If your school year starts in September and you’re anything like me, you’re probably buried beneath a mountain of work orders, hundreds of boxes of new equipment, piles of unpaid invoices, and eMail and voice mail boxes that are overflowing as the new school year’s students begin to pour through the front doors.
Because a school’s population changes radically by anywhere from 100 to 1,000 people each year, the job of the school network administrator becomes especially challenging each fall. Not only are there several hundred new students who need to be granted access and trained, but there are usually a few new faculty members who need to be taught the ins and outs of the school’s information system. Additionally, most school IT departments are finishing major hardware and software upgrades that have taken place during the summer.
To help address these challenges, I’m offering a list of “New Year’s resolutions” for network administrators. These resolutions should reduce the seemingly insurmountable pile of work that comes with the beginning of every school year.
Get new equipment early in the summer.
Since billing terms are generally net-30, I order new equipment about a month and a half before the beginning of the new fiscal year. This means I have the month of June to set up new equipment before students arrive in July, and I can still pay the bills on time.
Configure new workstations with disk imaging software.
The ability to deploy an identical software configuration to multiple workstations will literally save you weeks of work. If you’re not currently using a disk imaging program, look into PowerQuest’s Drive Image Professional, Norton’s Ghost, or Image Cast IC3 by Innovative Software.
Anticipate delivery dates and have students there to help.
With the delivery of large numbers of computers comes lifting, carrying, and setting up. What a great job for students! I’ve found a number of kids who are more than happy to pitch in and help with this kind of work and will even come in on Saturdays or vacation days. In some cases, I’ve rewarded them with the older machines we were taking offline.
Build good user templates for accounts.
If your network operating system allows you to, create a template to set access rights, group memberships, etc. The fewer steps you need to take after creating the user object, the more time you will save in the long run. You will also prevent problems related to access rights that arise from accounts which are not identically configured.
Create an export procedure from your admissions database for easy import of user accounts.
You can reduce the time it takes to create new users from hours to minutes by importing new users into the network using a batch import rather than adding them one at a time. In NetWare, this is done using the uimport.exe program. Windows NT administrators can use the adduser.exe program. These are batch routines for creating new user objects. The biggest challenge in this process is getting the data file into the proper format for import. If possible, modify your admissions software to output a file in the proper format.
Make images of boot diskettes available on your FTP server.
I have wasted hours looking for specific disks that I needed for computer setup or troubleshooting. I generally don’t keep many DOS 6.2 boot disks that have my network card or my CD drivers on them, but you’d be surprised how often I wish I had one handy. This year, I’m going to create disk images of these frequently used diskettes and place them on our FTP server for easy access.
Put training documents on the web or in Windows Help files.
The better users are at using the standard Windows Help interface, the fewer support issues you’ll have to deal with. Not only have we translated our student user manual into searchable HTML, but we’ve made using the help feature in Windows a central part of new user training.
Keep your FAQ up to date.
An up-to-date list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) can be a valuable asset, but these lists tend to be much easier to create than to maintain. There just never seems to be enough time as new issues crop up. If you standardize your help desk procedures, however, you should be able to require your technicians to update the FAQ when necessary, or better yet, publish confirmed solutions to a searchable database.
Accommodate transfer students in the training process.
It’s easy to make sure all new freshmen are properly trained to use your school’s network and are educated about your acceptable use policy (AUP). We have an introductory course in the freshman curriculum that takes care of this. Transfer students are another matter, though. Since they come in at all different grade levels, it’s difficult to reach all of them with a standard course offering. By working with your admissions office, however, you should be able to build a scaled-down version of your basic training course into the transfer admissions process.
Design training workshops for new faculty.
Staff development that incorporates technology is important for everyone throughout the year, but new faculty will have more basic needs. They will need to be taught how to log in to the system, how to access eMail and web publication tools, and how to use various other network resources. As these are not complex skills, they can be handled in a single workshop, but the important thing is to minimize the number of times you need to review this information. Work with your Human Resources department to organize a single workshop at the beginning of each school year to introduce all new faculty to the network.
I don’t mean to suggest that my school’s network transitions seamlessly from one year to the next. I also have resolutions that, like my gym membership every January, are forgotten about two months later. Some ideas sound great in theory, but when it comes to implementing them, turn out to be too much aggravation. The ideas above, however, are not terribly difficult to implement, and with commitment and consistency, they can help your September look a lot less scary.