Saturday, April 25, 2009

Springing the Roaring Fork Valley

Last week it was warm enough to ride my bike. We have so many great trails to ride in the Valley. While I was out I tried to catch the evening light and some scenery.

The snow is still covers the mountain but will soon fade with this weather. I love this time of year because we see the greens of spring and the white of winter all in the same scene. We're watering the mountain in this shot.

Technology Planning

Spent two days working on the tech plan for our school district. This gave me ample opportunity to consider what we have accomplished and what is left undone. There is no doubt that we have been moving about as fast as we can to keep up with the demands of software, hardware and support. On the whole, are we improving the state of instructional technology across the district? What would be the major indicators of such progress?

According to the Colorado Department of Education, progress will be indicated by an increase in:

  • the integration of educational technology / information literacy (ET/IL) into the curriculum.
  • an increase in the proficiency of teachers and administrators in their use of technology.
  • an increase in the proficiency of 8th graders on 21st Century learning skills
  • a budget that indicates support into the future and includes training, infrastructure improvement, provision of bandwidth and support.
  • policies and procedures for insuring student safety and specifying the rights and responsibilities of users.
  • collaboration among staff and outside entities to achieve the goals.
  • An action plan of goals, objectives, strategies and a method of evaluation.

This list of requirements is a large bill to fill. We are on top of some and lagging on others. My biggest concern is in the area of training. While we are pressing hard on training in general in the district, we have done very little to help teachers understand and find ways to use technology to learn and teach. We are just beginning to expect teachers to do this. While this is a great start, the expectations in themselves will do no more than frustrate teachers.

A key indicator of progress will be the degree that staff are collaborating and communicating with one another in their use of technology. This movement will be a sign that we are using technology to actually teach and learn from one another. Hopefully it will indicate that we are developing resources that are useful, and that will leverage our knowledge and skill.

To this end, it appears that the time is right for implementing and training teachers to use more tools for collaboration. People are ready to publish staff resources on the web, in a format that can be used and/or edited and improved. The goal is to create resources - references that will help teachers focus their instruction and save them time. We can create a workspace where people can discuss and generate ideas (a wiki) and another space where these ideas are formalized into adopted practices and resources (Moodle). I am encouraged that there is some understanding and desire among administrators to move in this direction. Hopefully we can deliver the tools AND shape and structure them in a fashion that is relevant for teachers.

I still have quite a bit of work to do on the technology plan. It is due this Thursday. I hope we can realize some of the goals in the plan, especially the promotion of tools for teaching and learning.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Impermanence - the birth and death of technology

It's been a tough week for tech support. My staff and I are battling our first run of viruses. While our history of health may sound improbable it is true. We've gone over 10 years without an substantial infection. But our run is over. We have been toppled from our high horse, our years of innocence ended. While it has been a pretty isolated event it has made us appreciate the relative bliss we have enjoyed and what a drain an infection can have on our time.

Our freedom from viruses was won, not by chance. We have been careful to protect our computers with virus protection. We have controlled downloads with our firewall. We have chosen Macintosh and Linux computers whenever we can. We have done our best to restrict users to non-administrative accounts where viruses have limited power. But despite this best effort, we have seen viruses chew up the computers resources to a point where the computers are useless.

The most frustrating part of this event is that it has dominated my staff time. After hours of trying to clean the computers, we decided that a re-image was the fastest and most effective way to bring the computers back in service. Since the computers were older, Windows computers, we had to resurrect images that have been on the shelf for 3 or 4 years. Because we have lived free of this problem and given that imaging Windows is not something we invest in heavily, this was a very time consuming process.

These things happen. The world of technology is very dynamic I know. But somehow this struggle slapped me in the face this week. It put the grand experiment into new perspective. Though I don't deny that my staff and I are in the support and maintenance (not the innovation business), I like to thing that we are creative in what we do. But no matter how creative we think we are impermanence is our constant companion. Like the reality of death in our culture, it is the "uncomfortable truth" of our work.

Technology is marketed as a youthful endeavor - sexy, engaging, innovative, fresh, new. The attraction for technology is to make life easier and to some extent it accomplishes this ideal. Technology is forward looking. What new great innovation is on the horizon? What new tool is going to connect us, help us communicate, improve productivity. There is no doubt that technology has moved our society ahead with these goals. But the Madison Avenue, profit making, engine of industry has veiled the practical reality of making things work and keeping them alive.

Even as we battled the legacy of our old computers and their sickness, my staff and I tried to find time to work on the latest initiatives. New projects, new software to incorporate, new business processes; the wheel of birth continues to turn. These initiatives are fueled partly from necessity and partly from an obsession with the latest gadget, or a hope that life will be easier with the adoption of the next great technology. But ours is not to question why, just to advise and support.

