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Supporting High Access Environments

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When I visit with superintendents, principals, teachers, and school board members, I always ask them what they are worried about. With plans for high-access environments, tech support is on everybody's list. So, I called Keith Krueger and Denise Shorey from CoSN.

"Tech support is part of the human infrastructure that district lack," said Krueger. And as the number of devices grows, "the level of tech support people per devices keeps getting worse--each human being has to manage more devices."

Kruger noted that Gartner says that well managed network in private sector is 75-100 devices per technician, but K-12 has been in the 500 range and now its often 1,000 per technician. "When we say the tech does not work, it's often because there is no one there to make it work."

"Districts cannot compete with the private sector for this kind of support," said Geoff Fletcher, SETDA. He said a few years ago "An education service district hired 30 people and trained them to do tech support for the districts in their region and lost every one of them to the private sector within a year."

SETDA Executive Director Doug Levin warns policy makers not to "confound instructional tech coaches--focused on helping teachers to use tech well--with tech support, the folks who fix the stuff that breaks.

When I was a superintendent in the 90s, we made 1:1 work with the help of students. Dennis Harper from Olympia Washington had created a structured program, Generation Yes, to engage students in tech support. Jhone Ebert, Clark County CTO, said "we have students at all grade levels that support technology in the classroom."

Sylvia Martinez, President of Generation Yes, pointed me to a Grunwald survey that said, "More than half of school leaders report that students are providing technical support in their districts. In 43 percent of districts, students troubleshoot for hardware, software and infrastructure problems. In 39 percent of districts, students set up equipment and wiring. In more than one third (36 percent) of districts, students take on technical maintenance."

Kruger encourages senior IT professionals working in K-12 public school districts to take 10 minutes to participate in the CoSN survey, which can be found at on the SchoolDude site. The research survey which closes February 11 "seeks to uncover the unique challenges facing IT professionals working in U.S. public school districts today."

The good news is that devices are getting easier to manage and cloud computing is changing the equation. Denise Shorey said, "Ten years ago CoSN would say standardize network, few kinds of devices and never accepted donated computers unless you had high standards--with cloud computing that is changing." She noted that with a shift from device to connectivity as focus of support "Increasingly the device is becoming less important."

What about take home devices? Shorey said that the shift from school device to "my" device increased ownership yielding more personal responsibility not more problems. Shorey said she's seeing more leasing deals that includes support and insurance.

Maine and Moorseville North Carolina use an enterprise strategy and support it with the kind of online and phone tech support Shorey supports. For more on Maine and Moorseville, and which device and how to pay for it, see the DLN SmartSeries paper "Funding the Shift to Digital Learning."

"Our goal is to develop a more comprehensive self service model for our staff and students," said Jhone Ebert. "By creating this new environment staff and students will be able to have access to the support they need 24/7." The CoSN team sees a lot more tablets in schools in the future. Project Tomorrow determined that a quarter of students already have a tablet at home.

CoSN developed a certification for district tech leadership--more on that in the coming weeks.

Shorey added, "If districts focus on device independent resources, it reduces device support requirements." With the shift from a device focus to a cloud focus, Shorey will be leading effort to help design school system networks.

As districts build high-access environments, tech support is on the list of issues to deal with. The good news is that devices are getting easier to manage, cloud computing makes it easier to push content to multiple devices, but you still need a rational layer of support.

Here's is a summary of advice to district CTOs from the experts:

  1. Publish a short list of devices the district agrees to support
  2. Build/buy a thick layer of DIY support online and phone
  3. Hire a rational number of tech support specialists with loads of less than 1:500 devices
  4. Engage secondary students in a formal way in tech support roles
  5. If you encourage BYOD, don't promise support; and
  6. Show parents and community members know how technology is improving learning.

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