Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Calm Before The Storm

I can’t believe that the summer is drawing to a close already. Exam results have come down and been issued out (congratulations to all who did well and commiserations to those who tried but didn’t quite get what they wanted , needed or deserved), some teachers are off on their second holiday and others are back into planning mode.

Many IT Technicians and Network Managers are now playing summer catch-up. That list of jobs that they had to do at the beginning of the holidays still seems a bit longer than they wanted or has had to be moved around a bit as other priorities have cropped up over the summer (including working out how to save money now the HT grant has been cut!)

So, in the hope that a few folk read this I thought it would be an idea to cover a few things that need to be done prior to the new school year starting.

  • Testing : No doubt many people have had new kit to set up, new software to install, machines to move around. The first thing I have to plead with you to do is test. Test, test, test, test, test! I know you cannot test every possible permutation of all software you have running on a computer but there are some things you can do. Log onto a few computers as an admin, a teacher and a student. Make sure the printers work as you would expect, internet access is ok, and that any ‘fiddley’  software (you know the stuff I mean) works … check that files can be saved to the correct locations and that any dedicated hardware works right (CAD/CAM, camcorders, midi keyboards, etc). We all know that at least one thing will go wrong … but try to do what you can to keep it at one thing … not a dozen.
  • Tidying : There is nothing worse for a teacher than to come back into a classroom a few days before the new term and they find that there is a mountain of boxes or a plethora of unplugged kit laying around. They also might only have a few days to get displays put up, to move desks about and to make sure any cupboards are tidy with all resources where they need them. This is doubly so when teachers have had to swap classrooms around. The sooner you can get things clear in rooms the better (we can always talk about tidying up rooms as you go along but in reality it is difficult) and if you have to leave anything out and about try not to get too annoyed if a teacher, cleaner or site staff move it around to allow them to get on with *their* jobs. Try to leave notes about where it is moving to and approximately when.
  • Logging : The perennial nightmare for support staff is keeping track of kit, new and old. With all the changes that may have gone on during the summer you need to make sure that you have kept your inventory up to date (including which room kit is in, what is install on what kit and who are the principle users), that any new items have been asset tagged and security marked, the old equipment is mark for disposal and when disposed of, that you keep at track of who you disposed it with, what the nominal value for the asset was and when it was disposed of.
  • Planning : There are going to be things you could not complete. Or things that came up that have had to be put on hold. Or things that just did not work they way you expected and will need more work. Set some time to one side to decide when you are going to start planning to do this stuff, whether you can do it in term time, whether you need to wait until the next holidays and so on. The sooner you start planning the easier it is to let people know about things.
  • Communication : Which leads me onto the next item … if you have new kit or services then let people know about it. Ideally, this should have been part of your planning anyway and so you have already got a training plan for staff *and* students (if needed) and a set of messages and announcements for people too. Back to the planning bit … allow for staff and students to give you feedback on the changes. This helps to plan for any future work … and purely relying on people putting in support calls will never be able to give you all the information you need (eg the lack of support calls is not always a good measure of you getting it right!) so plan for other ways to get information from people.
  • Breath and relax : Remember that you are not superman/superwoman/superdog … there are times when you need to sit down, take a few deep breaths and relax. I always liked to have a film afternoon as a reward for getting things done (ok … only managed it 3 times in 10 years of being hands-on in a school) but others have a meal out or a few pints in the pub.

So … a few ideas there … some might recognise that there are examples in there of change management and configuration management (communication, planning, CMDB, definitive software library, etc) … but hopefully it gives a bot more of a real world approach to it.

Usernames – Should they identify a pupil?

Completely forget about this post over on my blog on EduGeek. Thankfully, this site now this pulls in all my posts from any possible blog I use so I thought I would send this one out anyway … from November 2009.

In a discussion about student IDs I got a tad frustrated by the take some people have about Becta guidance and that it is given from a point of not really understanding how the real world works or giving examples …

Quote Originally Posted by GrumbleDook
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With all respect to DB and AT … B*11*cks

Becta put out the recommendation based on data protection guidance and esafety guidance from a heap of places and just collate it. Having a go at them for doing this is pretty pointless and hiding your head in the sands about wider issues.

