Sunday, November 30, 2008

Agreements - Barriers and Benefits

This week our Technology Leadership Team (IBB Tech Team) will meet to discuss the agreements that guide our selection and support of technology. I have spent quite a bit of time documenting these agreements and adding some on a pbwiki page. In this process I listed some key questions and a rationale for the particular agreement. My preparation was intended to help our team frame the issues surrounding the various aspects of selecting and supporting technology. I made this page available for editing/commenting so we could get a head start on the discussion.

As I have commented in earlier blog posts, the process of managing technology is fraught with many opportunities (more than we can grasp really) and many pitfalls. The pitfalls are generally unintended but can be anticipated with a bit of consideration. The good news is that we have some experience now. Ten years ago we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and there were few people (besides salesmen) who were available to give us advice. Now we have made quite a few mistakes, we own quite a bit of equipment, and we have experienced the life-cycle of some equipment. This gives us a good basis upon which to make decisions.

Despite our experience with technology, the members of our technology leadership team represent many different specialties and perspectives. This has been beneficial but it does increases the time required to formulate a plan. One of the main points of conflict occurs when the convenience of one group does not appear to impact another group. It is a lack of understanding of the interdependence of all the pieces.

One example; Passwords. Over the years the passwords to administer teacher and student computers have become common knowledge. It began when building technology staff felt pressured to get software installed and preferences changed on computers. As an educational organization we didn't adopt the practice of business, that employees should use what is provided on a computer and not be capable of messing with the underbelly. Given the relative small number of support staff to computers, it seemed to make sense to share passwords and allow anyone to have the power to fix (or damage) their computer. Clearly, the practice of sharing passwords seems like a winner from the users perspective. It makes sense to make computer management convenient. On the other hand it defies best practice (in the IT world) to allow this access just because it is convenient. There is a wide range of knowledge and ability among users. Some staff understand and help themselves when they have computer trouble. The question becomes; Why have an administrative account at all if all users are admin users?

As this example shows, we are often balancing user convenience with overall security and/or support costs. My 6 staff are responsible for all the computers in the district. Building technology staff are responsible for support in their building only. The district tech's efficiency is hinged upon a common configuration and setup of computers. When we are asked to fix a computer that has been rearranged, it increases our resolution by hours. While, on the face of it, it makes sense to make life convenient for the largest number of people, it is the largest number that will be inconvenienced when one of my staff is indisposed with a single "customized" computer.

How do we overcome these differences in perspective? Fortunately there has been enough common understanding within the Technology Leadership to balance the needs of the many (teachers and staff) with the needs of the few (support staff). Most of the members of the team have some experience and therefore some appreciation of the real challenges of computer support. They know that what appears to be an easy solution isn't always so. They have spent hours and days fixing a single computer. On the other side, we (district support staff), have a desire to make technology convenient and understandable for our users. We want them to use these tools in their instruction. We want them to have easy and quick resolution to their problems. It is in this spirit that we debate the issues and forge creative solutions to our shared problems.

Given that we have more support available to teachers (we added 3 staff last year), it seems like we are better equipped to respond quickly to support calls. I am hoping that this fact helps sway people into greater restriction on admin passwords. I am not opposed to allowing a greater number of users admin rights but the people who have these rights should have an understanding of the options and implications for their use. They should also have an appreciation for the standardization of computer configurations. In the end, this standardization will speed the resolution of issues. It will also allow us to provide training and support in a format that is understandable to people using standard tools.