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What is the Role of the Tech Dept in K12?

Guest blogger: @mswanson Mike Swanson is a Director of Technology for a school district in Northern Illinois and a valuable contributor to #EduIT.

I was honored when Howard Chan invited me to guest blog about “What is the role of the tech dept in K12?” This is a topic that has interested me more over the past couple years than ever before. I have been bothered by the gap between Instructional Technology (teaching) and Informational Technology (support or management) so, this is a great opportunity for me to share my thoughts.

Since I started working in education as a Technology Director in 1993,  I have been the “man behind the curtain” to instructional technology and classroom teachers.   I think I have finally learned through my own maturation to be visible rather than simply support the technology from the control room.  Over the past couple years I see a trend that seems to be widening the gap between educational technology and the support, informational technology.  Many IT people have decided to use what a friend and colleague called the FUD card (marketing term for Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) to control students’ and teachers’ use of technology.  I believe my fellow IT may be using the word caution as a synonym for control.  Just this week I read a comment on a list from a colleague worried about “giving away the keys to the castle” for control of users’ (that’s tech for students and staff) files and accounts.  IT in education is not a castle or kingdom and we are not the rulers over the technology.  Our role is to support the use of the technology however the teachers and administrators want to use it.  I am concerned that IT (me) believes that they can control the safety of students better than a teacher.  Who is better equipped at keeping students safe than educators?  If they are not equipped to keep students safe on the technology then we as Educational IT have the responsibility to educate and equip them, not restrict.  Who are we as IT to decide what tool is to be used in a classroom or for research?  Just today, I read of a school district that has blocked Yahoo because the Technology Director does “not see the need to use Yahoo during the school day”.  YouTube is blocked in many school districts because of potential dangerous video or the fear of bandwidth overload.  YouTube is here to stay and it needs to be open and left to the staff to use.  Teachers can use it as a “teachable moment” if a harmful video is accessed.  How will our students know what to do if they come on harmful sites if we just block everything?  Isn’t that teaching, as well?  YouTube is just an example of the many media-rich sites and tools that are on the web that need to be kept open for teachers to explore and learn to use in their classrooms.

So, what is the role of the technology department in K-12?  The roles of the technology department as I see it are to support existing technologies, train on existing and emerging technologies, lead and explore using new technologies.

Support Existing Technologies

The obvious is repair for what is broken but, it is more than that. When I worked in a much larger school district, I used to tell technicians, “It is not fixed until the user says it’s fixed.” It’s something I learned in the 1980’s while working for a large computer company.  Often the repair is easy or there is no repair at all however, if the teacher can’t get the technology to work for them, it’s still broken and won’t be used.  What is simple to us IT people is not simple to someone that is a digital immigrant.  Today’s technology is  much more efficient and easy to repair; software problems can be resolved by simply a re-image that will take minutes. Also, in support of educational technology, if the network does not have enough bandwidth to handle the need, it is our responsibility to seek alternatives, add more bandwidth or whatever it takes to support the students and staff.  It is not our responsibility to just block its usage.

Training/Professional Development

Most of the help desk tickets I get are training issues. The most important role of the technology department is to train the staff.  Working with the staff and administration on the best way to train them is important.  Being available for those simple questions or large projects is also important.  It can be difficult to be available but that is our job and why we are here.  Just like the teachers have to do with their students, we have to learn to differentiate with the staff as they are different kind of learners, as well. The greatest tool in my arsenal for training is another teacher.  For me, finding a teacher that can learn something new and show peers works great.  Screencasts, videos and small groups for hands on training in computer labs work, as well.

Explore New Technologies

This is where my PLN comes in handy with people like Howard Chan. Following the right people in twitter, blogs, and wikis are a key to keeping up with the latest trends in technology for education as well as technology in general.  My role is to pass on these new technologies to the staff and administration so they can implement them.  This is the most exciting time in my career in technology.  Web 2.0, future Web 3.0, Google Apps For Education, handhelds, tablets, netbooks and cloud computing are all things that we need to learn more about, use, and share with our staff.  My school district has an Emerging Technology Committee we use to share new discoveries.

A good Technology Department is one that is invisible to the staff and the classrooms.  If everything is working as it should and networks and tools are open for use, the technology will be as much a part of the classroom as the desks or pencils.  Here is a link to a Mac vs PC commercial in the UK that I think can apply more to Instructional Technology vs Education IT http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROaBCZdx45Q (Of course you have to have YouTube open to watch).

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