Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Cynicism of Surveys and the Slow Uptake of ICT in Schools

The results of a survey using a sample group of 600 schools has been released and I'm finding myself questioning it's validity... Although I don't think I trust the method of any survey anymore. They're all too often taken as hard and fast results rather than looking at the inherent flaws. The survey was based around IT Infrastructure in schools.

Say you're a school, and you don't have much IT infrastructure to speak of. In fact, the computers are a  hindrance (I'll explain this bit in a second) and computers are really to be avoided, as in the classroom, you just don't have enough of them or the confidence that they'll be in a working state. Those in charge are unlikely to admit to just how poor their infrastructure really is. So unless they're forced to participate in a survey, those results are always going to be skewed.

So the idea of computers being a hindrance. When I was in primary school there was 1 or 2 C.O.W.'s (Computers on Wheels) which would spend probably a week every year in each classroom. If you were lucky, you'd get to have a go on it for 10 minutes after you'd completed your work as a special treat. It was never enough time to figure out what ever game (I think it was something to do with Alice in Wonderland?) they had running - if you were lucky enough to have the machine running when you got to go on it. Otherwise, you had to figure out how to get it going.

Jump forward to today and most schools will have at least 2 or 3 computers sitting at the back of the classroom. A lot of schools will do much better. But for those who only really have a couple of computers at the back of the classroom, the situation isn't all that different from what it was when I was at school. A school's IT support provider is likely to be quite an expense in which case, given that the computer's usage is sporadic anyway, it's often not worth getting support in on a weekly basis. If you're only getting support every 2 weeks or more, chances are, the computers in your school are more a hindrance. The computers continue to remain in this state where they're simply not used because every little issue is waiting 2 weeks or so before they're fixed.

On the other hand, having a book with jobs to go and tend to and finding that a computer isn't working because someone has unplugged something is just as frustrating. In a classroom situation, with 24 odd (little treasures every one of them) kids all vying for a teacher's attention, it's little wonder that this happens. There was the other little issue I was having with this process. I would grab the book and find nothing written in it. If I entered a classroom with that book though, a teacher would invariably snatch it off me to write something in it. So following their own processes is sometimes less efficient than just asking the teachers.... Personally I always found it better taking time out to talk to teachers. Sure, conceptually less efficient. If the process isn't a good one, i.e. no one's particularly comfortable with it, then it could be argued that the more "manual" approach is better anyway (and helps build up interpersonal relationships).

The other thing that happens as a result - each individual school probably isn't worth all that much to the IT support vendor. In which case, they can be horribly protective of the environment. Passwords won't be given out (often the school's themselves can't do anything other than what's been prescribed by the IT support vendor).  They're more than likely running a Windows environment which chances are, they've got some remote access into but this doesn't take the place of good old desktop support.

As an example, the other week I was at a school I'd never been at before except for a meeting once early last year. I had to get the computer on the wireless network and, even though they were pretty open with the information, it turns out the information was wrong. I spent around 15 minutes fumbling around trying to figure out what the best approach was to "invade" a classroom.

Invade a classroom? It turns out that you can get a whole lot of things done a whole lot quicker by going straight to the user. None of this "this is what it should be" but rather, "this is what it is". So the kids, given that they use these things everyday, will know exactly how things are. So this job took around 2 minutes of sitting with a child (who seemed a little confused - it was information she took for granted).

This is probably all counter to my point about moving support to the classroom - but it does make sense.

What advantages is your school getting from Active Directory? Yes... it's all "best practice" and all the rest of it, but can these things be accomplished in a more.... education friendly way? If a computer falls off the domain, that computer is unusable until someone can come around and get it back on the domain. Can the desktops instead be seen as individual entities? Move the security back to the file servers and Internet access. This would also mean no more roaming profiles - often the first thing an I.T. support person does when they start fixing a machine is to go and delete those accumulated profiles.

How hard would it be to get some students doing some of the support? We've had the capacity for this for YEARS! Installation cd's and network boot capabilities to name a few. So it hasn't been particularly hard to make it so that machines could get back into a default position. The problem has been that this hasn't been the emphasis. So my, deeply unsatisfying, 7 minutes to image last year looked heavenly compared to the multiple hours taken to set up a Windows box using PXE boot (network imaging).

There's this whole interesting thing going on about the corporate environment vs. learning space. All too often I hear terms that just don't have learning at the forefront. It's about security against hackers and viruses and protecting the users from themselves. Where's the learning? It's probably in some doc file on a file server somewhere...

Is the environment made with learning at it's forefront? Keeping a machine in a working state is probably far more important than stopping errant use of the Internet (which, when it's one of the users on the network, is better dealt to socially). Mitigating those risks that can cause things to stop should be at the forefront of any classroom computer administration...

This is quite different from a corporate environment. A corporate environment isn't about learning - it's about productivity. Productivity and learning aren't the same things. We learn from failure more so than success which isn't at all productive (except to learning)...

