Tag Archives: change management.

The Perils and Pitfalls of being ‘The Block’ to learning & teaching

Once again I fall into the role of the fervent defender of the blighted IT Support teams in schools. As much as I enjoyed a good argument (oh no you don’t!) there are times when I feel that the word compromise is missing from the vocabulary of some people.

In a short break from the course I am on at the moment I picked up a tweet to a blog post from our friend Spannerman2.
It makes for good reading and raises an important points about IT and ICT & Computing as subjects, about the lack of subject specialism in teachers of these subjects and about the amount of effort which goes into running (& locking down) a school network.

It does, however, throw stones. I don’t think stone throwing is any good at the moment in education. It just generates a lot of people pointing their fingers and saying, “you are doing it wrong!” without any ideas or support for getting it right.
In conversations on EduGeek.net there have been ideas shared about how you can make things more manageable and flexible on a school network, about how you can give freedom to staff and students, about how to manage situations better and stop the ‘them & us’ perception which can be the stimulus to things getting out of hand when there is the slightest problem.

So here are a few ideas. First we will have the objectives … the school needs computers systems. It needs three types of systems really.

Let us cover the easy one first. We want a system that allows for the running of a school, the day-to-day stuff of administration, the ordering of toilet roll for the toilets, the paying of staff, keeping records on students … you know the sort I mean. It used to be that this network was kept as separate as possible from everything else. It had to be … it holds sensitive data, it needs to have careful controls over who can do what with it … both legally (DPA) and for audit reasons. However, more and more senior leaders have realised that this network holds some really valuable and vital information. Stuff that can make a difference in the way teachers operate in the classroom … and teachers also need to add to this information too. So that means it has to overlap with the other systems in the school. Problem number 1 arises, but we will come back to this one.

System number two is the one used by teaching staff to deliver what they do, day in, day out. Teaching. I don’t want to turn this into a ‘them & us’ post … I never do … and sometimes people have to remember that those most likely to read my blog from the teaching community are those most likely to understand and want to push what tech they have … in fact, the people who are the cream, those who have risen to the top … but try to remember that there are those who can do *some* of the things that you do and are learning fast … but there are also those who struggle … not just with tech, but with classroom management, with change in general … and I am thinking about *all* staff in schools. A single solution is not always the best thing … having one setup for all staff … only giving limited access to doing stuff … but the problem is that at the moment it takes time and investment to give a more flexible system for staff. There are little things which can be done, like giving rights to install software on their laptops, giving more relaxed filtering … perhaps not even ‘filtering’ as such, but just logging what is used on the internet (remember folks … audit trails!) But what happens when a laptop is brought back in to the IT team to be fixed because something they downloaded at home seems to have broken stuff (after they have turned off the anti-virus or stopped it from downloading updates or running scans) … and that is if you are lucky and they don’t just plug it into the network and infect other computers where teachers have also turned off the antivirus too … and so you have to fix their machine. You might need a spare laptop or two so that they still have a machine to use in the classroom (back to investment again) and then there is the time and staff to fix it. Problem 2 appears … planning for the inevitable workload that comes with either building systems to deal with having to fix problems like this or having to do it on a case by case basis.

And so we go on to system 3 … the most problematic because you are having to cover three conflicting needs. The student workstations / laptops. Here you have to think about what software is needed, who gets to choose that software, pay for it, develop resources for teaching using it or even for teaching the software itself (either the skills / concepts or the specific software … that argument is for another day) … and then let us think about that touchy area of classroom management. I don’t like people blaming technology when it is being used as substitute for classroom management … I’ve spoken about how filtering gets abused this way before and the same applies to locking down the desktop, turning off the ability to right-click, where things can be saved … it all boils down to how much disruption in the classroom the teachers can handle, the amount of effort which is needed to fix problems that arise and so on … So we get to Problem 3 … and this *is* aimed at the teachers who might read this blog. COMPROMISE. Oh, that was also aimed at the Techs too.

