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.