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Friend, or Foe?: Tech Staff and Teachers Don't Always Get Along

| Jim Moulton

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.

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Comments (27)

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Marcia Tyrol (not verified)

How lucky we are at our

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How lucky we are at our school to have a tech director from industry to keep our servers running and manage the problems that 800 users cause or confront every day. He brings a new perspective to education and yet supports us in our efforts at integration.
I certainly agree that blocking sites can be detrimental as we search for meaningful ways to bring the world into our classrooms. I am starting to use Skype in the hopes of establishing safe real life communication for my Spanish students. It is blocked, but we figured it out!
Anything new takes time and effort AND cooperation...so I guess as teachers we need to ask that good old standby question, "Is it worth the time it takes?" If it is, we need to take the time and work out the issues to make out classrooms Web 2.0 connected and to challenge ourselves to learn what we need to learn to be 21st century teachers.

Maddie Davidson (not verified)

Teacher Control

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I was fortunate to have started teaching just as the internet was hitting the classroom. My Science Dept chair and I were the "tec team." This was also the time pre net-nannies, and it was up to the teachers to keep internet behavior in line. We learned to keep the screens of the computers facing the instructor! We made our own internet use contracts. Use of the full power of the internet gave us some of the best lessons: meaningful, current, memorable.

I understand that the students must be kept off MySpace and youtube on the school's computers, but as a teacher, I do not think that the richness of youtube for instructional materials should be blocked to me. I can plan next year's lessons if I turn in the "unblock" request, but the immediancy that was the best part of internet use is gone. There are other useful sites that are blocked as well. I wish there was a way for teachers to monitor their own use as they develop lessons based on the internet or use the richness of the internet's video, pictorial, and yes, even game!, sites.

Anonymous (not verified)

The enemies of technology integration

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There are no sides to technology integration in schools. It is a complete and equal partnership. The integration of technology is not a process. It is a project where everyone comes to the table with a valuable piece of information and responsibility.

Everyone has to be willing to listen to each other create a consensus and move forward. Obviously no one has all the knowledge so no one person can make the best decision.

The most damaging enemies of technological integration are time and priorities (leadership). No person has unlimited time and thus has to set priorities or have them set for them. I would love to know how to code is ASP but I don't have the time; really it is not a priority. Teachers and technologist often make decisions in reaction to what is in front of them, without the input from the others. Technology staff looking at full T-1 connection and a constant stream of complaints might shut down the t-1 to video and audio streaming. Not to censure but to constrain bandwidth. Or a teacher reconfiguring a space for the same reason - they need it done now. Though necessary at the time, both situations, if not addressed again later could lead to a negative situation.

Technology permeated every part of our environment today. Unfortunately, many of us fumble through the various technology processes because we are in a rush to get to the actual work at hand. This is whether we are installing software to do taxes, or calling a bank to get account information (voicemail menu systems). It is a fact of life.

We owe it to our students to work together as equal partners to make this a successful endeavor.

Anonymous (not verified)

Technology is not at the forefront in my school!

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I am so frustrated with the way technology is handled at my school. I have been asking for a Tech. Lab. for the past two years...and the response I get is: "Well we had a lab a number of years ago, before you came, and then it was dismantled. Each classroom got 3 computers. We had difficulty funding a position for a person to be in charge..." Funding is a CHOICE and it is obvious that technology is not at the forefront at my school!

Anonymous (not verified)

Friend or Foe- tech staff?

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Our tech staff is probably one of the friendliest because they are mostly teachers- either they were or they are currently. We only have one person who wasn't, and sometimes he can be a little abrasive. He does tend to restrict some of the abilities that you would normally have when he reconfigures the computers over the summer (ie. downloading). Overall, we can override the filtering software to a degree, which is important for me as an art educator because everything tends to be blocked when it comes to art images and artists. In the case that the filtering software will still not allow a site, all we have to do it is e-mail the IT department, and they will change the permissions for the site. Out tech staff will bend over backwards to make sure that you can use technology in the classroom. They are always researching new ways to incorporate technology in the classroom, and are always available for troubleshooting. As a staff, we are not typically talked down to about technology, but that could be because a large group of us have masters degree in instructional technology that was through a school intiative. I'm sure that our school is not typical, and I know that our tech staff is one of the best (if not the best).

Jim Gates (not verified)

I'm one of the lucky ones

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I think, perhaps, you're missing the point. Your story of the person who blocked all foreign sites is all the proof you need to argue the case that non-educators have NO business making those kinds of decisions. They are there to make the network run smoothly and securely, but, IMHO, it's not their job to be making decisions that effect curriculum.

In my area there are several tech folks who use a filtering system that permits filtering policies based on roles. So, administration can have a different policy from the teachers who have different sites filtered than the students. This would seem to be the ideal situation, allowing teachers access to YouTube, for example, without opening it up to the students.

But, I've heard many of them say that they don't tell their teachers about it, because they "don't want to go down that road." This is OUTRAGEOUS, in my opinion, and should NEVER be tolerated by a knowing administration. As teachers are fond of saying, "I can take 50 kids on a field trip to Europe for ten days, but I'm not trusted with YouTube?"

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.

While my district doesn't allow teacher overrides, we CAN ask to have a site opened up for a project, for example. Some sites are blocked per board decision, like YouTube, which used to be open. But for the most part we're fairly open. I'm among the fortunate.

Thanks for your part in airing this conversation.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tech staff and teachers

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I am the technology support person at the school level and I find myself taking the brunt, not only from the teachers, but from the district IT staff as well. It is hard to be in the middle and go to bat for the teachers, who are mostly annoyed because a certain website, function or program is not accessible while at the same time understand the technical difficulties involved and try to reach a compromise with parties that don't want to (or can't) understand the other side.
When we moved to Active Directory, for instance, the fact that every user now needed a username and a password became a huge issue in a school with over 900 students who couldn't remember their passwords from one day to the next. The district IT had no solutions to alleviate the day to day frustrations of having students sit in front of the computers doing nothing for lack of passwords. The immediate solution for me was to assign passwords to each user, the first year manually (there goes a whole Saturday!) and the second year with a found software program that could generate/export/import usernames and passwords.
IT, in the meantime, sits in an office remotely managing computers and never gets to see the wasted instructional hours their decisions can cause in the classroom. I, the messenger, get shot by the IT department every time teachers complain - I think ultimately student access is the goal and IT decisions that prevent access need to be fought. But I am always in the middle hearing teachers complains and excuses from IT - not a fun place to be.

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Jim Moulton Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant