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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Friend, or Foe?: Tech Staff and Teachers Don't Always Get Along

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

Relations between tech-support staff and educators is an emotionally charged issue, and I have thought about writing about it for quite a while. But I had an experience last week that made it clear to me it was time to gather my thoughts and ask a question or two.

As you read this, you might wonder whether I understand the complexity of the issue, that there are multiple sides to it. In this posting, however, I am specifically speaking to teachers. I will speak to the tech staff in a later post.

Earlier this week, I was working with a high school teaching staff on purposeful and effective technology integration. The talk turned to filtering of Web content, and I expressed my concern that many school technology-support employees routinely make filtration decisions with little to no interaction with front-line educators. And then I saw something I see way too often: Folks started looking sideways at one another and making comments under their breath, and a general unease permeated the room.

Something was going on. It was immediately obvious this group of teachers did not perceive the tech staff in their school as friendly. Rather than let it pass and carry on with the subject at hand, I said, "OK, what's up? Talk to me. Tell me about the tech folks in your school."

Please let me assure you that some of my best friends are people who work on the technical side, both in schools and in the corporate world. Jeff is coordinator of educational technology for Maine, Carmel works for the state Department of Environmental Protection, and Chris is the chief information officer for a large energy and building-supply company that stretches across New England. All three are tech savvy, and all three are great people. And though Jeff is the only one I have a professional relationship with, each is a person I would not hesitate to get in touch with to ask for help if I was in technical need. And they would help me.

And it is not only tech stuff. In fact, I still remember when Carmel took the time to respond clearly to an early effort of mine to write technical documentation. Though she did not respond positively to my work, she was right. She cared enough to teach me how to do that kind of writing effectively, and it is a skill I continue to use in my work more than a dozen years later.

Over the years, I have met many technical staff in many schools like these three friends of mine. They are folks who are good with networks and with people and who enjoy working with both. They understand that a school is not a business and that the job of the tech-support staff, as for all school employees, is to support the kids through improved opportunities for teaching and learning. They get that operating a school's network as if national security were at stake runs counter to a school's foundational purpose, and so they run a network that is "school friendly."

Let's look on the other side, the area the teachers I was working with that day inhabit. They work in a school where there is an adversarial relationship between teachers and tech staff. I think this is often the dirty little secret of technology in schools. It is something teachers tend to be willing to live with rather than confront: tech-support staff who seem to not like the people they are supposed to be supporting.

Tech-support staff in such settings tend to talk down to educators, as if a teacher's lack of technical understanding makes him or her less worthy. They often work to perpetuate the myth of their importance in maintaining a critical thin blue line -- that without them, the network would fail, the administrators would be at risk of legal action, and the ugly side of the Internet would invade the schools willy-nilly.

Once, when I was attempting to access a wonderful collection of QuickTime virtual reality images at panoramas.dk while on a school network, a director of technology in a relatively large school district told me he had "blocked all foreign Web sites" because he felt he couldn't trust them. "Oh, my goodness," I said to myself as I thought about the curricular impact of this independent act of censorship. "What about all the tremendous content available through the BBC? Ouch."

Now, I must admit that being a director of technology is a huge and often thankless responsibility, and dealing with networks in a setting that includes the messiness of classroom teaching means that stuff will inevitably happen. Kids will mess up and kids will do amazing things; teachers will mess up and teachers will do amazing things -- real life, real school, real teaching, real learning.

But when your job description says, "You are responsible for the network," accepting this kind of messiness is tough because -- let's face it -- stability is the holy grail of network management. So we should not be surprised it's hard to find people who can effectively manage both the complex technical networks and the complex human networks found in the schools of 2008.

So, teachers, how about your school? Are the tech-support folks who manage your network friendly to you and your students as teachers and learners? Sometimes yes, sometimes no? And how do you know? Please, don't just respond yes or no. As an example, can you independently override the school's filter? Do they trust you? Please share stories of how your interaction with tech-support staff impacts your teaching. I will be interested to hear.

