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10 norms for a 21st Century Tech Department


Dilbert comic strip's character Mordac, The Preventer of Information Services, is regrettably an all too recognizable figure in many schools.

I've long shuddered when I hear a school's tech department called the "Prevention of Education Unit" or the tech director called the "Tech Nazi." Yes, I've actually heard both these terms - but thankfully not in the districts in which I've worked. 

A major cause of this disconnect is that educators and technologists have valid but very different priorities when it comes to technology. As educators, we need simplicity, abundance, convenience, and ubiquity. As a technologists, we must provide security, reliability, and adequacy. (See list of articles below.)

But I also believe we can build a culture based on norms in technology departments that will build a reputation of being truly a vital partner in helping teachers and administrators effectively and efficiently complete required tasks and achieve their professional goals.

Here are some norms that consciously or not I've observed that keep tech departments from "preventing" education.

  1. Education first. Everyone in a school must view himself/herself as responsible for the school's primary mission of education. This applies to bus drivers and cooks as well as superintendents, and technicians are no exception. Consciously, we must ask ourselves - how will this decision, rule, or action impact children's ability to learn. We are all of us educators first, technologists second.
  2. User experience second. There is no such thing as a totally secure technology environment. Common sense, based on level of security needed and the ability of users, should dictate what security measures are truly necessary. Schools and the Department of Defense simply don't need the same complexity of passwords or login processes. Our goal should be to make technology use both transparent and secure.
  3. Economy third. Too often departments with the biggest budgets view themselves as "winners." But in the zero sum world of school funding, such winners may be creating students who are losers if money is unnecessarily spent on technology or software rather than lower class sizes, better teacher pay, professional development, or non-technological curricular materials. (See Norm 1.) I always ask myself that when buying big ticket items, do we need the Mercedes or will a Chevy get the same job done?
  4. Support mission-critical technologies really well. The only way most of us have time to do that is by prioritizing our support tasks. I've found that by clearly articulating to staff that only by maintaining equipment that is within the replacement cycle and has been purchased through departmental processes will eliminate the Sisyphean task of keeping obsolete and non-standard equipment running. Do I care if a teacher still uses a IIe to run Number Munchers? No, but when the machine dies, all our department will do is carry it to the recycling center.
  5. Over communicate. If even we can't get to a staff member's problem immediately, we always let them know we've been heard. If a system needs to go down for maintenance, let everybody who may even be remotely impacted (teachers work on weekends and late at night) several days in advance. Overestimate the time the service will be lost. And never assume by telling a principal or director something might happen that that message will get to everyone else. 
  6. Always assume a task is possible, a problem has a solution. I once heard a teacher tell a technician. "When you say it can't be done, what you really mean is that you don't know how or you don't want to." If that is what we mean, then let's say that. 
  7. Seek the "why." Some demands placed on the technology department and its workers sound kind of crazy. But once one learns the reason behind the request, additional, less onerous solutions may present themselves. By focusing on the goal, not a specific solution, creativity often kicks in and everybody benefits.
  8. Work as a team. While everybody is usually busy, some people may be extra busy at times - a new lab needs to be installed, a whole slew of iPads need imaging, a new wing is opening in a school. Teams of technicians working together help each other out in times like these. Each member of the department brings specific skills and expertise (or that should be built). Make sure tech integration specialists, librarians, and information system managers are a genuine part of the tech team.
  9. Check your work. Does the printer driver installed actually allow the teacher to print? Does the new login password actually work? Did the new cable to the IWB actually take care of the problem? My dad had a saying "There never seems to be time to do it right, but there is always time to do it over." Ten minutes checking one's work saves time, frustration, and builds one's reputation for service and competence.
  10. Blame the director. If a staff member is unhappy about a technology procedure, the only person who should take heat about it should be the person making the decision. Yet, techs often hear from teachers about old equipment, inadequate wireless signals, or clumsy security measures. Operate under the assumption that conversations between two professionals are respectful and constructive. Offer and accept nothing else. "Take it up with my boss," is the standard response to disagreeable people.

So what works for your tech department to make it an effective partner in the education of your kids? As a teacher or administrator, what makes your tech department effective? 

Happy Labor Day, everyone!

Oh, I'd love to see a similar set of norms for educators to adopt when it comes to technology as well. 




BFTP: Things I'm glad I know about - Photoshop capabilities


A tale of two e-mail systems


In my first few days on the new job, I heard from several people "Please get rid of our district's two e-mail system!" And they cited the confusion, miscommunications, and time-consuming nature of the dual system. And over the past few days, I've learned to feel their pain.

