Mobile Computing

It's About the Learning, Not the Technology – Until it Breaks

Providing technical support for a large fleet of devices that travel between school and home is no simple task. Jeff Mao, who helped lead the nation's first statewide 1-to-1 learning program, discusses the importance of updating support models and other ways to stay dynamic and prepared.

Managing and supporting technology is a lot like managing and caring for people. When people get sick, for example, a doctor can see symptoms but only extrapolate from those symptoms the cause. Technology is much the same. We can't always say why things won’t work, but we know the symptoms. We can troubleshoot (poke, prod, run some tests, even ask our computers questions out loud) to try to extrapolate the cause, but usually we treat the symptoms.

So, how do we deal with the challenge of managing the "health" of our school or district's technology? We often attempt to control as many variables as we can to reduce the likelihood of encountering problems. But is this the wisest approach? We could lock up kids in hermetically sealed, sterile, and padded environments to ensure they grow up safe and healthy. But I think most of us would agree this won't lead to a child growing up to be a happy and healthy adult.

Also, it takes time, energy and money to provide such an environment. Sometimes, we focus too strongly on our efforts to provide a stable, secure and safe computing platform and lose sight of our primary goal: providing a computing platform to enrich, empower and facilitate teaching and learning.

As technologies have evolved and improved, it is critical that technology support models also evolve. For example, in a traditional 1-to-1 computing program, a common baseline position for a deployment is that individual users can't install new software or update existing software. One of the root rationales is that doing so makes it too easy for the user to render the computer inoperable and compromise the system's stability. While this remains true in some instances, modern mobile platforms increasingly have core operating systems that isolate individual applications from each other, thereby reducing or eliminating the software conflicts that were so common on earlier platforms.

Additionally, we are seeing mobile and cloud-based platforms that reduce the strain on data storage and backup. Data is automatically written to servers that are physically locked away in a protected network operations center and is in the hands of very skilled and well-staffed companies. It also is typically offered to schools at no cost. So with that in mind, does the device and who controls it really matter anymore?

Yes, it matters. There are other concerns, like privacy, and how we manage those concerns can change.

For instance, in my previous role, I oversaw Maine's statewide 1-to-1 program. We worked with our vendor partner to create a singular safe and secure software configuration for the program. Users could not alter primary system configurations or software, and that provided us with a stable, consistent platform for the entire state.

This afforded us many advantages, but with it also came challenges. Operating system updates were impossible to do midyear. It took months and a multitude of staff hours to develop the master software configuration to ensure stability. Application versions had to be locked down months prior to the school year.

In 2013, for the 11th year of the program, we introduced a new fleet of devices that included a mobile device management (MDM) solution. For the first time, we were able to empower every student and teacher to be the administrative user of their own devices. That fall, new versions of the operating system were released. In the past, we couldn't install those updates – nor updated software that required the update – until the following school year. With all users as administrators, the overwhelming majority of the approximately 80,000 laptops and tablets were upgraded by their individual users within a couple weeks. Techs who initially feared the loss of control realized they would no longer need to spend days, if not weeks, of their summers installing new software on each individual device.

Providing a technology platform that enriches, empowers and facilitates teaching and learning is not simple. There is no single answer. Focus on that goal, and try not to get overwhelmed by the tangible objectives necessary to achieve it. Ask questions and challenge assumptions, because the technology world is dynamic and always changing. How we manage and support the technology should be dynamic and always changing as well.

Examine your device-management assumptions. Look at how these assumptions affect technical support routines and your time. Are your assumptions fundamentally the same as they were three, five, or seven years ago? If so, it's time to make new ones. If you don't routinely get home on time for dinner because you're overwhelmed with work, stop and take a step back (and a critical look) at your device-management assumptions. You may discover that you can improve productivity by leveraging new MDM solutions and, at the same time, distribute some of the work and responsibility to the users.

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