Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Path From the Past to Present

Some folks contacted me recently from another school district. They wanted some advice on how to open up new technology programs, new ways of thinking. They described that their network was extremely locked down to the point of being unusable... used for basic word processing, presentation creation (mostly PowerPoint) and for basic web research. They described a disconnect between IT service policy and the needs of education. Often debates would go on for years with no motion. No one was listening and too many people had genuinely given up. Consensus was always trying to be reached... and never could be. People were beginning to feel worn down. 

I told them that our journey here has not been without bumps. It's been a laborious process at times and not without some tough, heated discussions… but we have made some progress. I started chatting over some of the five year history here and how our proposals have pushed some folks to think forward rather than about status quo. It didn't happen magically. Here's a summary:

Five years ago we started out by proposing a refit the rooms here on the floor. We shut off the bright florescent lights and added some indirect lighting, painted over the institutional white walls and took the desks out of rows. We painted two tech classrooms, extended the new look to the hallway (4 colors), put up some artwork and even tossed new color in the bathrooms. Students participated in it all and it's proven to be a great space for work here. The work drew attention from some other areas of the school and brought to light on very important question: 'Do classrooms need to look like, well, traditional classrooms?'

The old network structure here five years ago was very locked down and basically not functional for any sort of progressive or collaborative education in our new 'tech' classes. As we proposed changes we discovered a high level of frustration with other teachers and students on campus over the level of desktop and internet control… not atypical to educational institutions. So, we did our surveys and proposed a shift to a new Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). Some intense discussions and debates began. The thought of moving to a more open philosophy is difficult for some. It took a considerable amount of time to convince some folks that a locked down approach stifles educational opportunities and growth. It ultimately builds dependency and increased demands on IT services as well. Heavily restricted access also leads to user frustration and promotes very generic use of powerful hardware. The first step negotiated was to restore more local rights to computers in supervised Labs. The move (grouping Lab computers for more access rights in Active Directory) opened up educational opportunities in the Labs. Over the next year advanced access to local computers was opened up for everyone else on campus. Routine service calls initially went up (as expected.)… and then quickly plummeted far beneath previous levels. It was the first step in the overall Acceptable Use Policy change. Many discussions and lobbying then continued for more advanced access.

We had a Hardware / Networking class that was more based on book work, so a hands on Lab was created with donated machines and tossed away the books. A quick trip to Boston for some donated gear, some makeshift tables, some tools, wiring and we were off and running. Installs and experiments began for students on relevant hardware and diverse OS installation / configuration, and networking experience. Hands on learning. Refurbishing machines led to a logical next step.

We created 'a Refurbishing Program' for old equipment here on campus. Donated machines and older machines on campus were reconditioned for students to take home. 1. To begin address large problems with equity of access for students. 2. To introduce a new IT service and professional development model on campus. The program was turned over along with the Hardware and Networking class to Kevin Morrison and more intense development went into the 'Tech Research' class model.

We proposed a Student Help Desk model where students participate in tech support and training on campus for adults and peers. As a first step students introduced adults on campus to blogs and wikis via a 5 minute presentation and then adults headed down to the Labs here for training. Much to the adults surprise, about 15 students were on hand to assist with instruction. There was no lockstep group instruction, rather we dove in on a personal level and began grouping people by needs and proficiency. After that one session those 15 students setup appointments with faculty and staff over the two weeks that followed to continue web development. The training initiative was a smashing success. More detailed Help Desk proposals have followed here over these last 2 years. The program here still sits in sort of a 'beta' mode, far beneath it's potential… but it's still successful. In the meantime this proposed Help Desk model has been passed on to 9 other schools, 3 districts, incorporated into the Digital Wish Foundation Laptop initiative and is now modeled in the upcoming State Technology Plan for 2010.