1 – a kid emails a mate about something, who then replies but includes a mate outside of the school. The person outside of the school is an adult, and then now might have name, approx age (cause they understand that 09 at the beginning of the userid in the email means they started at the school in 2009) the surname or forename (so many schools have it as jbloggs or janetb) and they are also likely to get the forename from the email too. It is not about a single piece of data that makes it dangerous but when you string it together.

2 – People hate giving real, flesh and blood people a number as their identity. “I’m not a number, I am a free man!” I hear you cry … well, how many of use know our NI number off the top of our head. I am pretty sure that ex-forces / police / etc can remember their numbers too! There is nothing wrong with introducing this to the kids as long as it is done in a timely, professional and sensible fashion. Roll numbers from MIS are fine … if your school uses ID cards then get this number onto the ID card. If someone wants a password reseting then just ask for their card. Job done … simples!

3 – When Becta (and others) give guidance or a framework too many people say “this is the way we have now been told to do it!” so they don’t give too many examples anymore because people don’t think for themselves and just point the finger if it is not right for their school. They just can’t win. Before you have a go at the lack of examples about it why not say … “hey, let’s think of some ways to improve this!”

I bet that if I was to suggest we do this though we will get a slack handful that say something, but people are more than happy to jump on the bandwagon about BSF, job applications, salary scales … I guess we all have different priorities.

Windows 7 month

You know how it is … you get a reputation for being a fanboi! (ok … I own a few few Apple gadgets) or there are folk who are convinced you are an open source hippy … and then you get those who think you are a Microsoft drone (all descriptions of me from the last 3 months from various online groups / networks).

I’ve always been pretty up front about how I will work with pretty much anything I have access to and through personal choice over the years I have tended to find Apple kit / OS just makes me that bit more productive. I do continue to use a fair bit of open source software and MS software though so feel I have a good balance, but after reading how people are constantly pushing themselves to try different ways of working I have opted to dedicate more time to different systems.

From 1st September I will be working purely on Windows 7 for a month. This will be on a MacBookPro as that is the hardware I have available (I do like running MS OSes on Mac hardware though … I had an install of Vista on one machine that ran like a dream … made me wonder if we were all so wrong about Vista!) but unless I have a very real need to access something on the Mac side then BootCamp will be my friend. Over the coming week I will be looking at a variety of pieces of software to make sure I am as tooled up as I can be, that my files are somewhere secure and my access through various networks is enabled.

From 1st October I will be going down the open source route. I’ll probably set up a VM of Redhat or Ubuntu and using that unless I can dig out another laptop (not enough space to triple boot this machine but can easily run a VM off an external drive). So I will spend that last week in September looking for all the suitable OSS I need.

And then from 1st November I will run solely MacOS and associated software.

Most of my requirements will be for office, web 2 and social network access. I may have to dig into some video / audio editing and perhaps some graphics work, but most of the stuff planned is based around boring work I’m afraid, but I hope to take a bit of time out to try to look at a range of different tools that I may not have touched before and even try my hand at some of the activities I see the software being used for (screen recording them for the general amusement of others).

I haven’t really been bothered enough to this before … when I did my month without Google I ended up discovering that I can do it, it is a bit of a nuisance and that the non-Google stuff I was already doing was what worked well. I am trying to be open-minded about doing the same with this … so if people think I am slipping them please let me know.

I am also happy to read and digest anything that people have from others who have done similar (or if you have done it yourself already) so that I can compare experiences.

The Secrets of Upward Management

One of the areas of blockage I have come across, and had ranted to me by many readers, is that you just cannot get FITS implemented in your school due to the lack of SLT support … even to the point of where SLT are derogatory about it all and are dismissive of any change you put forward to solve this.

I hope to be planning a number of SLT events over the year to address this locally, but I have also been chatting with a few others to see what elements of FITS you can get away with yourself and how you can structure your job (and that of any staff you have in your team) to still get a lot of stuff done.