So what happens when we need these 3 systems to overlap … or even be the same system?

I would love to say that this is a perfect solution out there … but there isn’t. It will *have* to vary from school to school purely due to the nature of each school, the emphasis each school might choose to put on classroom control, on how much investment the school puts into different aspects of IT, what technology gets used, the strength of things like Web 2.0 tools, of VLEs, of email, of using data straight from the MIS … so many factors that *no-one* can give a single system that will suit everyone.

Instead … how about thinking a little more about how you are going to get to where you want to go. I can guarantee that the end system you want cannot be delivered overnight and be usable by everyone without considerable pain … so you are likely to have to do things in steps. These steps have to be done with compromise and I’m going to say my usual mantra … Change Management!

So … let us think about something that gets raised a lot at the moment. The introduction of student owned devices (yes … I know I have avoided mentioning the learners themselves … more below) can be considered in a few stages, some technical, some pedagogical. If you are going to introduce this sort of system then yes, you will have to segregate it from system 1 … the stuff you have to legally protect. A typical way of doing this would be by having a ‘dirty’ wireless network … a separate WLAN that is only used by students, *may* have some restrictions on it … but will give them access to the internet at the bare minimum (even if you choose not to filter then at least log it). You then have to consider how it will be used in the classroom. Will it be used in conjunction with a VLE? Online stuff such as Live@Edu or Google Apps? How will you ensure that the iPad is being used for work and not just to watch stuff on iPlayer? GameCentre? The netbook is not being used to just hog the school internet connection to pull down pirated video or software? Or the laptop used for chatting on IRC, tweeting about what they got up to last night or on facebook poking their mate in the class next door? The same way that it used to be notes on pieces of paper, or ‘interesting’ magazines shared by some of the boys (actually, both of those still happen too) now there is a new range of things to distract the learner …

One way of dealing with this is by using the student wireless network to force the student to log into the school terminal server system (various solutions are available to do this via a website) and so that they can use their own device in the school but with some element of control by the teacher / techie / school.

There is still another way … the idea of privilege, of use versus abuse. And this is where we talk to the learner. They can make some of the best and worst suggestions and decisions you can come across. It might be that they want the system to allow them to do nearly everything, but on the understanding that if it is abused that they get locked down. Hmm … that might even work in conjunction with other polices the school has? Wow … revolutionary concept?

It might be that the desktops are set to be rebuilt each night … so that if the students do mess things up then it is not a problem. It might be that you have systems that go back to a baseline after each log-off. you can do almost anything … but there has to be a reason to do it, it has to be a balance between what is possible, what is practical and what delivers some sort of benefit.

So … there we go … a start … I’ve already prodded a few of the detractors to techies locking things down or wanting to drop working systems to go to Open Source based purely on ethical principle rather than education need or practicality … if they want to change then I want to see a range of options and some sort of roadmap about how to adopt it, both technically and pedagogically. “Just because…” is not a suitable answer. I might want to put studded tyres on my little Smart car just because … you never know, we might get heavy snow tonight … it might become fashionable … it might mean I can drive over an ice rink to drop off James Bond to do a bit of bomb disposal and save the world … or it might tear up a recently resurfaced road … cost me a fortune to buy and get fitted the new tyres.

So … a start … let us see how it goes from here.

Why do people want to start fights?

A recent tweet (or rather a retweet) had the following URL (in which we see ten commandments from a technically savvy teacher to technicians) – http://bit.ly/dpdjFO – and whilst I can understand the intention I just find it opens up the can of worms that is techie/teacher bashing. On places like the TES forums you get techie bashing (interspersed with some common sense) and on EduGeek.net you get the occasionaly rant about clueless teachers (followed by lots of agreement and the odd balanced example of clueful teachers). It frustrates me. It annoys me the two groups of people who could do much when they work together suddenly express a lack of understanding about the other is doing … And then you get some wonderful examples of it all working together.

