Who Decides
About School Technology?


Patti: Our list has gone quiet. Everyone must have had a very busy week.

Lars-Erik Ay Patti, you are right. It has indeed been a tough week with last weekend totally spent on work and this weekend it looks like it will be the same.

Patti: Lars-Erik and all, I know this is the case for so many of us. In fact, this is an issue we all face in our schools - management of time. Because I have been using online technology in my school since 1991 many people are at my computer lab door each day. My students and I are involved in so many good projects. I come home each night and get right back on this computer. A body needs rest sometime and my body usually "quits" on me by Friday night and says, "mercy!"

How do we organize all we are doing with all we would like to do?

Lars-Erik: I have been quite also because there has been a lot of talk about the technical situation on peoples schools and since I am not working actively in schools right now just scouting them I have not shared any personal experience.

Patti: The technical situation at each school is helpful for me to know so we can make practical suggestions for our teachers with few computers as well as those with many in their schools. From you, Lars-Erik, (look out - she's asking for work ;-)) I would like to hear about some really creative ways you have seen teachers use new technologies where it is making a difference for kids.

Lars-Erik: If I get the time I'll try to get back to Adri on the art side and also talk a little about how to look at security issues on a school as opposed to a firm.

Patti: Good point! In my school district we have a school web server at the Central Office but teachers cannot FTP their web files from home. This is unfortunate. Teachers like to work when they get spare minutes at home on the weekends, etc. My "Global Classroom" web site is with my local ISP and I pay for the web space. I FTP files from home. They have a firewall around their system and I cannot telnet to them from Hawaii or anywhere outside the system, however. They are my friends and last year they gave me rights to telnet from Lynne's kalama account but only after Lynne tried to telnet in and they saw exactly what I would "look like" when I telnetted in during that week at HERN 97.

Security... security.... always an issue.

Lars-Erik: Hi all of you. Since you have been discussing technology at schools I decided to translate an article I wrote that deals with the problem of how to implement systems in schools. I hope it can lead to a discussion. Bear in mind I have been responsible for the computers in my school for 15 years so I am well aware of the troubles you have running the system.

Who decides about school technology?

Last week I met a teacher who is attending one of our courses. She was very upset. She said:

"This is crazy. I spend two hours driving to your course, three hours on the course and then make another three hour journey home and then I am supposed to work in our project group in between sessions. And then when I get to my school I can hardly do anything of the things I want at school. And why? Because our computer equipment is outdated? Because we don't have many to get the programmes I need? Oh no! Simply because the system guy who is in charge at our school has built a system that is so tightly secured that we can't use the machines.

You know how it is. You have an hour free between lessons or maybe after the schoolday, so you want to use the computers and work on your project. Well then I have to log in first. There are fourteen steps before I get onto the network. It takes me almost a quarter of an hour just to get in. Then you surf out on the net. After some searching on a slow connection you find a picture that you want. You do what they have taught you on the course. You right click on the picture to save it and use it in a document. Then the computer says no! The technician has decided you can't download things from the net. You might get a virus he says. So I thought I'd practice using real time communication. Since we didn't have the programme I asked the technician to install it. I could do that he says but you can't use it. Our municipality has blocked all ports except for http calls and mail."

Well the positive part is that she worked in a municipality that had at least hired someone to run the system and not just dumped it on a teacher. That way the teachers don't have to fight an endless fight against computers that don't want to do what they want to do, or look for files that have disappeared, change settings or a number of other things that you can't really expect a teacher to be able to. The negative part is obvious. The technician, being omnipotent since he has all the knowledge of computers has become the person who decides how the computers may be used. That way the technician has become the person who has usurped power about computer pedagogics.

Things easily develop this way. What teacher dares to question the authority of the technician when he says something is difficult, impossible let alone forbidden to do? The technician obviously has the upper hand. Most teachers wouldn't even dream of questioning his decisions. In many schools the result is a tragedy. Expensive and educationally powerful equipment is deprived of it's power and rendered useless or at least not more powerful then a common typewriter.

Time for another story that may prompt some thoughts. I was in Rio with some of my Kidlink friends. It was a conference about networking and Kidlink. One of the young people attending was Tryggvi Jonsson from the Icelandic schoolnet Ismennt. When he went up to the rostrum he just dropped his notes and said:

"At first I thought I would tell you all about how you create a net for computer communication but since I have been listening to you I know you wouldn't understand what I was talking about. It would all be to technical. So instead I will tell you how I look upon the mission of a technician."
He went on describing a typical organisation with its educational demands. He described the staff as people without knowledge about technology but with a lot of visions about how education could be changed curious about the new machines.
"This is how I look at my job", he said. "A group of teachers have an idea a project they want to realise. They see the computers as instrumental in achieving the goal of project. But first of all they need the computers to be prepared for the things they are needed for. They describe their needs then they say: Tryggvi, go fix it! - This is my role!"

The insight this young Icelandic kid had I wish other system people would have. A computer system must be built to fit the needs of the users or the organisation it's used in. There are fundamental differences between systems used for educational purposes and systems used for administration or business. Business systems are characterized by the sensitive information it carries. The amount of programmes run are often very few but they have to work. The information in the system must be kept safe so no data is lost. Therefore it has to be secured against intrusion or crashes. Demands here are high. There is usually an incentive for people to force the system. If data is intercepted by outsiders there is a chance that no backup will help.

Educational systems are examples of the opposite. Schools have to look forward, encourage creativity and the hunger to try different solutions to a problem. This takes a lot of different programmes and hardware settings and sometimes crazy solutions. And to make it worse many of the users do not understand what borders are unsafe to cross or might even want to test such borders. But at the same time loss of data is not the worst threat. If something happens to the system it can always be backed up. You might lose a day's job which is not so nice but at the same time not a catastrophe.