As more flexible desktop computer projects got underway across campus and the Tech Research class kicked into a new gear, the next phase of our AUP proposal centered that the philosophy of internet filtering here be changed from 'what to allow' to, simply, 'what to block.' We switched to OpenDNS to filter (simple and free). We focused on simply blocking pornography and malware / spyware and left everything else alone. The decision was made at that time to continue to block all sorts of social networking on campus at this time… so we proposed that it be made accessible in supervised Labs: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Ning, Blogs, Wikis, etc.  As we expected, it was a widespread success and opened up more relevant discussions with students on our tech courses immediately. More faculty craved access to YouTube and other social networking sites across campus and more proposals and discussions over the next 1.5 years led to open access for all participants to social networking sites campus wide. The result Students and teachers were encouraged to discuss the use of social networking tools rather than simply deny use. Relevant and challenging education for the times at hand.

We moved on to propose a switch from Microsoft Exchange to GMail for Domains, later retitled Google Apps. More collaboration tools, quicker development, more accessible to students outside of school, hosted services (by Google) and… free.  2.5 years from first proposing the switch, after a number of meetings and rather intense debates the proposal was accepted and implemented. Since the shift there's more collaborative document sharing, shared calendar access, and less training initiatives related to email are necessary. Better yet, use has skyrocketed. It's been a fantastic success.

Reduced hardware needs, software licensing costs and the overall simplicity introduced to the network by these initiatives led to increased use on campus and the need to purchase more bandwidth to the internet. With all the money saved in infrastructure it was easy to reallocate money for more bandwidth. Once installed, projects continued to get more diverse by including video and audio content and higher level, more reliable and faster web research.

More widespread use of social networking tools led to the school taking on Twitter as a notification system and to develop presence on Facebook.

A widespread increase in use and demand across campus led to the need to install a new wireless infrastructure. We did our research here and by cost and feature comparisons available across the market, we proposed AeroHive as the vendor to meet our needs. 1.5 years after our recommendation was sent in, it was implemented. Along with the change, access was opened up for students to bring in their own devices.

There have been countless presentations on the items above and some tough discussions to get to this point… our present. There were many times I've wished it was easier to bring these ideas to fruition. Regardless, more collaboration and discussions are taking place about how to use technology… rather than simply locking things down, pretending it doesn't exist… and moving on, business as usual as so many educational institutions seem to do. Change… can be difficult for educational institutions… but it's necessary if we are truly educating students for their future. It's not for the sake of technology. It's about education and opportunity. It's about teaching kids to leverage these tools into something... instead of denying access and promoting that they are, in fact, only good for the purposes of writing, basic research, and entertainment.

I mentioned to these folks that we had the same debates about television years ago. The movie Good Night and Good Luck frames Murrow's famous speech to the RTNDA on this matter quite eloquently.

That old television debate is just magnified this time. It's just moving faster this time... and that's why schools, with their slow development curves have a hard time adapting. For many, the discussions and motion on technology is 'just one more thing.' What we've tried to help people understand is... 'it's not an add, it's a shift.'
I'm not sure if the tale of nearly five years of development helped these folks in spirit, but it did show them a map of sorts at least of how we got to the present. There are places where these shifts happen in a much more streamlined fashion, where energy is redirected into the projects themselves rather than simply bringing them to fruition. Often when you seek advice from other institutions it can be viewed as threatening to some internally... a comparison of sorts. Simply put, I assured them that research is a lot better than reinventing the wheel all the time... which too many schools seem to do. Research will also save folks from what I call 'pilot project and sub-committee hell.' There are formulas success, and they are easy to find.

I referred these folks to our Proposals page to view our pieces discussed here in more detail. 

We continue to field requests now and again... but many have traveled down these roads already now. It's time, hopefully, to move forward again.

We've got a number of other proposals floating out there that have evolved from our discussions and detailed research out and about. One has been in discussion for as long as 10 years... one-to-one computing. Some others proposals are just a year or two old and a few others that are brand new. We'll discuss these in the next posts… Present and Future Discussions.