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« Is experimentation ethical? | Main | Mandating Internet Safety Instruction »
Wednesday
Apr052006

Becoming George

In the early 90s when I was working as a high school librarian, my nemesis was the technology director, George. My job was to get as many teachers and students excited about using technology as possible; George's job was keeping everything running smoothly. And the best way to keep things in good order, he firmly believed, was to not let them be used.* George seemed to be continuosly removing software and features and installing controls to lock users out of as much of the computer as possible. (When I once asked him why he removed all but the system fonts on the computers in a lab, he explained that "kids just use the fancy fonts to write dirty words anyway.")

Until this morning, I alway viewed George as my evil twin. But now I think I have become George.

Next year we are giving teachers the option of a laptop computer instead of a desktop computer. My techs want to use DeepFreeze or a similar product on these teacher laptops for security purposes.  When this program is installed, a "clean" copy of the operating system and authorized software is created each time the computer is rebooted. Any teacher-made OS changes or teacher-installed software goes away - including, we anticipate, viruses, spyware and unlicensed/unathorized programs.

And I found myself liking the idea. What's changed?

Probably the main reason that I'm more sympathetic to locking down computers is that their reliabiliy has become so darned important. Attendance will not be taked, grades will not be recorded, bulletins will go unread, parent e-mail will not be received; presentations will not be made; digital films will not be shown; websites will not be shared if the teacher's computer doesn't work. And the list of mission-critical tasks that teachers are using these things gets longer each year.

Even a few years ago if a teacher's computer was unusable or unavailable for a few days, schooling did not end. (It hardly slowed down.) Such is not the case today.

I expect to get grief from teachers when they learn that 'their" new computers are not theirs to ding with at will. And what will be my reply?

  1. Were you working at the bank, the insurance office, the law office or any other place of business, you would not have the freedom to install or modify your company computer to suit yourself. You would have access to the programs that help you get your work done. Period. Why should this not hold true in schools?
  2. We need to stop the use of unlicensed software in the district.
  3. We can only protect you (somewhat) from viruses, spyware and other nasties when you are inside our firewalled network. If you use your machine at home or in the coffeeshop, you might very well pick something up that once ole.jpginside our network would wreak havoc.
  4. Our tech staff has enought to do without fixing problems brought about when unathorized software causes system crashes, slow downs or other problems. 

I've always believed that technology policy decisions are best made by as large a group of stakeholders as possible. Our district advisory commitee meets in a couple weeks to discuss this plan. But if they nix the use of DeepFreeze, I may just override them.

I am becoming George. This must be what it feels like to be caught in quicksand - you are completely aware of the situation, but powerless to do anything about the relentless downward pull... 

* Plenty of librarians have a similar theory: the books stay in order on the shelves better if they aren't checked out.

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Reader Comments (12)

I have to agree with you...George. Isn't it a work computer to be used for work? Although I work as a computer teacher at a small private school, last year they decided to take back all teacher computers for similar issues - and because the cost of repairs and replacements were so high. However, our school has pretty much all of the programs and access on-line, so as long as a teacher has a high-speed access, they can get everything done either at school on a PC or at home on a PC. Laptops are great, but (dare I say it) everyone does not NEED one.
April 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKenn
As someone who does technical support (for librarians, no less), I'm absolutely sympathetic to your feelings on this. I also maintain an instructional computer lab here in our training center and am very grateful for the fact that we have Deep Freeze installed. It saves a lot of headaches. On the other hand, it also creates them. Everytime I have to install a patch or update,etc., the machines have to be unfrozen, updated, refrozen. It's a tedious process.

I agree that it's important to stop the installation of unauthorized software and viruses, etc. Unfortunately, locking down computers can also stop experimentation and discovery of new tools that can enhance the teaching & learning experience. Will you have a "thawed" space on the machine that will allow teachers to download and save new materials they find? A process that will allow them to experiment with new pieces of software that will help them in the classroom?

It's a fine line to walk, and a decision I don't envy you having to make.
April 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSue
Ok...here's a typical teacher reaction....

Active Directory...I know all about it. Sure, it has its benefits, but only for the network techies. Aside from them, it's a pain in the rear for teachers to use.

If you install it, I'm buying my own laptop and you can keep the computer. But don't expect me to use that school computer except as an expensive doorstop. If you want me to do digital storytelling, and all that reflective stuff that captures the attention of students, well, you can just forget it. I haven't seen an active directory computer configured properly that will work the way it needs to.

If I'm going have to put up with all that trouble, I might as well go work in business and make MORE money. That way, I'll be paid more than you, Desktop Dictator George.

Furthermore, who the heck do you think you are? You're not god. You're about to limit my creativity and ability to work with students. You're probably part of the Gadget Gestapo, the Network Nazi, that locks up computers, blocks web sites with "myspace" all because you aren't able to THINK DIFFERENT.

You know what? You're a dinosaur and when you pass from this earth, George, teachers and students both will coordinate a massive celebration using their cell phones and MySpace.com

You know, Doug, that's what I think a teacher would say to your response. So, how's that quicksand taste? I find that if I say little, I don't quite sink as fast.
;->

Miguel Guhlin
http://www.mguhlin.net/blog
April 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel Guhlin
I agree with the other comments above. Miguel's comment is exactly what I would sound like. What good is a laptop if you can't experiment? How would you go about deciding what software gets installed? Are you going to install Firefox on all the machines? What if I don't like Firefox? What if I need this program because I'm a science teacher, it's free open-source but I can't install it?