As a result I am reposting the 10 Commandments, followed by the techie equivalent. I will then stick in my own version … and I make no apology for any trolling that appears to be taking place. As I was poked to respond, I am poking others to rise too!

The ten commandments of school tech support

  • [Original]Thou shalt test the fix.
    [Techie]Thou shalt accept that we can only fix things we get told about. Reading minds might get us burnt at the stake.
    [Me]Communication and the processes by which tech support work should be effectively communicated, but all should accept that it is a two way thing.
  • [Original]Thou shalt talk to actual students and teachers and make time to watch how technology works during actual class time, not just when it’s quiet.
    [Techie]Thou shalt listen to technicians when they ask questions, give truthful answers about what you expect technology to do and accept that there are limitations.
    [Me]No technology is perfect and some compromise is needed. It means a bit of give and take on both sides. When people want to use technology then try to take the time to discuss how it will be used, how you can measure it is doing what is needed and how you can work out how you deal with changes.
  • [Original]Thou shalt not make fun of the tech skills of teachers or students, nor allow anyone else in the tech department to make disparaging remarks about them.
    [Techie]Thou shalt not presume to be all knowing gods yet still argue when a technician tells you it is illegal to copy commercial DVDs.
    [Me]Ok, let us all accept that there are stereotypes on both sides. Users will make stupid mistakes and it will be laughed at, usually when it is the same repeated mistake. Then again, you get teachers poking fun at the higher percentage of technical staff with elements of dyslexia / autism / other stereotypical conditions. Accept that there willing always be this one upmanship whilst each side treats the other as inferior. Also remember that the technically adept teacher and the educationally adaept techie are both at the top of the tree. You are the exception still so when the other makes a scathing comment it might not be aimed at you but a generalisation, try to find out what caused it and help people overcome the problem.
  • [Original]Closing trouble tickets shalt not be thine highest calling; thou shalt strive to continually make the learning environment better.
    [Techie]You report a fault then we will follow it up. You are measured by exam results, we are measured by completion of tickets.
    [Me]Now we get onto the weighing the pig arguement. Both sides need to be measured but it is the big changes that need to be understood. Technology and how it helps deliver the Learning Environment cannot be done in isolation. It is a partnership. Every side has something to add. It will fall apart if anyone decides that others aren’t important.
  • [Original]Thou shalt not elevate the system above the users.
    [Techie]Thou shalt accept that the system is our priority; it is set up to delivery as much as possible to as many different requirements as you gives us, but accept that your request may disrupt things for others. We sometimes have to work to a lower common denominator. It is part of the greater good.
    [Me]It is all very well thinking that the there is some big battle between users and system but it is a hard balancing act. We are back to the word compromise again. Both sides have very good reasons for standing their ground for somethings … it could be down to legal requirements such as Data Protection, it could be down to the flexibility required for personalised learning. Sit down and explain them and try to have an arbritrator to deal with the hard choices.
  • [Original]The network will be never be perfect. Learning is messy. Get thyself over it.
    [Techie]Unplanned growth in computer systems leads to it falling over. We will keep things organised. Get thyself over it.
    [Me]There is a big difference between things just happening and planning flexibility into systems. No system is permanently fixed but you do have to be careful what you change. Again, it is compromise and planning that make the difference.
  • [Original]When teaching someone a new skill, keep thy hands off the mouse.
    [Techie]We like to show you how to do things but repeated ‘but can’t you just do it for me’ will result in us just doing it for you. Don’t cry foul. Read our cribsheets, watch our training videos, listen to our advice and instructions. You are just one user of many.
