It's Not Just Me

It has been a rough start to the school year this year. It seems like just about every day, my to-do list is interrupted by the emergency du jour. They’re never little things. No one can send email. The web server just crashed. We can’t get to the Internet. We’ve been hacked. Who deleted all of the files on the server? When asked if we’re having a technology problem, my answer used to be “not that I know of.” Now, I’ve changed that to “apparently.” If they’re asking, something’s wrong.

JuggleA pretty good indicator of how things are going is my blog volume. Last school year, I was posting 2-4 times per week. This is my first post in more than three weeks. I haven’t been thinking about new, innovative technologies or applications that would apply to education. I’m not launching a bunch of new inititatives to improve my teachers’ and students’ productivity. I haven’t been reading the magazines or the blogs. I’m not learning. So I haven’t had much to say. I’m just trying to keep up.
Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of technology coordinators from around the area. It was a sorry-looking, battle-worn group. One person commented, “it’s not a nightmare if you don’t ever sleep.” It’s been a hard year for everyone. But why? What has changed?

We’ve become victims of our own success. Now that everyone’s using email, when there’s a problem, it’s mission-critical. Electronic grading has made grade reporting much easier, and it has improved teacher-parent communications through things like Parent Viewer. But when it breaks, people notice very quickly. New students can’t wait a few days for a network account anymore. The library can’t afford to have a computer that’s not working. If we can’t get to the Internet, we might as well go home.

This year, we’re adding more and more critical applications. Parents can check students’ grades online. Students use a debit system to buy lunch. Teachers use a web interface to call in sick, and secretaries use the same service to see which subs will be coming. Professional development and teacher licensure are handled through a new online system. We’ve just started using Orchard with our fourth and fifth graders to improve reading, math, and science skills. Some of our first graders are using Headsprout to improve their reading. If there’s a snow day or a school emergency, all of our families are notified by phone. We’re in the second year of serious online learning tool use. When these things don’t work, my phone rings, and it’s an emergency.

We have to re-think the technology support. If we’re really going to support all of these things, we need to approach it in a different way. Specifically, we have to:

  • Take on a sane number of new technology initiatives each year. We can’t do everything at the same time. New things take time to implement if we’re going to get it right.
  • Stop expecting the technology people to know everything. I spent two days this week in training for software I’ll never use. Why? Because it’s technology, and that’s my job. My actual roles in the training were to (1) make sure they don’t make any critical mistakes in the way they organize their data, and (2) to pay attention so, when someone asks me a question about it two years from now, I’ll know what they’re talking about.
  • Reduce the support burden. Standardize. Simplify. Make everything as easy as possible. We already do a pretty good job of this. We use one office productiivity package. We have one desktop platform. We use one printer manufacturer.
  • Prioritize. What is affecting the most users? What is the most critical problem? How do I end the day with a list that’s not longer than the one I started with? It’s not all going to get done today. Some of it will never get done. Some if it *should* never get done.
  • Get better at what we do. Learn from our mistakes. Innovate. Find new ways to do old things. Automate. Find ways to reduce the workload.
  • Learn from each other. I think I’m going to propose to the group of glassy-eyed tech coordinators that we start a support group. Even if we only get together once a month for an hour, we’re all in the same crazy business, we’re not competing against one another, and we should help each other out.

I’ve been trying to avoid posting a lot of pessimistic stuff here. I do have some neat things to write about. But at the moment, I don’t have time to play with them first, so they’re going to have to wait. In the meantime, I have to finish this up. The voicemail light is on, and my cell phone is ringing….

3 thoughts on “It's Not Just Me

  1. I feel your pain!

    This has probably been the hardest start of a school year I have ever had, and I’ve also been struggling for the reason why. I think it boils down to the fact that the teachers and students are finally “getting it”. My Help Desk requests are up 30% over last year.

    I’ve already done a couple of your hints, such as learning software I’ll never use. I don’t know how to do SIS, or EMIS, or Study Island, and in reality, I don’t need to know. I need to know why it isn’t working, but I don’t have time to learn more!

    Along with your standardize tip, I would also emphasis automation. If it takes you longer than 10 seconds to add a new student to your systems, you need to see how much more you can automate it (although Study Island has really thrown a wrench into my nice createuser script I use).

  2. That’s a good point about automating processes, and it’s one I’ve been working on. The hard part comes with the blending of external and homegrown apps. A new student needs a network account. That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting them into the food service system, adding a parent viewer account for Progress Book (and communicating those credentials), setting them up in Accelerated Reader, Successmaker, Type to Learn, Orchard, and all of the other systems that don’t talk to each other. Then, they need to be added to the emergency notification system, and the phone numbers we call in the event of a snow day or a bomb threat or some other emergency aren’t necessarily the same ones that we call when the kid gets hurt on the playground. But I don’t think that’s the root of the problem.

    I still think we have too many critical applications. I used to say that there was nothing that I do important enough to make me come in on a Saturday. We’re not doing surgery here. We’re not saving lives. Whatever’s wrong will keep, and we’ll take care of it on Monday. We’ve moved beyond that, now. There are so many mission-critical applications that we can’t afford to have things break. I think that’s where the pressure’s coming from.

  3. What I did for Study Island is create an import file from my new users script. This way I can just load the file into Study Island to add the new users. While it’s not totally automatic, it saves me from having to retype usernames and passwords.

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