jeff Waddington, a technology coordinator in Olympia, WA. This mutually beneficial relationship gives students needed job skills, and provides the school with on-site, trained technicians to help with simple technical issues. The students are often around longer than part-time aides. Students also have an existing relationship with teachers, as well as a better understanding of classroom technology issues.

Walking the ‘Line’
Technology support staff in schools must walk a fine line that business IT personnel never do. They have to keep the hardware operating the best they can with limited resources, while not impeding the very human, unpredictable, and sometimes messy process of learning. If they exercise too much control, they are called autocrats, and the technology will only be useful for rote, mechanical applications. If they are too lax, the systems will break down and nothing will work. And in the midst of performing this delicate job, they must keep in mind technology’s ultimate aim, which is to give all students the ability to visualize and create new meaning in the world, using what the father of educational computing, Seymour Papert, succinctly called a “tool to think with.” It requires that a delicate balance be struck, one that educators are only just beginning to get a handle on.

Sylvia Martinez is VP of Generation Yes (genyes.com), which offers the Generation Tech and other student technology programs. John Umekubo is executive director of AdTech, and an educational technology consultant for public and private schools in Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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