    [Me]The two worst groups of people in the world to train are teachers and techies. Seriously. Teachers expect respect due to their position and techies based on their experience / knowledge. Introducing something new to either is beset with issues. Teacher are appraising you ability to train as well as what you are training them in, Techies are appraising your background before you even get into the in-depth stuff to see if you are a blagger. Teachers forget that the techie might not be an experienced trainer, after all, teachers did a degree and then more training (either as post-grad or on the job) to learn about it. The ability to train people can take time to develop. Give helpful feedback to support staff if you think that there are areas for improvement. You would do that for another teacher … give the techies the same courtesy. Techies do sometimes need to step back and work out what the user needs though … do they need a problem fixed or do they need to learn about the problem, what to do if it arises again and how to avoid it in the first place? This is a judgement call and by asking the teacher involved it can save a lot of problems later on. Also make sure you talk to whoever controls the CPD in the school as you might be in a position to identify training needs for staff.
  • [Original] Thou shalt listen to requests with an open mind and respond in plain English.
    [Techie] Thou shalt ask for things in plain english and not buzzwords. Thou shalt understand that whilst with sufficient thrust pigs may indeed fly, it is not a good idea to be under them as they go overhead, be near them when they land and the RSPCA might get a tad annoyed. We will listen but be prepared for the answer to be no. If you ask for more information you will get it, and if you think I am talking down to you by using analogies about roads or cars it is because you won’t understand the short version, or have rolled your eyes when I mention something vaguely technical like CPU.
    [Me]We all have our own language. Lawyers have one, doctors have one, even priests have one. They are used to convey information and context in the most accurate and concise way possible. Translating it can take time, might need to be gone over a few times and is open to misinterpretation. When it comes to asking questions then yes, an open mind is needed, but often more context is needed too. Trying to convey the reasons why a request is made. Simply presuming that because you are a teacher you expect it to be done does not work, likewise just because you are a technical expert it does not mean that you, the techie, can say ‘no’ with no other comment or explanation. Try to come up with a common language to use … it will not be plain English. It will have some technical language in there as well as educational language. It will take time but once you have a good understanding it will help communication further down the line. Try having a glossary of terms for people to use, with examples.
  • [Original]Blocking shall be controlled by educators, not filtering companies. Thy job is to enable learning, not enforce behavior.
    [Techie] Blocking shall be generally automated because there is not enough time in the world to check every single site. Just because we are sat at a computer all day it does not mean we are just surfing teh web, checking on dodgy sites. Perhaps if you kept the kids under control they would not want to get to the dodgy sites. And try talking to other teachers before asking for things to get blocked. I’ll happily block that games site that is dmaging your lesson, but you can explain to Maths why they can no longer access a site they pay a subscription to.
    [Me] This is all buck-passing. Get over it. Internet access is too large an area to make it black and white. I have already ranted about blaming technology when it is really about choosing the right tools to aid classroom management. Blocking should actually be controlled by the Head and Chair of Governors as *they* are the people that will get into trouble if things go wrong. It is also a case that the job of internet access is to enable learning but the job of the filters is to prevent inappropriate use. Unless all sides are prepared to sit down, discuss the appropriate use and how it is to be managed then we are just mudslinging.
  • [Original]Thou shalt include students and teachers in decision-making about technology purchases and policy. Their interest is not an affront to your professionalism.
    [Techie] Thou shalt include the technical staff in the development of your curriculum. Their interest is not an affront to your professionalism.
    [Me]Again we are talking about planning here. It goes a bit like this. Someone comes up with requirements for what a system should do. This is based on how the learners are going to learn, how the teachers will teach, how things will be communicated inside and outside of the school and what are teh likely future changes too. A solution is put together to fit those requirements, sometimes out of an options papers or feasibility study to make sure all angles possible are covered adn then a group of key people make some decisions based on cost, capacity to deliver the requirements being completely met (or with some compromises). This all takes time, meetings and the experience to know how to do this efficiently, and this is before we get into things like procurement, etc. Companies will pay a lot of money to Project Managers to do all this, but many schools will take shortcuts for very justifiable reasons.