It's obvously important that school authorities realises that shools needs system people for their equipment. And let's face it. Those technicians will not have an easy time. At all time they must strive to fulfill the need teacher's and students have for functional tools while at the same time they must keep the system working. What is important to understand though is that security can't be a tight fence that makes the technology unuseful for educational purposes! In other words. Teachers - take control of the technology! The demands from the teacher's has to be the deciding factor when computer systems are implemented. The school computer is nothing but a tool to enhance the learning process. If the the system is not set up to suite educational demand there is a risc that computers will prove to be a bad investment. Correctly set up it will not.

So this is the article I wrote in a fit of irritation at how schools implemented their systems. There are inumerous ways learning can be stopped. It does usually not have anything to do with technology itself. It may be the doing of a technician who tries to keep himself from being overworked. It might as easily be a teacher who doesn't think that writing on a computer is as important as handwriting or that doesn't think that handling pictures is as important as handling text. It might also be demands from parents scared stiff because of programmes they have watched.

A networked computer has a lot of potential. It can be used for research, to establish cognitive apprenticeship, to get a multiperspective, to analyse and make a synthesis or to create powerful presentations. It may be a fight to make the equipment work but in my experience seeing a lot of schools the challenge is to get people to see the promises for education and rid themselves of the fears. For what is a network if you are afraid what you meet there? What is a computer system if you are afraid to try its power. What is the productive force if not even teachers are allowed to present their material there?

Patti: Lars-Erik, you raise excellent points. I asked a question about permissions for teachers to ftp web files to their school web servers on our Maryland K-12 listserv and have received several comments from that list as well. I will share them here with all of us. This entire discussion we are having has been very enlightening for me. I see so many issues for us:

  1. the basic how to's for new Internet users
  2. using the Internet in the curriculum we have before us
  3. technology in schools: who makes the decisions? sys admins vs. the educators vs the facilities engineers
  4. media hype - the online dangers!

Carolynn: Lars-Eric and Patti, Our experience has been that different technicians create different problems - a recent "Novell expert" wiped out all our My World programme - which form the background for the fun activities at the end of lessons - and some Geography and Print Shop programmes. The technicial who replaced him has not been able to re-load them but has had reasonable success in loading other programmes and sorting out the rights to directories for staff and students...so we the computer staff are back in everyone's good books.

Its so hard to maintain stability and expect growth when a technician visits for a few hours a week and thats really all we can afford. Our afternoon computer co-ordinator's post - which was advertised at the beginning of the year is taking ages to go through the interviewing channels (of course we must be careful) and in the meantime, my colleage and I work from 7:30 to 5p.m. every day of the week in order to keep the network open and available. Its been quite a strain on our family and personal lives and certainly the quality of my web-discussions and teaching is affected. These are some of our problems and I have requested more time off next term. Unfortunately until they find a manager who is caring and sharing, I wont be able to offload the job. Its rather a vicious circle.

On the security issue side - how can we lock a computer which is in a library where senior staff congregate for social events? They would be offended if we put a lock on the keyboard as many of them were involved in the financing of these computers. The librarian is finding her WIN 95 computer is always being tampered with - her library system crashed last week!! How also can I avoid having three sets of e-mail to answer (without the expense of a laptop which I cant afford). I'm the postmaster at the senior and junior school and my home computer is where my "thinking mail" arrives? What do you mean Patti when you say you FTP your files at home?

Best wishes from South Africa - winding down the term and preparing for parents' visits......

Patti: I asked my question about FTP access for teachers from their homes and several friends responded. Here is a reply from Bert Kimura who is the Co-coordinator - Educational Media Center at Kapi‘olani Community College in Hawaii.

Bert: We are struggling with this situation here at KCC. However, I do want to say that I'm sympathetic with teachers (and faculty) that want to have their own ftp access to update their web sites. And I do understand and appreciate the fears that the computer support folks (and even media center folks) have with regard to security and control.

Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Set up a web server exclusively for use for educational applications. Something like Webstar on a Mac (with Net Presenz) is very easy to set up and learn how to use.

2. Provide ftp access for teachers. If they want to let students do file transfers, the teachers must accept responsibility for inappropriate use. And the teachers must give explicit permission to do so.

3. Be sure to maintain logs, etc on website access. We found that in some situations, logging might be limited to just a short period of time. If you want to back track to hunt down potential abusers you need a perpetual log.

4. Let another teacher be the "web master" for political reasons. However this person must include this function within his/her duties. In my mind, you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you want to have control you have to accept the responsibilities that go with it. I would even rotate this function from year to year so that many teachers will develop expertise in this regard.

5. Get teachers interested to agree to and write down a "code of conduct" for all users that have ftp access to the server. If this "code" is broken, the consequences should be spelled out. You can't make up the rules as you go along.

6. Have a small group of teachers (and students too) to be an "advisory" group to address issues or decide on policy that might come up with regard to use of this server. One important issue that I've encountered is determining how to structure the file directories so that you don't get extremely long URLs: ie


7. Eventually, the issue of cgis will come up. Set up the server so that cgis are restricted to a cgi-bin subdirectory. You reduce the risk that someone might install some program that can create havoc on the server and other servers with the local area. The TQ contest handles this well. Without cgis, the TQ websites wouldn't be much of anything at all. You may have to get a programmer type person (or better yet, trustworthy students!) to review all cgis before they are loaded on the server.

8. Also, all teachers that use this server must understand that there is a definite risk that something might go berserk. That's the risk inherent in experimentation. If the teacher doesn't want to take this risk, then he/she can use a more "controlled" server that isn't as "open" as this one (ie one that is maintained under tight control by MIS types).

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Patricia A. Weeg