So it is time to talk about the areas that some people like to keep secret and to share how YOUcan manage your Manglement. Most of these are based on real practices of Network Managers, technicians, ICT Co-ordinators and Heads of ICT in schools. If you have more ideas you wish to add please let me know.

Become Sir Humphrey

For those who have seen Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister this may sound like a terrible thing to say … but you can’t fail to recognise that Sir Humphrey would be able to get things past the Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP on a number of occasions … so let us think how he did it.

Ignore the use of confusing language. We already know that IT has a wonderful sub-language all of its own that makes people go glassy eyed … that is not what we want. Eventually people will just ignore you or work out you are intentionally trying to confuse them. No, I am talking about the careful use of language and the interesting use of providing a variety of options. Have a look at this clip.

Ok, this is a dark art I suppose, but let’s see what it means by putting it into what already happens in a number of schools.

There is a need for an increase in the number of desktops for Internet access, word-processing, etc … not for video/audio editing, etc. You know that if you want to keep this sustainable you are going to have to be inventive with the technology you use. You know thin clients will deliver what you need but there is an initial high cost.

You put together a range of options. Uusually this is three, but sometimes you can have two main options, each of which has some other add-ins. The first option is the out and out howler … brand new, heavy-duty, high performance fat clients because you never know what they are going to be used for in the future. This can be expensive, relies on there being a future need for them (also meaning you are likely to need other low-end machines in the future as the high-end ones get pulled into another areas such as Media, Art, etc) and that there are sufficient funds. make sure that you highlight this into a 6-7 year plan of when they will need replacing and all software upgrades, time taken to install and manage them over that period too.

Option two should be one for minimal outlay … cheap and nasty machines but with little software on them… the plan would be to move to an online office solution to do the work instead of local apps. This, however, is likely to mean more frequent breakdown or damage to kit, an effort to move over to online / web 2.0 tools but at the expense of other parts of the school will still be using local apps so there will be complex problems swapping back and forth … more training would be needed and what you save in initial outlay could get lost in all the other costs.

Option three is the one you know will work best with minimal impact or change to the school operations. You cover the costs first. Lower than the high-end workstations (over a 6-7 year period … ie two lots of machines), dearer than the initial outlay for low-end workstations, but with no training or change costs. It is expandable (get costs for adding another suite as thin clients) and if the school is flexible, it could also be used for secure remote access (solving possible DPA issues) and used for access to the MIS (saving the lengthy updates to the local MIS software on every staff laptop once a month).

How does this apply to FITS though? When you need to do a ‘project’ (eg your summer replacement of kit, rolling out a new suite, etc) then you write down everyone who will be impacted by it, the timescales for deliver, etc … yes, basically a project plan. Even if people don’t want to see it you still send it to them if they are involved or impacted.

When someone comes along and wants to make a change or wants to get you to do something for another piece of work then you give *that* person the job of contacting all the people involved. Or, if they don’t want to, *you* contact everyone, with a new timeline and point out why it has had to change and who made it that way. Either way, people start to see who is messing up plans. Over time, this ends up with the introduction of the third option … people meeting before the project gets going to get things sorted out and reducing the problems … and there … you have your change advisory board.

If the CAB is the idea of Manglement it tends to run that bit better in these circumstances. There are times when it will not happen though so *you* have to end up going to each person involved on a 1-to-1 basis to do the CAB. If you are doing this then try to make sure that you see a few key people one after another (ideally in the same room so they can bump into each other) and you will be surprised at the number of people who think it is an idea to hang around to see what the other person says … you get you CAB purely because common sense and nosiness prevails.

So … there we have a beginning. What other tricks have you come up with over the years? Feel free to send them over anonymously if you have to. I am not saying that the above will work for everyone, but it is a start. For those network managers reading … this might feel a bit familiar to you from when a few technically minded teachers have tried to do things with new kit they want to get introduced? As I keep saying … there is nothing new in this game.