But birth, like death, is a painful process right? It requires time for gestation. Sometimes one gets a little nauseous, perhaps to the point of throwing up. And when the bundle of joy emerges, it changes your life. The little one has to be fed. There are diapers to change, late night feedings. But despite the pain and inconvenience, the presence of new life is a joyful event. And just as the birth of a child has it pain and pleasure, the adoption of new technology has these aspects.

As I've struggled with my frustration this week, I've tried to understand this cycle of birth and death. I'm trying to be patient and realistic with both. I often feel deceived by the promises of new technology and challenged by the retirement of the old. But why should technology be any different than the rest of life. My job is simply to meet the day to day, ups and downs with equanimity. If I can maintain my balance, I expect I will be a better arbiter in the adoption - mantenance and retirement process.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Do you do Windows?

Word on the street is that Microsoft will end support for XP on April 14th. They will provide security updates for it until 2014. Surely I'll retire before then :-) I don't consider myself to be a Windows hater, but certainly not a fan. Our school district is 2/3 Macintosh, 1/3 Windows on the desktop. We favor Debian Linux on servers but have Mac and Windows there as well. I'm working on an accurate count of the desktop computers right now.

Windows has been on my mind a lot lately. We've been eaten by our first Worm this week. I spent the last week going computer to computer, installing software and virus updates. We spent at least 10 staff days on these "projects". For us, supporting Windows is a difficult (read time consuming) process. Some of this can be attributed to our relative lack of expertise and standard routines with it but a large share of the problem is due to overall:

  1. Expense - requires seat licenses, critical software updates, domain control, Active directory, virus protection, spyware protection, security controls, 3rd party imaging software.
  2. Requirement of a highly consistent implementation - users have to follow and live within policies to a greater degree.
  3. Complexity of configurations.
  4. Inconsistentency in performance - restarts required, fragmentation.
  5. Complications due to hardware variety. The guessing required to provide consistent service.
The Mac has it's own expense. This is the much debated of course. Clearly you pay more up front for a Mac but many of the expenses I have listed above don't exist or exist to a lesser degree for the Mac. This reduces it's cost over time. I have 8 year old Macs that are serving their limited purpose quite well. They are running a modern Operating System. The PCs running Windows will not provide this level of service for 8 years.

While my preference would be to standardize on Macintosh computers, I am not the only one who makes this decision. I have to do my best to support whatever is "chosen". As a tech director I look at 1500 computers and think we'd be better off with a standard desktop for all staff across the district - whether it's Mac, Windows or Linux. Any of them should be supported using standard configurations, management and imaging strategies. If we have to have routines that encompass 3 Operating Systems, we have to be incredibly gifted or crazy.

All that said, what is a "reasonable" diversity? There might be compelling reasons for having Windows in a High School computer lab. A few computer labs would be relatively easy to manage. I think my small staff, along with some dedicated technology teachers, could handle this. But it doesn't make sense to complicate computer support further than this when there is so little money and time to go around.

Given that we have a number of Windows computers. 1, 2, 3, or 4 computer labs in a building, what is good Windows management? We have a small staff. We are willing but short on time. How do we sustain this and provide Windows reliability?
  1. Get a good inventory of the hardware and where it is located.
  2. Select a method for keeping the image of the computers clean.
  3. Keep a library of clean, basic, images.
  4. Find a way to distribute the image.
  5. Find a way to update OS with service packs, virus protection, anti-spy software.
  6. Maintain hardware repairs.
But wait! A number of these computers are donated to us right? Shouldn't we just thank our lucky stars, bow down and put our nose to the Windows grindstone? No one is donating Macs to us. This bowing to "free" computers is at the root of a growing armada of Windows computer. The armada is begging for attention but we have not planned accordingly.

Perhaps there is a place for Windows in our children's education. Let's say that we support a computer lab in each high school. That's 3 labs - around 75-90 computers. Why not buy new Windows computers every 4 years for our labs. We can start with a good image, manage them well, and then retire them to the general building (teachers and mini labs). But (here's the twist) before you send them out to the masses, install Linux on them. Ubuntu Linux for education.

Taking this further, let's put Linux on every donated computer. Any computer over 3 years old could be managed with a Linux image or as a terminal, controlled by a Linux server.

Do we do Windows? Sure. But let's keep this in perspective. This is an age of constraint right? Time to consider what we can afford rather than living on credit right? Time to be practical and sustain our resources as best we can.