So we need to stop trying to apply a corporate type infrastructure on top a learning based environment and instead start thinking about "what is best for THIS environment?" (Best practice be damned - best practice wasn't formulated with a learning emphasis).

What does this do to solve the problem of slow uptake? Oh - before we go there. We should have a look at the effect slow uptake has on school's not wanting to be left in the dust. Rather than looking at what opportunities the technology opens up for them and how that could fit into their learning, they're all too keen to purchase a whole lot ShinyDevices™ (whatever that might be at the time). It's so much more glamorous talking about "Augmented Reality" rather than "Authentic Voice" and "Transformative Experience" (an experience that changes the way people think - like writing a blog post and knowing the audience is the world). If you can save a whole lot of thinking and instead just find the funds.... ShinyDevices™ for everyone!

So if computers are able to be in the classroom in a state where teachers can be relatively secure in the fact that they are working, and can train a few kids up in going through a few checks if things aren't working, and have a fallback position so that even if the worst happens, they can STILL get going:
  1. It builds capacity within the classroom meaning that the cost of I.T. support doesn't go up (and could potentially go down). In this case though, the more the computer's are used, the more that I.T. support has to change to more PD (Professional Development) type tasks - showing a teacher how to embed a spreadsheet on a blog for example - quite a departure from your traditional I.T. support person. So no illusions here - those costs could go down. They're more likely to stay the same.
  2. Because the computers are now used for learning, any further expansion in this space comes from a pedagogical (hopefully) basis rather than trying to keep up with the  "Normal's" (the NZ school equivalent of the Smith's).
And all this without mentioning the benefits that Open Source brings to this space :-

The technology isn't limited by commercial concerns for example (i.e. a solution can be built that suits the environment rather than trying to get the environment to fit around a particular solution). 

The chance of getting white hat hackers (the good guys) finding vulnerabilities before black hat hackers (the bad 'uns) do so that those vulnerabilities can be patched up is higher. The number of viruses in the wild for OSes outside of MS Windows are already multitudes lower (although I've heard bad things about Android though I would blame this more on it's less than open version of open source) so it almost completely removes something that schools seem to concern themselves with a great deal...

Given the availability of the software, and easily searchable nature of it, the fringe groups can be catered for. Those boys who seem to be interested only in computer games will quickly give up those games in favor of making their own games in Scratch (learning computer programming). Writetype can be used as a writing aid for those who benefit (just about anyone really) from hearing what they've written read out etc.

All available within the classroom and, for the most part, without the prohibitive licensing fees (and conditions). In which case, if you've got a need, it can be catered to - without having to wait for funding.

Ha! That almost sounds like a marketing spiel...


  1. On the subject of "best practice". I absolutely hate this term because a lot of people take this as a licence to be terribly lazy - especially in a corporate environment. While I agree with you on the point that every environment should be viewed differently for schools, I want to extend this out in to the corporate world too. All too often, the decision making process is pretty much: here is a problem we are having, how do we solve it? Here is the "best practice solution", let's do that.

    1. It's not just lazy but dismissive.

      Best practice isn't such a bad place to start - but it should be taken only as a starting point. It still has to be evaluated - does it fit this situation? What are the pitfalls and negatives? Do the compromises being made make sense? Who is this "best practice" really best for?

      So the reason I'm singling out schools - I don't think there's a set of best practices for schools. I think there's a "best practices" for corporate environments (which really - still need evaluation) which have been shoehorned into schools which are completely and utterly dismissive to a learning environment.

      In a primary school setting I would go as far as to say that active directory creates more barriers than problems it solves BUT this is what MS Windows is good at. A case of the environment trying to fit the solution.

      I'm of the opinion that a school's IT infrastructure would be very different if you started from the problems you're trying to solve, listed out the different ways of solving those problems and then choosing the solution or combination of solutions that best solves that set of problems. I am almost certain that an MS Windows infrastructure would score badly on this front.

      Oh - I never did tie in that survey to the rest of this post. One of the first questions asks:

      "How important is it for schools to have access to the following cloud services on the N4L?"

      Across the board, regardless of school size, "Antivirus protection" is answered as "Extremely Important" to all but a very few participants of the survey.

      We've got alternatives we could use. The MOE offers a couple of commercial options which apparently, they'd rather they didn't have to, but it still feels a little short sighted that they aren't working to help facilitate the alternatives. Alternatives where virus protection isn't needed nearly so much (I'd put it on a mail server. I would absolutely object to it being on a desktop when using anything but MS Windows) in which case, that effort and time spent on antivirus measures (delivered via cloud?!?!) could be spent on more meaningful PD type activities (having the computers in the back of the room is less important than the teachers having the confidence to use those computers within everyday learning).

  2. Wow, so comments haven't been working for me for a while now (again). I just had to load up an Ubuntu VM for me to post that comment.. and of course this one.. :S

    1. There's something really flattering about the fact that you'll go through all the effort of starting a VM just to leave a comment :)

    2. Then you are going to love the fact that this VM is just for commenting on your blog :P

    3. Right... from flattering to creepy in 2 seconds flat! ;p

    4. It's what I do best!