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IT Staff Support is Critical for Success in 1-to-1 Classrooms

  • Classroom Teacher:  "May I <fill in the blank, e.g., use a piece of software I found with my class, request a website be permitted for viewing, etc.>"
  • IT Staff: "No."

We have all had conversations with the school/district IT folks that were not as wonderful as we might have wanted. And, we may have walked away from those conversations thinking non-wonderful thoughts about the IT folks — to put it mildly.

Why do IT staff seem to always say "no?" Taking a lesson from kindergarten, where we learned that talking with others is a good way to better understand them, we set up some lunches with IT staff from several different schools and districts. Our thought was this: IT have their priorities, their responsibilities, their resources. If we could better understand those priorities, responsibilities, and resources, then maybe we could work together better — maybe we could understand where the “no” comes from and the next time we ask for something, we can help IT to say "yes" by framing the request in a way that is more aligned with their priorities, responsibilities, and resources. (Shout-out to ES’s and CN’s kindergarten teachers!)

So, besides having enjoyable lunches of Korean food, Turkish food, etc., we did gain some insight into the priorities, responsibilities, and resources that drive/constrain IT staff. In what follows then, we (1) identify the major tasks that IT staff do behind the scenes, so to speak, and (2) identify the new demands that 1-to-1 is placing on them. 

Here is a list of the major tasks that the IT staff in a school district are involved in:

  1. Device management: IT must deal with configuring new devices and maintaining devices. A major challenge is dealing with aging devices and multiples types of devices (e.g., iPads, Windows laptops, and Google Chromebooks).
  2. Network management: IT must deal constantly with bandwidth issues, security, and filtering. There are constant updates to the network software — and again, there are new access points and old access points that need TLC.  
  3. Resource Management:  IT must manage all the educational software that is licensed – and make sure that no license agreements are abridged. There are constant updates and patches that must be made to keep the software current and safe.
  4. Accounts Management:  IT must manage the LMS — the Learning Management System. And make sure accounts are set up properly. Long passwords are truly a pain. One 2nd grade teacher told me that she allocates 15 minutes — of a 45 minute class — for her class to log into their iPads. Holy Toledo! 2nd graders pecking away at a 10 character — numerals, capitals, symbols, letters — password. Is that really necessary?
  5. Classroom Support: And, IT staff visit classrooms to address device or networking issues. More and more, IT is managing devices (computing devices, access points) remotely. In the "old days," districts had individuals who taught teachers how to use the various pieces of software. But with budget cuts, now such software training is IT’s responsibility.
  6. Administrative Services & Support: When the principals or the superintendent ask for a report versus a teacher asking for a password reset — well, you can imagine what takes precedence.
  7. Equity: We heard this loud and clear: equity is an issue that IT staff feel is, at least partially, their responsibility. For example, how can Interact access at home be provided for the 20% of children who do not have Internet at home? Whose budget pays for the personal access points? Classroom assignments are increasingly assuming access to the Internet is available to the students — outside of the school.

The above is not even an exhaustive list – but we hope it conveys the point: IT are busy, busy, busy folks! They are working on the same short deadlines as educators, trying to cope with the same sorts of limited resources. But, and this is key: from what we heard, IT staff have the education of the children as their front and center goal.

(Yes, yes… a superintendent’s request might well take priority — surprise, surprise. Speaking of surprises, IT folks do not respond well to surprises, e.g., "please install X (a piece of software) on cart of laptops for tomorrow’s class," is simply not something they can deal with. Given what IT has to do on a day-in, day-out basis — see the above list — that should come as no surprise.)

Now, as we move to every classroom having a 1-to-1 installation, new challenges arise:

  • Device replacement:  Typically, if a problem arises with a computer on a cart, IT asks that the teacher fill out a problem ticket. The ticket goes into the system and at some point down the road the problem is addressed — 1-2 weeks later. But, in a 1-to-1 classroom, if a student’s device goes belly-up, waiting 1-2 weeks is simply not acceptable! The problem ticket system won’t work in a 1-to-1 environment. 
We hear that IT folks like Chromebooks for just this sort of situation. Swap a new Chromebook for the busted one, have the student log in to the new Chromebook, and bingo, all the student’s work is available, since that student’s environment is stored in some cloud somewhere. That means, of course, that there are extra Chromebooks sitting on a shelf, ready for the swapping. Hmm. "Extra" is not a word in an educator’s vocabulary, typically.
  • Network responsiveness: In an office building, there are rooms where a few individuals need Internet access. No problem. In a school building, in a typical room there are 30 students who need access at the same moment — and there are rooms and rooms… and rooms and rooms… of 30 students who all need access to the Internet at the same moment. Virtually no organization is as demanding as a school building for Internet access. Needless to say: 1-to-1 classrooms only exacerbate the problem.
To cope with the need for access and bandwidth one project we work with has put in its own network of access points: there is an access point for "regular" school access and another access point reserved for the devices in the project!  Sounds wonderful — but whose budget — again — pays for this parallel system?
  • Special requests: Besides the normal requests for password resets and retrieval of lost files and blah, blah, blah… teachers are increasingly wanting access to websites that have been blacklisted. Opening up a URL that is on the filtered list takes effort. In a 1-to-1 classroom, where students, using their computing devices, are engaged in inquiry — asking and answering questions of their own design — the need for access to blacklisted URLs is increasing. Again, the problem ticket reporting process is simply too slow to handle the demands of a 1-to-1 classroom; the students can’t wait 1-2 weeks for those blacklisted websites to be removed from the blacklist — or find out that their request has been denied.

The real issue is this: support for IT has increased linearly over the last few years. But, demand for computing resources has increased exponentially over the last few years. Translation: IT does not have the resources to truly support the 1-to-1 classrooms that are fast appearing!  

Thus, we offer a relatively radical suggestion: instead of educators lobbying their administrators for increases in support for classroom activities, educators need to also lobby for increases in IT support! Why? Because increases in IT support will result in IT increasing its support for classrooms!

Bottom line: We as educators need to walk in IT’s shoes; we need to better appreciate IT’s priorities, responsibilities, and (limited) resources. Educators and IT staff have the same goal: educate our children. We all need to work together — and if we do, we won’t be hearing those "no’s!"

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at www.imlc.io.

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at www.imlc.io.

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at thejournal.com/rc.

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