How to set realistic tech-support staffing goals

How many support technicians does it take to keep a district’s network up and running? Rather than an off-color joke, this is a serious question that more and more schools have begun to face as their technical infrastructure grows beyond their support capabilities.

A scenario that is increasingly typical finds the teacher who was the impetus behind the district’s adoption of instructional technology as the sole source of technical support. While this person’s teaching load might have been reduced, he or she often is expected to teach one or two classes and sometimes is asked to manage larger projects, such as web site development or grant applications. The result of such burdens on an employee is poor performance in the classroom, intolerable technical support, and little or no expansion of technology. In short, the teacher who was once a visionary and technical enthusiast has become burned out and overworked and probably will decide to double his or her salary by going into industry within the next year.

So, back to my original question: How does a school or district staff its technical department? While it would be great if there were a magic ratio of computers to technicians, the problem is a little more complex than that. By looking at some of the variables involved in supporting a school network and defining some of the different roles involved in running a network, most districts ought to be able to come up with a number that is right for them.

The number of computers or users in a school’s network is probably the most objective way to determine support needs. Unfortunately, it is probably the least relevant of any of the factors involved. Obviously, support needs increase as the number of computers increase, and schools that increase their number of workstations by several hundred at a time may find themselves in dire straits if they don’t also increase their support staff. This number alone, though, doesn’t tell us much about a school’s needs. Without other information, support needs could vary widely based on factors such as location, use, and network infrastructure.

More valuable than the number of computers in a school or district is an understanding of where the computers are located and how they will be used. Some uses take a greater toll on the stability or reliability of the machine, thus requiring more attention from technicians. For example, lab machines and public access machines are prone to tampering and vandalism, while a machine that is located in an office and used by the same person every day is likely to require less support. On the other hand, even a computer on someone’s desk that has a peripheral, such as an attached scanner, or a buggy piece of software will require more technical attention.

Similar to the concern of location is the distance between workstations. Our campus has 11 buildings spread over several acres of land. To get from my office on one end of campus to a broken machine in the residence hall on the other end takes nearly 10 minutes. When I get over there and realize the problem requires a tool or disk I left back in my office … well, you can see how this could begin to eat up time. School districts with buildings spread out on opposite ends of town face an even more desperate need for multiple technicians.

Overall network design and security also play an important role in reducing the burden on support technicians. Locking down the desktops on public access machines and enforcing policies on software installation will reduce the down time of those machines. Remote-control capabilities that allow technicians to solve problems on machines in other buildings or schools also are critical components of an overall tech support plan.

Finally, the knowledge of the end-users themselves, while not a direct component of a tech support plan, will have an impact on how many phone calls your technicians receive. I find most of my time is eaten up by basic “how-to” type problems or simple things that a well-trained user ought to be able to fix himself. Training users to solve these problems or to access online resources before calling tech support will have a dramatic effect on the demands on your support staff.

Once you have a better handle on some of the variables involved in your support needs, you can begin to clarify job descriptions for your staff. Make sure you draw clear boundaries between leadership and design roles, front-line support, and back-line support. In discussing this issue with school administrators, I recommend a model that separates these roles into four different positions: director of technology, help desk analyst, on-site technician, and computer teacher or lab moderator.

The director’s job is an administrative position. This person is responsible for the overall management of the system and the support staff. Additionally, this person is responsible for implementing and updating the district’s technology plan and designing and implementing future expansions of technology. This person works closely with the district’s curriculum coordinator to integrate technology into the curriculum.

Front-line technical support should be handled through a district call center. These technicians are trained to provide phone support to handle routine problems, such as forgotten passwords or “how-to” instructions for using applications. They should have the ability to take control of a user’s workstation remotely to fix problems. When a problem cannot be handled over the phone or via remote control, call center technicians escalate issues to an on-site technician.

On-site technicians take care of back-line support and problems that require physical contact with the workstation. These technicians are assigned to specific locations, such as a building or school, and have the skills to troubleshoot most problems. Problems they can’t handle can be escalated to the director of technology or to a vendor’s tech support staff. The value of these technicians is their proximity to the problem. Ideally, they should not be shared among several locations.

Computer teachers or lab moderators provide a final, two-pronged approach to front-line support. By educating users as thoroughly as possible, the computer teacher reduces the number of “how-to” questions posed to the call center. By providing a physical presence in the computer lab at all times, the lab moderator reduces the number of vandalism incidents by making sure students are using the equipment appropriately. Depending on the number of computer classes you offer and the number of labs in your school building, you may need one or more people to fill this type of position.

While this model provides an outline for various roles that are required in any school tech support plan, keep in mind that every district is different, and you might need to concentrate your resources in different areas. For example, one district might opt to provide additional computer teachers and lab moderators and only staff a very small call center for administrative and business users. Other districts with many computers in each building might not be able to tolerate any down time and may decide to staff each building with two or three on-site technicians.

Like so many other informational technology issues, tech support is one of those problems whose solution varies based on how much money you want to throw at it. Many school administrators are only now beginning to realize the direct impact that quality, accessible technical support has on the reliability of their networks and the confidence their teachers have in those networks. As a teacher, I would be reluctant to spend much time designing lessons that required the network, if I couldn’t be relatively sure that it was going to be up when I needed it.

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