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New to the job? I have a list you’re going to love!


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nametag-new-guyI finally got the clarity of mind to put this together and to publish it for a few colleagues who either getting their feet wet in being a Tech Dir or have questions as to how to get better at it.. I decided to release a podcast of it as well. Listen to episode #15 here.

Whenever I am asked to consult on a project or to join a learning community for a long term post, I usually break down my approach into a 3-year plan. Year 1 is about the heavy lifting, relationship building and establishing myself. Year 2 I tackle fundamental changes in platform, communication and program; moving forward with solidifying my team; and bringing in students. Year 3 is about finishing what I started and building on what has already been done from year 1. Of course year 3 is not the end of it all, but it serves as a good long-term goal as I begin the relationship with whatever school I’m working with.

If I do well on most of the items on the following list I stand a better chance of building something that lives for a long time after I have moved on to another project. My aim is to cut down on overall community stress; to maximize innovative teaching possibilities; and to ensure I am home early in the evenings and for the whole of weekends as much as possible. Yes, that last one is not about work at all – and if life is worth living non-work must play an important role in any professional long-term plan.

So here are my top 10 things to have in mind as you head into a new project and/or take that first step into becoming a member of a learning community that is new to you (and perhaps your family). I started writing this as I thought of a dear friend of mine as she is the incoming Tech Dir at a nearby school, and then I thought that much of it applies to any director-level position at any type of school. Some of it is tech-related, but you’ll find that much of it is applicable to the broader administrative realm.

Year 1

1. Do nothing

Listen. Talk to as many people as possible and learn the ins and outs of this new community you’ve just joined. If someone hands you a piece of paper to sign, think of the precedent you’re about to set, and of how little information you have to make that move. If it is a must that you sign that piece of paper, be sure your Head of School has your back. Otherwise let the person who brought you that paper that it needs to wait until you can gather more information about the community and your role in it.

I have seen directors of all sorts and even Heads of School come into a community and quickly be influenced by a group of people leading them to make rash decisions that ultimately set them up for an early exit. Be sure to gather as much information as possible, and be sure you are not listening to a one-sided story all of the time.

In a learning community you will those who love being there, who support change, and are always ready to jump in when called on. In all places I have been there are few members of a learning community that oppose anything that is proposed by “the administration”. Usually these people are in the minority, and they are the most vocal and influential in some cases. Consider the source whenever someone brings you their problem or their view. There are many angles to a story, and be sure to get as many angles before making any type of decision.

2. Walk the walk

Walk around and get a sense of what the infrastructure is like. Walk around with either a tech or a network admin if they are there already. Open closets, find out how stuff is wired, where it goes to, how phones and data interact on the network. Are there AV services, security cameras, VoIP, voicemail, other management systems tied into the same network. Think ventilation, air systems, lighting, alarms, etc. Get to know the campus. Get to know what’s behind every door.

Take your time to say hello to as many people as possible as you are walking around campus. Find out where offices are located, particularly the Business Office and HR. Get a sense of distances, campus activity, areas where more students congregate versus areas where there are more admin offices. This is important as you are trying to piece together the many components of a sound network architecture and design.

3. Get comfortable with numbers

I know a lot of people who struggle with this part of an administrator’s job. I also know of people who are not assigned a higher post given their reluctance to deal with budgets and proper administration of resources. Sure it is not the most exciting part of the job, but it is fundamental. Get your head around the numbers, budgets, processes and policies.

Current and past two years’ budgets I have found are the best to get in order to have an idea of how money is spent. Key in the budget is finding out how capital and operational expenditures are separated and function. Every school sets their own rules, and once they are set they are held to these rules by whatever external-auditor they rely on. Also key is any budget line item that is not tied to a set monthly bill such as phones, Internet connectivity, external backup, etc. These line items are your flexible line items, which you can use to impact change within the same year. You may be walking into a situation where the budget could have already been set.

Also important is a line item for professional development for the IT department personnel as well as a line item for an outside consultant. This last part is important in case you identify something that needs changing or implementing and you will require outside help in order to get done.

4. Talk Biz

Talk to the business office and find out how budgeting works, how and what you are expected to do with receipts, contracts, letters of agreement, credit card limits, etc. What are the authorization protocols for the different amounts you may need to spend? Find out about taxes. Not-for profits work differently even within the same state or region. Find out fiscal implications as much as possible. What is involved in taking a donation, or giving a donation? Can you give a donation? Ask questions around budgeting.