I don't think you can give teachers a laptop and then tell them they can't use it for personal reasons. That's like giving a kid a piece of candy and saying 'don't eat it!' I understand the protection factor, but part of having a computer is making it your own. Your programs, your screen saver, etc. If teachers can not personalize their machines will they even use them, or will they just become desktop replacements taking up less space on a teachers desk?

We are thinking of doing a similar thing at my school, the only different being the laptops would be a welcoming gift to the teachers as new employees. (Being a private international school, we have some funds) When new teachers come to our school they get $4,000 for relocation allowance. We're thinking of giving them $3,000 and a laptop. That way the laptop belongs to them, will be configures to work on the schools network, but is not a school owned machine. We are really good about not allowing unlicensed software on our school machines, but we are in China (I need not say more). I know other schools don't have this luxury and I'm not sure if that is our final recommendation to the board, but I think it clears up some of the mess of the school owning the laptops.

Sounds like you have already made your decision, I'll be interested to hear how the teachers respond.
April 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Utecht
Perhaps you should give your teachers computers running a more secure operating system.
April 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman
Doug, I'm a third grade teacher, blogging with my students at http://roomtwelve.com I've loved reading your writing since way back to your Buick in the Jungle parable. http://www.halcyon.com/arborhts/techphil.html I respect your ideas and your forward thinking. But maybe it's because I went to third grade in the late 50's just down the road from you in Austin, MN, that I feel the need to speak here.

Please come back over to the teacher side. I know your heart is there. Yes, we all realize at some point that we are "becoming our parents" - yikes! But the world becomes a better place when one generation learns from, and does not repeat, the missteps of the previous generation.

Districts are absolutely squashing - out of fear, and nothing else (well, maybe lack of money) - what could be the biggest positive change in education in 500 years. Content filters, desktop controls, remote administration, are handy, affordable, and they can be controlled by a small, efficient group. This model is certain death for web 2.0

I hope we do not have to wait another 500 years for another opportunity. Am I discouraged? Of course. Will I fight this attitude and model of authority with every ounce I have? You bet. It's too important, and I care too much about the future of my kids. I think I'm not alone. - Mark in Seattle
April 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMark Ahlness
Doug,
Following up your email noting that you do in fact use Mac OS X, which I agree is as secure as you're going to get...

I'm not sure how much of a difference trying to do some "deep freeze" kind of thing will make, because many, if not most Mac OS X applications can be installed into and run from any folder, including in the user's home directory.
April 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman
Hmm... I've no idea the teachers (who commented) feel the way they do. Maybe I've already been assimilated by the borg, so to speak :) A few years ago, after a spate of nasty computer virus attacks that affected my orgnisation's network, all our computers (including laptops) were setup such that we couldn't download or install anything. It irked me no end, but I've slowly come to see the need to balance the risk Vs convenience/ experimentation factor. If my laptop goes down (spyware, viruses etc) my productivity will be affected, and maybe others as well whose machines get infected.

But I have a suggestion for Doug: I'm assuming that in any given school, there will be some teachers who won't want to install stuff and some teacher who might (the tech-savvy innovators). If your concern is that implementing something like DeepFreeze would teachers of the latter group, let them have the option to opt-out from having a school machine assigned to them AND help them acquire a laptop of their own, e.g. co-funding or subsidised (my 2nd assumption is that you allow staff to bring their own machines to connect to the school network). Perhaps this way, you'd address the school's larger security concern and still meet the needs of the tech-savvy teachers halfway or even fully.
April 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Chew
I understand the issues presented in this entry and all of the flames from teachers. One of the gaps that seems to be present here is a technology plan that includes "George", the Technology Coordinator, the curriculum coordinators and technology integration specialists (if present). The frustration seems to spawn from the disorganized way that change occurs in a school and who is considered a "stakeholder" that can weigh in on decisions.
April 11, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSean Keesler
'Freezing' a computer is just that - frozen. Not slush, not powder, not pretty flakes. It's the tundra – nothing changes. A 'frozen' machine will not let me add a toolbar or signature, it will not let you add the ‘Blue Skunk Blog’ to your bookmarks. A frozen machine will download updates relentlessly. It will then ask you reboot and download the updates again. And again. Freezing a machine is not going to keep it from falling off a desk or prevent snacks from accumulating in the keyboard. An adware laden, weather bug infested, software conflicted laptop can be ‘ghosted’ and returned to the user in a less than an hour. Other options exist.
April 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDuane Buytaert
Wow, this generated a lot of interest. I am a tech integrator in an elementary school, our staff laptops are open for staff to experiment with. The caveat is be sure you back up to the server! When there is a problem, if it is not solved in 10 min., the image is restored. Most people have learned to back up their information.
Cheryl
April 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl Oakes
Doug
Install the deep freeze. Teachers can add software, delete software, save anything they need to in thawspace or burn to CD rom, or ave to flash drive
They cam use the computers without fear of ruining the computer. Turn it off and turn it back on and with deep freeze it just like day one. Perfect

November 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTW

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