Team Building

For many years I’ve been fortunate to work in academia as part of a team, or even lead a team of professionals towards various goals. The leading part is complex, always! Everyone has their own interests, and the larger the team the more varied the ways in which you can either insult/discourage/contradict any one of your team members’ beliefs, way of life or purpose. Enter into that equation any cultural differences which need to be taken into account.

Often, Tech Directors come into a small school community as a foreign species. We are technologically savvy, experienced in the workings of day-to-day classroom instruction, and are able to navigate quite comfortably within the hierarchy of the political makeup. For the most part, however, we are transient. It takes a lot of effort to get a team to become a team with you included in it. Most often, Tech Directors will end up serving the role of an outside “manager” to an already established team. Team members know that in the end they are the ones left to deal with the long-term effect of the Tech Director’s decisions. This can make it very difficult to gel a team together.

This is what I’ve done in the past to get teams to collaborate and to work together more closely. More importantly, teams made up of smaller teams within such as a larger tech office which takes care of training teachers, providing tech support, coding applications and perhaps offering other types of services to the community.

I’ve been very fortunate in that for the past 13 years or so I have been asked to come into a place to build the infrastructure thus giving me latitude of bringing a team together to accomplish it within a given period of time. The number one thing I look for when bringing in people to form a team is interest. Of course, each person should be people-friendly, able to interact and work within a group, and responsible/professional/showered, etc….but nothing works better to bring a team of learners together than each of them being able to dig deeper into things they are actually interested in. So, each member of the team is interested in expanding their understanding in something they hold a common interest in. Yes, they should all be tech savvy/friendly, but they should also be interested in either doing more things in moviemaking, playing a particular sport, going out to venture into hiking/running/biking, or something. Anything that is either connected to – or not – to their collective daily work that becomes the glue for the team to really bond when not seriously at work. They should all be interested in knowing more about something their colleagues are equally interested in. If I find myself running a team I have not brought myself together, finding out what their common interests are is my one priority coming in.

Team member interests becomes that social glue which yields results in the workplace during the normal operation of the team. Whenever any of them are in a bind, others will come to help. When weekend hours, or evening support is needed you’ll notice you will have less resistance. This helps in so many ways. When negotiating contracts with providers, learning the political landscape of your school, knowing which members of the community are key in getting your mission accomplished, and many other things. Your team mates know more than you as they are on the ground day-in and day-out and thus can give you a heads-up whenever action is needed to fix a situation or to prevent disaster. Always look to them for advice before making major changes they will need to enact.

Going bowling, hiking, to amusement parks, skydiving together, traveling, movies, pool, a bar, trying out different restaurants to get a better taste of a different culture, r/c cars, robotics, slot racing or videomaking are some of the things I’ve had teams come together for periodically in the past. These activities work. Moreover they help the incoming – often foreign – director build camaraderie amongst team members.


Marry your Curriculum Director / Head of Studies

All too often school Technology Directors send out a message or request a meeting with faculty and the immediate reaction is that s/he will dish out techie-stuff and thus if it is a volunteer&nbsp;training&nbsp;opportunity&nbsp;or an email detailing tips for classroom integration of any type it goes unnoticed or ends up in the trash bin. To get around this I discovered early on that my best bet to have my initiatives included in overall integration efforts of a school was to deliver the message via the acting Curriculum Director (or Head of Studies as you may have it in your school). Acting through the Head of School also does the trick. The detail is not so much in the message, but <i>who</i> delivers that message for you. This approach also bypasses your ego or yearning for credit, but if you can deal with that then you are assured a more attentive audience and perhaps more participation when the time comes to implement you idea(s).


Unleash a Squid on your network

Either by law or simple innertia, you will be requested to setup a filtering box between your school’s network and the wild of the Internet. Appliances do a great job, and there are many options to chose from. You can also skip the up-front payment along with the “maintenance” contract these appliances come attached to by setting up your own “appliance”. I’ve used Squid, installed in a relatively cheap PC running some flavor of Linux. Right now we have a Ubuntu/Squid/Dansguardian setup going. For backup we use OpenDNS for filtering.

What we are able to accomplish with the Squid-box is filtering traffic to the Internet, block incoming connections and requests to internal addresses, keep an eye on our traffic in general and firewall out internal network from the external Internet.

When making decisions about equipment to purchase, bandwidth to contract or services to install inside your network, Squid traffic reports are a great tools to have on hand.

If you’re stuck and are not able to get Squid going for technical reasons, you can always fall back on the very reliable and free OpenDNS service. I cannot say enough about this service and how great it is to have. It requires very little maintenance, gives you a lot of flexibility and gets you going within a few minutes.


Laptops or iPads in the classroom

Yep, I’ve read a lot of stuff regarding the benefit of iPads in the classroom in the past year. I’ve also read a lot of articles praising the value of laptops in the hands of students. Though studies have yet to prove that any of these mobile technologies is beneficial to the learning process I would bet my non-existent retirement fund that they do help the learner in various ways. First off, knowledge delivered via these mobile resources engages the learner, it is in the same “language” they are accustomed to interacting with. Anything that engages the learned with the content one is trying to get through has a plus from me.

Now to the dilemma of either or…do we put an iPad or a laptops in the hands of students?

Over the years I’ve come to see the value of laptops in the hands of students and teachers. One can do almost everything we were accustomed to doing on a desktop PC on a laptop now-a-days. School administrators love the price-tag of the iPad, but it is not as useful as a laptops when it comes to importing video, editing audio, and putting pictures in it for use within presentations or documents. Like or not, you are still tethered to a desktop PC whenever you need to do some tasks with video/audio/graphic files. Students often need to play around with different media within the same lesson plan, and I still have a problem seeing how students can manage this while using an iPad.

The way I’ve come to do this this year is to implement iPads in the early grades (3rd grade and below) and to use laptops in grades 4 and above. It seems to be working well thus far. Teachers love the art-music-listening-video-photo capabilities the iPad offers, and children take to the keyboard-mouse-less environment as if it the way they interact with nature. Wait, it is the way they interact with nature. Hmmmm, lots to think about in the coming years.

For Middle/High Schoolers who often must author long research papers, presentations or video projects in teams, a laptop is ideal as it offers the capabilities necessary for this type of work. I feel the practicality of an iPad still need some work, thus I am sticking to laptops for higher grades for the time being.