Another important issue to discuss is HR processes and policies. Be sure to cover all bases. Ensure that you are as well informed about your team members as possible. I request all contracts, salary scales and any other contractual documentation of my team as soon as I land. I want to be sure we have the right people in the right place, and that each person is supported by the institution as best as possible.

5. Polywhat?

Find out the status of policies on tech use and social media around the community. Who wrote them, how long ago, what do they actually say; and do people even read them? It is likely that everyone has signed a tech use policy document at some point or another during their introduction to your school. Do they actually understand them? Are there things in there that need to be pointed out and communicated better with all community members. The best way to find out about this is to read and go through current policies and then walk around and ask random people questions about these policies. You’ll find that most people have a vague idea about some of the things in your policy manual, but most could use a refresher.

6. Who’s on your team?

Is there an IT department, or are you flying solo? Find out what your resources are. If your team is not the right one, will providing professional development opportunities make a positive impact? If you don’t feel that would help, you have some tough conversations to prepare for. Be sure to reach out to your Head of School and HR. Do not get into hot water discussing contractual matters with team members as these comments may later come back to bite you.

Directors and Heads of School seldom measure their responses to people when they are starting off. Know the power of your words. If you agree with a team members you may be committing to something if you’re not careful. If you have any doubts about labor laws reach out to your school’s counsel and get yourself trained properly. Dealing with employees is no easy task, and I have seen most directors take this matter lightly.

7. Students

Talk to students of various grade levels. Sit with them and find out what they are required to do for classes, and what interactions they do with the school network. What do they depend on most, and where are areas they feel things can be improved. Perhaps they won’t say so, but notice where the “frustration” points are. Find out where they are not sure about what to or how to do something. Look for all the telling signs of confusion. These are areas of opportunity.

Outside help: Find out about any recent audits that may have been done in regards to campus technology and related services. If there are reports, read through them. If you can get in contact with the person/company that did the audit, reach out and see what else they can add from their memory of having done the audit.

Community Leaders: Speak with other directors and find out who the key players are within the faculty, within each academic department and/or grade level. Who are the most tech-friendly faculty, and who are most likely to help you impact change when the time comes? Who needs more help and who is most capable of helping them?

Balance: At the end of the day, you have to go home. If there is no balance you run the risk of burning out. Be sure to dicipline yourself to leave work at work and when you are home be sure to be fully there with your family. This recharges you, and gets your mind clear from any challenges you may be facing at work such that when you come at them again on Monday you’ll have a different vantage point from where to resolve them. Be sure to take your time to enjoy your time off campus.

Year 2

  1. Begin to impact change. Whatever major platform changes, deactivations, or implementations you need to make, be sure to do it during the summer. Let faculty know well ahead of time. Start getting the message out between February and March so that folks get used the idea that things will change, and why they need to change.
  2. Is your team the right team? Reach out to your Head of School and HR if you know you must have one of those difficulty conversations with someone from your team.
  3. How can students be part of the system? Find out from them what they want to or need to work on so that life is easier one everyone using the system. Give students ownership of certain projects and you’ll be amazed at how much they can get done.
  4. Budget changes implementation. Speak with your CFO to make the necessary changes to budgetting and whatever business office process you feel will benefit all.

Year 3

Finish what you started and get into a rhythm. If you’re going to remain in that school for longer than 3 years, be sure to get longer-term planning done during your first couple of years such that year 3 is part of that cycle as you move forward.

 

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Work

Take your outdated AUP and breathe life into it


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book

Ahh the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). It is the quintessential sugar pill for easing the fear of many-an-administrator about what students will abstain from doing after they read and sign it. Not!

Montesquieu said “Useless laws weaken necessary laws“. This is so true for our beloved AUP. Not because it is useless, but because it is consistently weak.

In the vast majority of schools I’ve visited throughout my career the AUP is usually found only in an obscure webpage hardly anyone ever reads; within the annoying pop-up presented when joining the wifi network; and/or in the student/family handbook. Until today, I had a hard time remembering how ours even started.

Still, it does not mean it is not an important document. Well, important because we need to cover our backs in case of abuse or someone breaking the law using the campus network/computer. After all, control/filtering/monitoring/laws are the usual drivers for the need of such a document.

Otherwise no one really cares.

…or do they?