    • 1 – if the support team already have an off-the-shelf answer then they are likely to put that forward as a given option. It is likely to be cost effective because they are using already and will have the benefit of being setup quickly.
    • 2 – They are the technical experts and will often shorten the selection process because they have spoken with other schools about things that work or don’t work. If teachers and students in your school are not involved it doesn’t mean input from other students / teachers has not gone into the decision.
    • 3 – Last minute planning is the bane of the life of teachers and techies alike. Having to make quick decisions will mean not everyone can get involved. Accept that and make sure you plan better in future.
    • 4 – Technology is a tool. Everyone should get involved but someone has to make a decision about it. Battling about who has that power is pointless but it will vary from school to school who does it. Final decision on solutions should be made by senior management, not the network manager or head of ICT (or other head of department actually), but it should be part of the same process of looking at building developments around curriculum use, the curriculum itself, etc.

So there we have it.

Point, counter-point and hopefully some common sense. It has take over a week to knock this out and I know that there are areas for improvement, but I still find the techie / teacher bashing annoying. If it seems that I come down in favour of the techie side of things more than teachers that is because I still believe there is not a fair balance on respect between them. It will be ground down over the years and it is a lot better than were it was 5 years ago … but it is not changing enough for me to be happy.

Innovation Management

After my last blog post I have a few emails and messages pointing out that Change Management was often the blocker in teachers and techies trying new things out, that BSF used Change Management and contracts to stifle innovation, that red tape is the bane of education as it is and that we have to think of ways around it all to keep the ideas flowing.

I have tweeted about and pointed people towards Lewisham for examples of how BSF can still maintain bubbles of innovation but what about smaller examples? What about when a school is finally sorting out their change management? Will innovation still be remembered?

Well, I prepared the following video for the EdTechRoundUp TeachMeet as a possible answer of translating change management into innovation management, shamelessly using up other ideas I have come across over the years … most of which I honestly can’t remember where they came from. Some have directly come from previous schools, Brooke Weston Academy and mainly from Lodge Park Technology College … but others from schools visited with the SSAT Futures Vision tours, ICT Register or generally chatting with folk online. If you see something you recognise then let me know … no slight is intended for forgetting things.

FITS will fit all your needs!

What a wonderful week it has been. After a chance to catch up with schools involved in a local Apple RTC project (lovely to see and hear of teachers and pupils excited and engaged by the chance to try something different) we had the first piece of training for our new Technical Champions.

The course is actually the “Level 4 Certificate in ICT Support in Education: Practitioner” and is delivered via accredited training partners using materials from The FITS Foundation. In Northamptonshire our training partner is NEOS IT and we had the pleasure of George coming to Lodge Park Technology College on Tuesday and Wednesday to deliver training to the Technical Champions plus a few others.

A key concept across the whole course was the use of the word management. I know that I joke (quite frequently) about that particular word … even to the point of never using it but substituting the word ‘manglement’ instead … but it is really important in a heck of a lot about FITS. Once you get past the first stage of a service desk pretty much everything else has an element of management in there and this builds into the idea of Change Management.  I’ve written about the importance of Change Management before but it is explicit in the training materials. Without it then any significant change or choice your school makes with technology and learning … well … it is likely to fall flat on its face and it will probably end up being the missing piece of management from the FITS materials … Blame Management!

Why will some technicians, IT Managers and SLT not like what this means? Well, it introduces a large amount of accountability via a group that is central to Change Management (often call Change Advisory Board or Change Advisory Committee) and is likely to contain people like the IT Manager, a member of SLT, whoever looks after finances and then we get onto representatives of the stakeholders at the school. The training was quite interesting when we discussed who should be a representative. Of course people remembered about teachers, some mentioned about admin / office staff, one person mentioned about governors but I was disappointed that I was the only one to raise the students. And this was with a forward thinking bunch too … it got me to thinking that we still don’t communicate 2-way with our students enough and that this is partly down to the ethos of the school more than anything else. At this point people really understood who deep FITS can be involved with school change and transformation … and people were excited by that, a little daunted perhaps but the excitement is important.

My question to those reading this is how would you set up a group to manage change at your school? Do you have one already? Does it also deal with IT changes? Who is involved in the group? If you have student representation how do they feel about being involved?