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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J. D. Wilson Jr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think at our school educators that use technology have a different mission from the tech staff. The tech staff's first concern seems to be that the networks and the various technological components (grading systems, software, hardware, etc.) are working properly and are kept as up to date as our budgets can afford. They have a second mission which involves gatekeeping and firewalls. The tech staff's greatest concern in this regard is the nature of the materials that students can access online inside the building. This results in students not being able to do research on writers (I am an English teacher) like Emily Dickinson and Charles Dickens because of certain letters in their names when isolated from the context of their names. The tech staff has been willing to unblock some of these sites, but it seems that each year the exercise has to be repeated and that there is no permanent solution to the problem. I understand what the tech staff is trying to do but this often interferes with what I am trying to do as an educator. This is also ironic in light of the fact that the tech people are usually the first to tell me that the students know how to get around most things. It is my impression that there is frustration on both sides of the equation. On the part of teachers over how the work they are trying to do is made a bit more difficult and on the part of the tech staff over how they have to run interference between a number of different constituencies with missions that are often at odds with one another.

Cordially,
J. D. Wilson, Jr.

Jim R. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, Marcia!

I am always interested, in discussing filters with high school teachers, to see how many have had the following happen: In class, on the big screen, the teacher is heading to a web site. The site is filtered. A student says, "Hey, [insert teacher name here] want me to get you around that?" And the teacher is stuck with either not using a web resource they had hoped to use or "breaking the rules..."

Best use, of course, is not to go underground. Rather, as you and others have suggested here, it is to work collaboratively - tech staff, teachers, and students - as a team with the purpose of improving teaching and learning. I advocate for the teacher override.

As to the connections to Spanish speakers... Have you looked at http://www.cilc.org? They send out a weekly (I think) newsletter of "collaboration requests," and often there are folks looking to make some connections to support language growth. You do need to register, but there is a "free" level that I use.

Cheers.

Jim

Rob Whitbey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have a very high turn-over rate for our tech staff. We do have some very good long-term techies, but most work here for a year, then move on to better paying districts.
We do have a problem with our content filtering, but I am told this decision was made by the Superintendent, not our tech department. We used to have passwords to deactivate the content blockers, but apparently teachers were giving the passwords out. So now, we are heavily filtered and most of my lesson prep has to be done at home. I am surprised I could even get to this site since it had the word "blog" in it.
Hope to see you again soon out here in CA, Jim.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When you are an instructional tech. specialist, who agrees with your point, Mr. Gates, and no one else in the department (including the tech. director, who is a former teacher) sees the advantages of loosening the filters, how do you go about changing the mindset of the rest of the department?
No one else speaks up and teachers don't bother, because after all, it is easier not to create the lessons using the Internet than go through the hassle of arguing their point why they should have access to a particular site just to be told that their reasons aren't good enough. So, 9 times out of 10, I am left to argue the point with 6 other people in the department who can not see an oppsoing point of view and only one other individual has any teaching experience at all. It is a battle I loose every time and I don't know how to change this kind of mentality.

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In response to Mr. Gates, you ask, when "...no one else in the department (including the tech. director, who is a former teacher) sees the advantages of loosening the filters, how do you go about changing the mindset of the rest of the department?"

I am reminded of the times I have sat with forward thinking teachers who have bemoaned the fact that too many of their colleagues cling to pedagogy and resources that are of their own time as students, and they ask the same question, "What can I do? How can I make the change happen that needs to happen to best support today's learners...?"

And sadly, the answer, because I must be honest, is that these wonderful teachers cannot, independently, make the change happen. They lack the administrative authority to make it so. They may be right, but if they attempt to drive change from a collegial perspective, they will almost certainly lose, and may hurt more than help.

In short, the answer to this question is another question, "Who is the boss of those who are doing the wrong thing or simply failing to do what is best?" Figue that out, and help that person understand the potential for gain if the changes were to happen.

