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Saturday
Apr092011

BFTP: Becoming George

A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. Original post April 5, 2006. The original post stirred up a lot of comments that are well worth reading.

When I was working as a high school librarian in the early 90s, my nemesis was the technology director, George.

As the librarian, I felt 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 devices in good order, he firmly believed, was to not let them be used.* George seemed to be continuously 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."

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

We give teachers the option of a laptop computer instead of a desktop computer. My techs want to use DeepFreeze or a similar product on teacher laptops for security purposes.  When DeepFreeze 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 viruses, spyware and unlicensed/unauthorized programs.

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

ole.jpgThe main reason that I'm more sympathetic to locking down computers is that their reliability has become so damned important. Attendance will not be taken, grades will not be recorded, bulletins will go unread, parent e-mail will not be received; presentations will not be made; streaming video will not be shown; Smartboard lessons will go untaught, and web sites will not be updated if the teacher's computer doesn't work. The list of mission-critical tasks that teachers are using their computer for gets longer each year.**

Even a few years ago if a teacher's computer was unusable or unavailable for a few days, schooling barely slowed down. Such is not the case today.

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

  1. Were you working at the bank, the insurance office, the medial clinic, 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 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 inside our network would wreak havoc.
  3. Our tech staff has enough to do without fixing problems brought about when unauthorized 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 committee 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.

** Since this was written five years ago, our networks are even more mission-critical to the operation of the school. Across the WAN fibers ride VOIP telephone signals, testing data, security camera signals, and all sorts of educational software that complements instruction. Security breaches are more serious now than ever.

*** Our teacher Mac laptops remain free of DeepFreeze and similar programs. And no digital apocolypse has occurred - knock wood.

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Reader Comments (7)

I will have to disagree with people at other companies not having the ability to install software on their work computers. This really is a narrow minded view, especially when you are making an assumption that is not correct. I worked outside of education for 10 years before becoming a teacher, and I always had the ability to add the software I needed. I am sure the technology departments did not always have success with this policy, but it is more of an education issue. If you take the time to work with teachers to help them understand the dangers and how to combat those dangers, I think you could remain open and have a relatively safe environment. I am a computer science teacher, and until recently the computers in my lab had deepfreeze on them. I also do not have administrative privileges for my lab. What this combination did for me...delayed the start of my class by 3 weeks while I worked with the district to get the software I needed installed. I can say that I am not a fan of my district's technology department. They are more concerned with protecting themselves that they miss the point of education. Which unless I am wrong is to educate students. Another major part of their job is supporting teachers, and again they fail at this. They decide at the top what needs to happen and everyone needs to live with this regardless of whether it actually makes sense from an educational standpoint. The technology people live in a bubble when they should be working with teachers (instead of against). I do realize that there will be instances where people mess up and bad things happen, but it can be a learning experience. And the resolution in most cases can be a re-image of the computer, which does not take very long. Especially if the teachers have the ability to store their information on a networked drive. Now, having said all of this...my district did start allowing teachers to install software on their computer. This is a step in the right direction and I was happy to see this happen. I still want them to provide me with the rights to install software on the student computers in my lab, but we are getting closer. Luckily for me, I have a technology person at my school who has realized I know what I am doing and has provided me with the password I need to install software. When out district opened up their policy to allow teachers to install software, they said they have been able to handle any security threats and they do not believe allowing teachers to install software will compromise their security any more than it already is. So, I think the threat can be managed.

Sorry to go on a rant. I really do enjoy your blog. I also believe you want to help teachers and students utilize technology, but I do think you should step back and re-evaluate your view here. Yes, it could cause you some headaches. But you will have teachers who have the freedom to utilize technology. And without that freedom, I worry that teachers will continue to shy away from technology.

April 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJake

Interesting. The inability to tweak computers, add software, and make them friendlier is perhaps hardest on tech geeks, like me. If you tell me I can't install my own software, my productivity is impaired. So yeah, sure, I can see that it makes it easier to do this with the 95% of everyone who isn't technologically apt, but that doesn't mean that I won't use my geeky abilities for what I consider good--that is, subverting the system for my friends, so that they, too, can become more productive.

April 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJude not HeyJude

There is something to be said about a child being taught by my teacher. I always respected and thought the content was cool. But I had some great teachers in my day. I hope teachers continue to fight for education.

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGalvin

Considering that your district uses Google Docs and most applications are going to the cloud, will you customize the home page of the browser to allow each user to have personalized starting point to accommodate bookmarks and such?

We use DeepFreeze with our student netbooks and one of the sticky points is that they cannot keep website bookmarks. One way we addressed this was to have all student browser starting pages be the school's website. This allows us to put specific links to sites or tools that will be important for students to easily access, such as Google Docs or a Moodle site.

To address student bookmarking, we created student Diigo accounts for them and showed them how to use Diigo, but not being able to quickly access a web bookmark was a challenge at first for them.

I think your techs will like DeepFreeze until they need to run updates on each machine. They will need to log in to disable DeepFreeze and then run updates and then re-enable DeepFreeze. The machines won't be able to run updates automatically.

Hopefully your teachers won't do what our students do. To avoid losing work, our students will purposefully not restart their computers. Unfortunately, this causes the machines eventually to freeze-up, requiring a hard reboot and ultimately loosing the work they were trying to save without backing it up to a usb drive or network storage.

I like DeepFreeze and it works great when everything you do is completed in the cloud.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergitsul

Hi Jake,

It's always great to read the comments from someone who works outside of education. I believe all have our preconceived notions of how other organizations work and this was a good wake-up call for me.

I expect the control a workplace exerts over an employee's computer might be somewhat dependent on that person's role - performing routine tasks or being a creative problem-solver.

Doug

Hi Jude,

I expect most savvy tech departments make exceptions for the truly geeky. I've never seen a security system a dedicated kid couldn't get around anyway.

Doug

Hi Galvin,

I hope teachers continue to fight for what is in the best interest of their students!

Doug

Hi Gitsul,

GoogleApps for Education now allows students access to iGoogle which I think is the perfect, highly customizable start page. As you suggest, moving most apps and storage to the cloud eliminates the need for a personalized desktop or computer. If I have a browser, I can launch into my own customized web space, including an online, social bookmarking site that won't be erased by DeepFreeze, reimaging or even getting a completely different computer.

Doug

April 13, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I agree with you 99% - however, there always will be one or two teachers (as I raise my hand) who are a bit ahead of the curve and really do know what they are doing - and have realized that the systems and programs that are being used are frustratingly lame. Maybe we could give those few a lap top of unique user account so they can do their technology they way that it can be done effectively and securely.

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

Hi Kenn,

And give them the title "tech integration specialists" and get them peer-coaching!

Doug

May 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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