I know … a typical Tony-style blog … talks about stuff and then asks a heap more questions. Oh well, you should be used to it by now.

One of the things I will be prodding the Technical Champions to do over the next month s to set up their blogs and I will share their links here too.

BSF and ICT

As well as stuff from NAACE2009, there have been a few other sessions I have been to looking at BSF. Over the weekend I’ll put up some notes on this and things that I am looking at.

The first thing I need to say is that I feel bad that I am going along to these events and not fighting the good fight on technical grounds but it is obvious at the moment that alternative business case proposals are unlikely to work, for whatever reason, but there are still lots of other ways that schools can ensure that they get what they need and a greater chance of getting what they want (the two are not always the same though!)

At NAACE2009 we had a session with Steve Moss from Partership for Schools. This looked at the changes that will happen from wave 7 onwards, learning from the mistakes and sucesses from precious waves. A few key things to note was the stress on stakeholder engagement. Making sure that schools are asking the right questions about what they will get for ICT; raising awareness of using educational requirements as the arguing points and not just relying on best value or technical excellence; getting schools to recognise that service providers will want to stick to specifications and single systems as this reduces their costs as well as reducing the risk that the company will be penalised if something goes wrong when trying something new. More on this bit later.

The other session at NAACE2009 was about Change Management, and without wanting to single out a provider, it was run by Northgate, and as some may have already heard me say, it was vey much a case of “we will do your change management because we know best!”

There was me thinking that *all* partners in BSF had to understand change management? If we
Don’t then we will only get what is delivered, not what has been asked for.

Personally I wasn’t impressed with the message put across, and will challenge that in any bidders I come across. I was also given the impression that many people do not understand that change management means different things to different people, and also in different stages I’m the program.

The other two events I have been to was the guardian ICT in BSF event, and a local meeting with 4Ps to raise awareness of next stages. More about these sessions later

The Promised Post – how to annoy teachers, techies, LAs and RBCs in one go!

I’ll be honest and say that there will be something in this post for everyone … something positive and something that will knock you down so that it makes you re-examine a few of your preconceptions and practices! I make no apologies for this and have done it purely to get people to think all that more carefully about how they approach each other’s views and make the common mistake that others are incompetent, inflexible or just doing things ‘wrong’. They may be thinking the same of you.

Why am I making this post? It all stems from a number of conversations about eSafety, the roles of different staff in educational institutes and the ongoing battle of reliance of technology to solve problems.

Let us fade back a few years to when I was a lowly mouse-cleaner support technician who decided to write an Acceptable Use Policy. I actually wrote 3 sections and it was done with the help and support of a few friends who worked in the ISP sector. It was based around a very precise T&Cs document, with an accompanying more readable description of the services the school ran with the boundaries about how users could use those services and finally an agreement statement that was a basic summary. Since I was a lowly techie it was passed through the chain, adapted and the T&Cs were dropped (not surprised to be honest … even *I* was a bit wary of the legalese in it). The students sign the agreement and the AUP Terms were posted in each IT room. Hmm … not really a rigorous plan for eSafety and still centred around the teacher telling the student off for doing general naughty things and the IT team telling them off for messing about on the computers (searching for stupid stuff on the web, trying to play games, etc). As much as I enjoyed the feeling of control and even felt that by making the students ‘fear’ me it would allow the teachers to get on with the job. However, as I started to become more interested in the application of IT in schools I rethought a number of my ideas around this.

Introducing a 3 strikes policy went some way to trying to push some sense of responsibility onto the students but it still separated the school discipline and the IT discipline. A new Vice-Principal meant that some of this was taken out of our control and I was not happy about some of that … the lack of understanding how filtering worked and how the IT could be abused by senior staff at the school left me feeling powerless as others took more control and made (in my opinion) wrong decisions. Oh how we learn and grow though.