When Gmail was introduced to the district a few years ago, the decision was made to keep Outlook/Exchange in place for "official communications." The reason I was given was that Gmail was not secure and could not be effectively archived. My hunch is that a lot of Outlook users (this is a PC district) did not want to lose the familiar and powerful desktop client for e-mail and calendaring. And I understand completely the reluctance of overworked people to learn a new system.

We'll do a short poll of staff next week asking if they would prefer one system or two for doing e-mail. Were I a betting man, I'd give odds on the one system preference being overwhelming. The trick will be choosing the system that will best suit the teaching and learning needs of both staff and students, making the transition as pain-free as possible, and assuring everyone of the security and reliablity of the new system.

In my professional opinion based on past experience and gazing into my crystal ball, the choice is clear - shut down Outlook/Exchange and move everyone to Gmail. Here's why:

  1. Computing is going cloud-based and Gmail offers a superior, platform neutral web-based e-mail and client system. The web-client for Outlook/Exchange is woefully under-powered. And for e-mail o be used in any location with any type of device, a good cloud-based client is critical. To take full advantage of e-mail or the calendar, staff and students shouldn't need a PC running Office at home, on personal devices, or on a school computer.
  2. E-mail and calendaring needs to work in hand with other online productivity tools. Yes, there is Office 365, but last I looked it was expensive, clunky, and not widely adopted by K-12 schools. (When is the last time you saw a "Using Office 365 in Your Classroom" session at a educational tech conference?) 
  3. The adoption of GoogleApps by all staff will help create a culture of sharing, collaboration, and cloud-based storage/access/productivity throughout the district. As administrators model the use, teachers will be more likely to adopt the practice in their own work - both collegially and with students.
  4. If we want to make our students "career and college ready", we should be using a system, the argument goes, that will be used once they leave K-12. This has been a popular argument with Microsoft proponents, but I think it has two problems. The first is that Gmail is used by a lot of post-secondary institutions and a growing number of businesses. (See quotes below.) Second, by the time any kid below 10th grade graduates, e-mail, calendars, and productivity will probably look very different regardless of program. We need to be teaching transferable skills, not programs. Period.
  5. We can lower out operating costs. Yes, we may need to pay for archiving (still looking for state/national laws on this) but by not supporting an in-house e-mail server and back-up, lower tech support time needed to maintain the system, not paying for Office licenses, using GoogleDrive for storage instead of internal servers, and being able to use Chromeboxes/Chromebooks instead of full-blown PCs, the cost savings will be significant, I predict. Less tech funds going to infrastructure and more going to getting kids access to equipment should be a goal of every school.
  6. Long-range training on GoogleApps is easier. Google's strategy of making small changes on an ongoing basis instead of doing huge major releases with major changes, helps users adjust and not need re-training when new versions come out.
  7. Google offers some powerful tools to aid the transition from Outlook to Gmail. Contacts, saved e-mail, calendar events, and such can be exported and re-imported into Gmail from Outlook.

 Since no one has yet made me tech czar, only tech director, this change will need finessing. If it proves unpopular, the next greeter you see at Wal-mart just might be me. 

If you've made this transformation, please share your experiences. Or tell me why a dual e-mail system should be continued. Thanks.


Image source 


Almost 1 out of 5 companies have deployed Google Apps in some form according to a study conducted by White Stratus.

66 of the Top 100 schools (according to US News & World Report ) are using Google Apps for Education.

... the entire state of Oregon has “gone Google” in K-12. Every school there is replacing traditional Microsoft applications with Google and the state is saving over $1.5 million a year in IT costs (no installations, no fees, no updates, etc…). If that isn’t enough the whole country of Malaysia just decided to do the same

Graph showing increase in Google usage by students

I recently came across this blog post that gives several more interesting stats (and a great infographic) on how rapidly Google Apps for Education are growing in the US and beyond. A few things that stood out:


  • Over 25 million (see graph – as of August 2013) students are using Google Apps for Education. This number has doubled in 2 years.
  • 72 of the top 100 universities are using Google Apps for Education
  • Oregon was the first state to offer GAFE to all K-12 students. More are jumping on board including Wisconsin, Colorado and Iowa. <>



Hundreds of millions of individuals worldwide are already using Google Apps products like Gmail, Docs and Calendar. Because students and teachers are familiar with the tools outside of school, using them in a school setting comes as second natureto many. This is especially true with email as the majority of students already use Gmail for personal use. This existing familiarity means that for the user, migrating to Google Apps is often not a migration at all. As a result, schools that switch to Google Apps for Education consistently experience a high rate of adoption with students, professors and administrators alike embracing the new tools.

For example, a case study revealed that when the University of Notre Dame in Indiana switched to Google Apps for Education, people increased their use of email, had 20% fewer questions for the Help Desk, and indicated a 36% increase in IT satisfaction since the migration to Google Apps. This high rate of adoption was further complemented by a cost savings of over $1.5 million to the university.