How overcomplicated matters get so

There is such a thing as over-engineering a solution to a simple problem. When it comes to American/independent schools’ technology infrastructure, this most often comes from entrenched IT departments. As a result, faculty are frustrated, IT budgets get fatter every year, and – most importantly – students end up on the losing end.

First, a bit of history

As technology has advanced exponentially over the past 30-odd years, PreK-12 education has consistently trailed developments in corporate environments by about a decade. There are various drivers for this, and some are:

  • Budget limitations
  • Misperception of need
  • Nonexistent exposure of school leadership to newer technologies, trends, and applications in education
  • Misunderstanding of the potential of technology from the academic side of a school
  • Lack of knowledge of the real needs of teaching and learning from the IT side

A lot has been done in the last decade to change this trend, but much still needs doing.

Enough history, lets get with it

I once saw an interview of an actor who was taught to fight in order to play the leading role in a movie. The director of the movie later explained that it was best to hire a good actor and teach him to fight as opposed to hiring a good fighter and try to teach him to act.

It would be great if you could hire an educator and teach him/her how to be more techie, but alas this does not work so well. The educator-IT-Director will over-rely on the opinion of the network administrator about the direction of tech projects, and these tend to end up over-engineered. On the other hand, when a true-techie leads the IT department – or at least the decision-making – it shows. The campus is equipped with the latest and greatest, but less than 50% capacity is ever truly exploited throughout a given day. Even worse, different systems sometimes overlap creating excessive spending.

A profound understanding of the fundamentals of the myriad of technologies that make up the infrastructure of any network is essential for decision-making. The same must be said about curriculum planning, leadership, teaching, and learning in an American/independent school environment. The two capacities must play well with each other in order for the technology infrastructure in a school to support teaching and learning in a productive way.

School leadership needs to pay closer attention to the person who is leading technology infrastructure decision-making at their school. Otherwise, at best, a lot of money is spent unnecessarily. At worse, there are so many security holes and other shortcomings in the system that it will take a time-and-money-consuming revamp to get things working right

Let me tell you why this is so

A true techie always wants to learn, so s/he will want to play with the latest tech to hit the market. I should know – this is how I started. Additionally, the true techie wants absolute control of anything and everything that goes on the network. We want to control how e-mail flows, what the firewall is blocking/letting through, and how end-users log in and are forced to log off after a set time of being idle. The reason we want to do this is because, well, we can. The true techie will usually dig through all system options and configurations and apply any and all that seem to fit the bill. Because infrastructure systems – server OS, firewall, Internet filter, etc – are made to sell to Fortune 500 corporations AND small businesses alike, every option does not necessarily apply. But the true techie will want to test and use it anyways. This is how things become overcomplicated. Not all security and configuration trends being applied at the Fortune 500 level apply to a school community of 300 or 3,000. Nonetheless, it’s a great way for the techie to secure his/her job for a long time to come. Think of it as our way of building tenure.

The academic wants to expand his/her learning, too, but in a different direction. It takes an awful lot of time and effort to learn about Internet Protocol and it’s various routing options; of what communication ports to close and/or leave open on a server for a particular purpose; and what the best application of a network sniffer is. And learning about this stuff is really, really boring…unless you’re into it.

The true techie and the academic must meet, and they have to like each other. Else, your school has a huge hole to fill!

Yep, here’s my recommendation

Whichever of the two types of tech leaders you realize you have at your school; s/he will need some type of support. There has to be budget for ongoing tech courses that are “technical” in nature. This means it is not a “conference” as is your typical regional education conference set up by your accrediting body or other related organization. By “technical training” I’m referring to a course run by Microsoft to learn about the latest server software, or by Dell to learn about their Sonicwall firewall. You get the picture.

IT in its various forms is highly specialized, and one person canNOT (yes, I know it’s not spelled that way, but I’m trying to make a point here) do it all. There is structured network cabling, server hard/software, firewall, phones, filters, sniffers, Wi-Fi, etc., etc. Regardless of how much you trust your IT Director, establish an ongoing practice of having your tech infrastructure audited at least once every two-to-three years. If s/he is not doing the right thing, s/he will balk at the suggestion. If things are good to go, they will welcome the idea. Having a corporate technology auditor from Deloitte & Touche come in to assess things will be both costly and missing the point. Reach out to someone who has experience in a school environment and who has some technical chops to speak of. It’s slim-pickings out there, but there are some good folks who are doing technical consulting after having spent many years working in American/independent schools. If I were to get someone right now – and I will in the next year or so – I would seek someone who used to work at schools and has set up their own consulting firm to provide some type of managed service to schools. Watch out that they are not angling to get more work from you because this will bias their approach. Someone whose company is operating on the other side of the country, or abroad, has worked out best for me in the past. Build in anywhere from $10-$15K into your consulting budget any year they are due to visit. It’s a small price to pay, believe me!