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Inadequate support infrastructure: Adversely impacting students

After 42 years in education and 37 years as an educational technologist, I recently retired from my latest position, chief technology officer of an extremely large urban school district.  Over the past few weeks I have been thinking about the various changes I have witnessed in educational technology over this span.  People laugh when I tell them that I earned my doctorate in educational technology in 1977, before the advent of microcomputers, for they cannot comprehend the concept of educational technology without them.  But something I recently read reminded me that while some things may have changed dramatically over the years, others seemed to have barely changed at all.

In March 2009, eSchool News published the results of a second annual survey and report, conducted together with CoSN and that focused on the unique challenges facing IT professionals in the K-12 environment.  An area that particularly caught my attention was the availability, or should I say lack of availability, of technology staff and other support resources in our nation’s K-12 schools.  Much as the previous year’s study, it showed that there were far too few staff to handle the growing amount of technology in our schools.  It mattered little whether you looked at it from staying on top of repairing and maintenance of the equipment or looked at it from the perspective of enabling instructional staff to use the technology more appropriately and/or effectively in meeting the instructional needs of their students. 

Regardless of how one examined the data, the outcome was the same:  an unacceptably high percentage of our schools and districts do not possess an adequate technology support infrastructure (e.g., people, services, resources) to adequately sustain the expanding role of technology in our schools.  To make matters worse, the survey on which these results were based took place before the exact nature of the next fiscal year’s budget cuts have been identified.  One does not need to be a clairvoyant or posses any great mystical powers to predict that next year will probably see less support for school-based technology than the last several years.

From my perspective, the report succeeds in one area, yet falls short in another.  It is most successful in terms of validating what many of have known for years:  there is simply not enough technology staff or support in our schools.  On a personal note, this was a limitation 30 years ago, and, as the survey illustrates, remains a limitation today. 

But what do the results of the survey really tell us in terms of the role of technology in our schools?  Yes, the report indicated that school-based technology staff will find it more difficult to get things done; but I still needed to put these broad notions in a context that means something to virtually everyone involved in K-12 education.  Yes, technology staff will need to work harder to produce results at a more basic level than in previous years.  But responses such as this don’t get down to the level of what technology in K-12 education is about:  helping students learn.  One way or another, we seem to gloss over the fact, or take it for granted, that insufficient resources devoted for support eventually have a negative impact on instruction. 

The untimely repair of equipment

The timely repair of equipment is one of the first areas to suffer from inadequate support resources.  Whether referring to basic computer repair or server repair, or the more complex and/or esoteric maintenance of routers and switches, it is virtually impossible to sustain a professional maintenance standard when adequate resources are unavailable.  I have seen schools where a single on-site technician, even when backed up by central IT technicians, is expected to stay on top of 600+ computers, several servers, routers, and switches, while hand-holding  teachers who are weak in technology, working closely with experienced technology-literate staff, and implementing new technology programs.  But to get back to my original concern, how does this affect our ultimate end-users, the student?

Unfortunately, it is the student who suffers the most from the lack of timely repair, and this manifests itself in several different ways.  First, and most obvious and direct, equipment that is not working is unavailable to be used by students–computers and printers that are waiting for repair have as much utility as a rock.  Thus, the amount of computer-time available for students becomes limited.  This, too, can have an adverse effect on a well-designed lesson (more about this later).  Worse, servers and switches that are waiting for repair can create technological chaos for an entire room, wing, or building.  The impact of increased downtime of these devices increases exponentially  when compared to computers and printers.

But the students are harmed in a more indirect way as well.  While most experienced computer-using teachers are able to handle in stride the occasional malfunctioning piece of gear, it becomes disheartening when repairs take an inordinate amount of time or when an entire network is down.  When the instructional staff loses confidence in the school’s technology, it begins looking for other, more reliable, tools to use.  Thus, student learning suffers because students will not be using the tool that is the teacher’s first choice, and they are losing because their use of technology is being limited at a time when it should be being increasing. 

Equipment that remains non-functional for an extended period of time impairs student progress in other, sometime, less traditional ways.  As schools move toward distributing curriculum guides and instructional materials to staff digitally rather than via more traditional paper, insufficient support staff and resources only lead to students once again not receiving full advantage of the district’s technology investment.  Similarly, with increasing use being made of distance learning opportunities or server-based courseware, an inadequate or insufficient technology support infrastructure once again impairs the focus and purpose of our efforts–student achievement!  While I could continue to give examples of how repair and upgrade delays adversely affect students and the instructional program, I think it best if we move on to a different aspect of the responsibilities of technology support staff and resources.

Limited time working with staff

While the discussion of how an inadequate technology support infrastructure is most often directed at its effect on hardware, we can’t ignore the fact that many districts and/or schools expect some of their IT staff to provide staff development activities to the instructional and, quite frequently, the support staff.  But once again, if there isn’t sufficient staff or other resources to adequately maintain the basic equipment, one can only wonder the degree to which this component is fulfilled.  

First, as suggested above, all too often the professional development component takes a back seat to the equipment maintenance function.  In spite of the school technology specialist’s best intentions of working on-on-one with teachers, they are frequently called away to handle hardware-related "emergencies."  Try as they might, it is difficult to turn down a request from a teacher whose lesson is falling apart due to an apparent equipment issue or a plea from a principal whose printer stopped working an hour before the report he/she was working on was due at the central office. 

But as one digs just below the surface of these fairly common situations, we once again discover that due to insufficient technology support in our schools it is our students who are again the victims. For example, if the technology staff cannot provide the weaker technology-using teachers with the extra support they need to grow professionally, their students will not only continue to receive sub-standard instruction in the specific content area, but they will similarly have narrow and inadequate experiences using technology.  Some teachers or groups of teachers, while possessing adequate technology skills, require additional support to plan and implement creative and innovate technology applications.   The failure to provide this support will only lead to sub-standard implementation, teacher frustration, and reduced learning outcomes for our students. 

Final comments and suggestions

More than 30 years of experience, backed up by two consecutive surveys have led me to the uncomfortable realization that there is something wrong in the way in which we have sold technology as a tool of instruction.  While the instructional side of the house has generally bought into this concept and has continued to purchase more and more technology resources, I am not certain that they and district funding mechanisms have generally grasped or kept up with the funding required to support a technology-rich environment.  Failing to maintain an adequate technology support infrastructure will generally lead to the disappointment in expected learning outcomes, as well as not getting full value from the investment in technology.

Potential solutions are certainly not easy and, in some cases, may even be unpleasant to implement.  To help get you started, you can consider some of these approaches:
• Convince school/district to provide additional resources needed to enhance the technology support infrastructure.
• Reduce new acquisitions but maintain current support level.
• Analyze current support policies and procedures with the intention of reorganizing the technology support team for greater efficiency.
• Determine the level of support required prior to purchasing new equipment, software, or courseware.

Finally, I would like to raise the flag of caution to IT staff about their tendency to blame others for all of their problems.  It frequently appears that in their effort to provide support for all, as well as serve as chief technology evangelist, IT staff makes promises it can’t keep, particularly in the realm of providing adequate support.  So before blaming others, I suggest a good long look in the mirror.

These are but a few suggestions for reducing the magnitude of the problems associated with inadequate technology support infrastructure.  Unless your school or district is one of the few that has an adequate support infrastructure, I suggest you begin by considering these or developing your own.  Failure to improve your support infrastructure will only lead to disappointment and disillusionment. 

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