Moving on to another school as a Network Manager I knew that this had to change and the move was made to trying to ensure the responsibility was with the teacher and form tutor for the discipline, but the IT Team would gather evidence … but is that just a case of passing the buck? So, we had filtering in place to make life as easy as possible for the teachers to understand why things worked the way they did. Teachers and students, generally, had the same access and this caused problems. Sites that disrupted lessons where blocked, but then the students used email to ‘chat’ during lessons. We couldn’t block them from that because it was then needed by other subjects … Getting promoted to the Senior Leadership of the school helped to work with staff so they understood the boundaries and having an ICT working group helped feedback into defining those boundaries. They were adapted so that staff could access things like youtube and facebook, and students could use blogger where needed. There is so much more needed but the staff were not ready for it. Things are still moving at the school and it looks as if they are now ready to take more ownership too.

My side line has been with a support community for IT Professionals in education. The IT Managers, Network Managers, System Admins, IT Technicians … a variety of titles and a variety of job roles but generally with the remit of setting up and looking after the IT in a school or schools. This takes me back to my power hungry days of control and there is the idea that because we understand the technology best that we should make the choices about it. Whilst still at the above school I also started working with the LA on a number of projects including working with the local RBC so I had an inside view to their view of the technology as well.

It ended up with me coming to the LA for 12 months to work on a variety of projects, working with some brilliant colleagues and over the last 10 years from starting in the education sector to now I have come across a wide range of technologies and approaches to eSafety and education. The conversations, discussions and heated debates will go on and on, and recently there was one about the use of tinyurl that made me re evaluate a few things and stick things down on paper. Eventually I have come to the following conclusions. Look away now if you are easily offended but stick with it if you want to see my reasoning.

1 – People sometimes are too blinkered to try and understand why technology can be bad, and feel that their small bit (that is affected by larger choices) is being targeted.

2 – Technology is not the answer. Relying on it and relying on the people that control it is not only bad but it is short-sighted.

3 – Disregarding the people who understand the technology is just as short-sighted, nay, even stupid.

4 – Do people really understand the technology involved? Heck, I don’t know everything and if you think you actually do then you are being short-sighted and fooling no-one but yourself.

5 – Top-down decisions are often stupid, and so are bottom-up decisions. Let’s face it … you can’t trust those people in the middle either! Don’t trust the techies, the teachers the LA or the RBC to get it right!

hmmm … there … I think that pretty much covers how people feel about it all. Doesn’t it sound stupid when you see it all together.

Ok, let’s look at the Tinyurl incident first. That will cover the RBC side of things. Tinyurl.com is a fantastic way of shortening really long URLs so that it doesn’t break apart the format or flow of documents, can be customised to make it easy to remember and for things like twitter or IM it keeps messages short. So, what is so wrong with it then? Well, the way the site works is that it wraps the header of the target website as it passes through filters. What that means is that I can create a link for the playboy site and for some filters it will not get automatically get blocked. This works for a variety of sites and I will actually be spending some time of the coming weeks to look at it in more depth, examining the actually technical process of how the website passes through the filter and seeing how things can or can’t be tweak. The main product I will be looking at for this is NetSweeper as this is what my local RBC use. How do you get around this problem? Simple … you block tinyurl.com. There, problem solved. But what about those people who use it and have it in their presentations or on websites? Heck, I have seen it in white papers, research studies and used by those working in government agencies or projects? Oops.

Well, in a number of places schools can actually take control of the filters supplied by the RBC and change the settings to allow tinyurl.com through. Erm … but doesn’t this then allow people to use it to bypass filters? Why yes … it does. Ah …

Ok, then this brings onto the idea of who controls filters. The number of teachers I hear moan (and I do really mean moan) about that fact that they cannot just change something when they need or want it, or that it shouldn’t be locked down in the first place … if I have a penny for each time I could definitely have a decent curry at least, with starter, poppadoms and peshwari nan. The number of techies who moan that teachers constantly demand unfiltered access with no concept of the nastiness that is out there or, when given extra access on their school ‘teacher-only’ laptop, let students go on it (on the teacher’s account) to search the internet … well, that would pay for the train ticket to London for me to go to the nice Indian restaurant not far from Olympia that I usually visit when at BETT. Add the number of techies and teachers who moan about the restrictions put in place by the LA / RBC … I could fly out to Mumbai to have the flamin’ meal! Who’s right and who’s wrong? They all are!