It is time to get political, and in the long run, the ultimate boss is the parents, and by engaging a parent as an advocate, especially a reasonably well connected parent, things can happen.

You see, I think a parent who cares will be willing to speak up if they know that the teacher of their child is denied access to high quality resources through unilateral decisions of technical staff. Consider when Mr. Gates says, "My own blog recently won an award for Best Resources Sharing Blog, yet only FIVE districts out of the 24 districts in my three county area allow it through their filters. Several block wikispaces and ALL wiki sites. "We don't do blogs and wikis." I simply cannot believe that the curriculum directors in those districts are making those decisions - or are even aware (in many case) of what is being blocked."

I agree.

Here is a link to some of the great resources on Edutopia about encouraging parent involvement.

Go for it.

Brad Edwards's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jim:
I worked in one school district where the Information Technology Director often said that he didn't want to know anything about education. Really ! What he wanted was for us teachers to tell him what we wanted to make happen, and it was his perception that his job was to make that happen. As he led the technical support staff, there was little educational technology leadership from the top. It was up to the building coordinators (three of us) to figure it all out. And since there was a lack of leadership, we were stuck with no clear directions until we had to agree on and submit "Grade Level Expectations" to the state. Needless to say, the three schools were often in different directions.

Too often the technical staff has zero's and one's in their minds; they tend to be linear thinking folk. That's a good thing in many ways, but educators need the non-linear approach as do their students and that's where conflict can enter into the relationship. The more learner control, the better the learning experience and the longer the information stays......network administrators and technicians don't always understand that.

http://penobscotriver.edublogs.org/

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our tech. department has undergone changes in the last year. Before this school year it was a running joke that to enter the office it was best to have someone tag along because of "safety in numbers." One person retired and another moved and now the office is manageable for us as teachers. The men and women in there are always bogged down with fixing the teacher laptops or the libraries computers and as soon as something is fixed, something else is usually broken. They work very hard and I give them a lot of credit because, quite frankly, it's a job I wouldn't want.
That being said, none of them have worked in a classroom. We can't even utilize sites like puzzlemaker.com to create review activities. Lots of sites are blocked but the students still get around them. We recently had a student suspended for hacking into the system and accessing both teacher and student accounts. It really makes me wonder why sites are blocked that students still can access? Shouldn't we worry more about security so that incidents like the one with my student don't happen again? I am probably just naive about this and there is probably more behind the scences than what I know but a lot of this doesn't make sense. I just recently started my master's program and my speciality will be technology in the classroom but I am afraid that I won't be able to do the activities I want to do if I don't have the technology to back it up.

Ms. Ally's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Last year our tech support was wonderul! He was friendly and inviting. He didnt seem to mind if you had a question and always seemed to be willing to help any way he could.
My experience asking for help change when a new tech support arrived at our school. I have had little interaction with her due to my negative experiences with her thus far. Unprofessionally so, but still so, other educators have begun talking about her cell phone use in the media center and rude remarks of much of what is asked of her "is not her job". She seems to be lacking positive social interactions and is very unprofessional while working in the school setting.

Mindi Sard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am lucky our tech department encourages us to us the internet to teach including youtube. On the teacher computer, we are independently able to override blocked sites. It is wonderful to be answer a child question instantaneously.

Bill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For the most part, the technology support staff in my school is very helpful. I teach computers classes, so I have a great deal of interaction with the technology staff. They have blocked many Internet sites, such as chats, games, etc. As a computer teacher, I am glad these sites are blocked, because I do not want to have to fight this battle with my students. Students have a different proxy than teachers when they log onto the network, so we are able to access some sites that students cannot. The Information Technology Director often offers long and drawn-out explanations to basic questions. Some teachers refrain from asking him questions, because they do not understand the tech jargon that he uses to offer an explanation. His support staff is very well-liked, because they will offer explanations that all teachers should be able to understand, without making them feel inferior. Lastly, the technology support staff is centrally located in the building, and they respond in a very timely manner to any technology issues.

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