As the adults working in schools are coming of age in this new interconnected and ever more tactile world, sadly, their administrative policies are still crawling far behind. Policies/laws are having such a hard time catching up, yet everyone recognizes the need to create common understanding and rules of decorum in this new dimension of life as we know it. Otherwise, it’s every wo/man for themselves.

As for many other things in the life of a school community, we must find a way to implement a living document that outlines common agreements of how we will behave when using and otherwise interacting with school-provided technology resources. And we must do it in such a way that engages and informs the student body.

Tell us how to do it sensei

The challenge with drafting an AUP is that it must be within a context students understand – if you want it to be relevant, that is. Drafting a three-page document full of legalize and far out technical concepts does not a good AUP make. Adding instructions as to how to install and uninstall something to a computer should not be done at the AUP level. A simple, straight-to-the-point, and short document is your best bet.

The other thing an AUP need not address are prohibitions that could otherwise be handled by education – you know, the thing we are all in schools to provide. For instance, forbidding YouTube simply because it will “distract” students from learning does not make sense. Online resources can be leveraged to teach, and to block access to the very tools students are utilizing is missing a great teaching opportunity. More on that in a future post…promise.

Get on with it already

In thinking of how I will frame this document for the 2014-2015 academic year, I’m also thinking of how I will make this document a living document. That is to say; how can I device ways to keep bringing the conversation of technology and life on campus back to the AUP signed at the start of the year? I’m not doing this so that the community recognizes my writing or because I want to be at the center. More than anything I’m doing it because I feel that there are so many layers of “policy” our students are affected by in any given day that are totally obscure to them. It’s not fair. They should know where things are coming from, understand why, and be able to participate in making policies more real to them.

My aim for the 2014’2015 academic year is to make our school’s AUP visible, interactive, and memorable.

Visible: Burying it in the school website and within the student/family handbook should not be the only strategy. One thing that I am doing starting next year is to begin promoting “Techie Tuesdays” on campus. We have a “morning meeting” 4 days out of the week during which announcements and performances are made. I will make it my routine to be up there every Tuesday morning to alert the community about impending virus/hacking dangers, provide tips as to how to do something online or using our resources, and to remind them about one part of our AUP. Whatever part of the AUP I remind them of will have to be connected to school life in some way. It’s not about badgering or endless repeats, but about connecting the dots for them so that they see what’s on paper and how it relates to life.

Interactive: Another project for me to work on during the summer is to create some sort of either Mindcraft or SecondLife game to lead the students through the various parts of our community expectations as these relate to technology. I’ve yet to work out the details and only have a framework at this time. As soon as I have a complete workup I will share it with you.

Memorable: If students see it modeled, hear the same message consistently, and have some fun interacting with the idea, they are bound to remember it. I am sure to come up with more ideas – perhaps using Aurasma media on our hallway walls – or having them create media around the AUP will surely keep the conversation alive. I’m excited about trying out an Aurasma project as it will make it interactive and memorable all at the same time.

If you are doing some great things with your school AUP, please let me know, and I’ll be happy to share with the community. Otherwise, feel free to take at my final draft here. I always appreciate comments and suggestions, so pay it forward by doing so before you leave.

Work

“Digital” is finally dying


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digitalisdead

For a while now terms/titles such as “21st Century Learning”, “Digital” this, “New Century” that, and others have really tugged at me. Every time I hear/read these tittles it reinforces my view that education is a decade behind when it comes to recognizing and accepting the reality in which our students’ lives unfold. We are way past the “new century”, and things digital are, well…most things our students come in contact with during a normal day – starting with that smartphone in their hands. Our students swim in this [digital] world every waking moment of their lives, so why do we have to separate technology/digital out of education every time we speak about what is happening in the classroom?

I just finished reading John Mikton’s The Death of “Digital” and it goes right to the heart of what I have been trying to contextualize for a long time. I do believe the word “digital” should be taken out of the conversation, and that we should refer to hardware as appliances.

Language is powerful, and it will serve to get me closer or to separate me from the learning in a classroom.

Give it a read and tell me what you think.

Work

Get rid of your server room before it’s too late


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BWclock

The campus server room is changing. If yours is not, it should be.

Gone are the days of multi-server email systems; multi-layer collaboration environments; redundant databases; tape-library backup platforms, and so many other resource-sinking reasons to keep the server room ice cold. If anything, the server room should be disappearing altogether.

Let me break it down piece by piece.

E-mail

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past decade, you certainly know of the impact Google Apps for Education (GAFE) is having. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has followed suit with its own offering to K12. There are others, but these two are the major players offering outsourced e-mail and collaboration.

There is no major reason you should not already be using a cloud-based email/collaboration system. There are places where bandwidth and/or politics make it impossible to go this route. Listen to the podcast interview with Joseph Christie from Alexandria, Egypt, and you’ll hear firsthand one of those scenarios where it is not possible to go that route yet. Everywhere else, though, I have yet to find a reason that makes me think different about this topic. I have heard some great excuses, though, and those don’t count. The schools that can and instead opt not to go this route usually have someone with control issues at the helm of the IT decision-making process, or even worse, an ill informed leadership structure.

If leadership is worried about losing connectivity, you can always configure the solution such that email is stored offline. For archiving purposes you can go with a service such as Google Vault or https://www.backupify.com/.

Network files/shares

Read what I’ve written above a second time. The same companies offering cloud-based email usually offer storage and the ability to share files as well. Why keep all of that data on server disks that need to be replaced every 18-24 months? Worse, you don’t know when those spinning disks will stop spinning without warning.

Check my previous post for a quickie on how to create your own DropBox or GoogleDrive service for NO MONEY.

It should not be the responsibility of the school to fund the systems used to store and backup personal photos/music/videos of staff, faculty and/or students. Each user should be responsible for his/her own data. Show them the way.

Applications

Most data-driven systems have a cloud-based option and/or equivalent. SIS’s such as PowerSchool, AdminPlus, Senior Systems and others have hosted options. There are companies like WhippleHill who are already web-based-only. Database services such as https://www.knackhq.com/ or http://www.zoho.com/ or even Salesforce.com can take the place of your campus-based systems. If you refuse to let go of your FileMaker application, you can move it to a service such as http://worldcloud.com/. IT helpdesk solutions such as freshdesk.com are all over the place. Many of those solutions also offer asset tracking as part of their services.

I could go on for a very long time with this, so I’ll just stop it here.

School website

This is actually one of the easier ones to get done. If you have no budget to get this done, go over to GoDaddy or any of a thousand hosts and install WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Moodle or any other open source platform for your site. I have come to like WordPress as it is a very flexible platform for which you do not need a Masters to get going. Either as a static site, or a blogging platform, WordPress will get you there.

If you are on the budget-heavy side and can afford some additional features such power windows and a convertible top, check out FinalSite, WhippleHill or SchoolWires. Any of these platforms will relieve you of both your money and a headache. Though they are a bit of work to get going, it is well worth the investment as faculty/staff and you have full control of communication features, publishing, and some even offer additional features such as an SIS, a full Admissions component and more.

Backup

Well, with nothing to backup, what’s the point? If you must, there is CrashPlan.com and backupify.com to name just two.

Onsite network authentication

For your campus-based computers, you could set up a small MacMini or a Microsoft domain controller to get your users on and off computers. Networking printing can be on the same box given the light load of those services.

Wifi

Meraki is the clear winner here. If you want to do away with pricey controllers for your AP’s; and have the flexibility and freedom to get things done quick and easy, go with Meraki. There’s a good reason why Cisco bought the company. There are other players out there, but be sure they have a web-based management system instead of an onsite appliance.

Other network services

DNS, DHCP, L3 Routing, QoS and all of those services can run off an appliance such as your firewall and/or router. If you don’t have an onsite appliance capable of running these services, you can always configure these on your authentication box(es).

Proof

It is possible, and I have done it, to have a server room with only two servers in it. I had them configured as primary and secondary Active Directory as well as print server and a couple of other light services for logging printing and connectivity monitoring. In another school it was the same scenario, except I was using Apple servers hardware – when it was still being made and sold. Otherwise the network was very light on the administrative end, and the onus was placed on the end-user to manage their own environment.

Letting go of control was no easy feat for me, but once I was over the hump it was great to have my evenings and weekends back.

What got me thinking different was visiting one of those cloud companies a long time ago in NY. This was even before Google Apps for Education hit beta.

These large cloud companies hire the best and brightest computer scientists to secure data and manage all the necessary systems to get the service to you. I cannot compete with them; not on securing data, not on data transmission knowledge, not on creating backup platforms, and never on SLA’s. If my servers at school fail, I’m the only one that can get them going again. If a server in one of thousands of racks these companies have fails, they have entire engineering teams at the ready to keep things humming. They seldom skip a beat.

If you are proud of your server room, and are always showing it off to whoever will pay attention; enjoy it while it lasts.