Again, based around the RBC and schools in my LA I will put forward how the technology works. Most large filters / proxies do so by checking the URL / IP of the website against a known database of dodgy sites. There is an official list put out by the Internet Watch Foundation that contains the sites you do not want to visit … ever! On top of this there are various categories such as porn, profanity, weapons, web email, web chat, drug use, gambling, match making, etc …. most filters are pretty extensive and some websites fit into more than one category. If a site is not in the list then the servers do a bit of intelligence gathering and look at the content. This will then plonk the site into a holding place whilst it gets reviewed. You still see the site but it will shortly be sorted.

Some filters operated at school level will look at the content of the page each and every time you view a site. This is costly and requires some hefty computers and interesting software. It can seriously slow internet access down if there is a lot of content checking to be done.

To get around the issue some schools will use a white list, a list of sites it knows are ok. The only problem is that access to adding sites is restricted otherwise all sorts of things can be added. And we come onto the first battle between school and LA / RBC, or the first battle between techie and teacher. Present policies in schools operate around the idea of block first and release later, and this applies to everyone. A lot of teachers don’t understand about the change control needed so that should something get through that shouldn’t, then we know who made the change. Since eSafety is ultimately in the hands of the Head and Chair of Governors then *they* are often the people that don’t want it to be too easy for anything to get through! I can’t blame them for that.

So, we then get some schools that leave things too loose so that it removes potential conflict between teachers and techies, or it is seriously loose (at the RBC / LA filter level) because the school is running software / filters in house to make it more flexible. Again, the battle between teacher and techie happens. See my comments about power and control earlier and note that this is often done for the best intentions.

So, we are left with filters that are too harsh because they block things like tinyurl.com or too loose because you can access all but the nastier things that the IWF want blocked. Oh … I haven’t really mentioned students yet either! You know … those funny things that can sometimes smell and tend to create a lot of noise? If we are talking about secondary (my main experience) then we are talking about 1/2 to 2/3 of them are actively trying to bypass whatever security s on the computers and get round the filters to listen to the radio, look at animé or play games, usually instead of getting on with the work they are meant to be doing.

We get to the stage where teacher A asks you to block the internet for student z because they are always on email or playing online flash games instead of doing their work … and teacher B says they can’t be blocked because student z needs access tot he internet for research and to complete work. Hmm … a chance to annoy those teachers reading perhaps? Classroom management! DO NOT RELY ON TECHNOLOGY!!!!!!

Ok, a bit harsh perhaps but try not to segregate abuse of resources and classroom management and discipline. It is a mistake I have made in the past and have tried to point out the flaws about it to people ever since. Technology takes you so far, but you need to do some work too.

However, technology can help and obnoxious techies (their turn now) who are not helpful and look down at you because you don’t have access to the technology (you may understand it, you might never get the chance to find out though) and will take control! Well, that needs to be more relaxed and there are ways of doing this.

The RBC and LA will always go for the highest common restrictions but they can have some darned good advice actually, but be wary that you will have to translate and adapt things for your school!

Ok … John Sutton made a post about AUPs the other day and I posted a response to it based around how I felt that they needed to grow within a school. http://bit.ly/11A1qu for the original post but here is my comment.

I consider AUPs to be a four step process.

1 – get the staff to understand the use and abuse of technology (AUP is not just about ‘Net access!) and why technology is a tool, kids are entitled to use whatever tools are available and why the first thing they should consider is the school discipline model and their own classroom management. Often greeted with disbelief that technology will not fix all their problems (and then onto heated discussions about filters, why staff are better than students and should be completely unfiltered and who are these IWF folk anyway!)

2 – Foster an environment of understanding and boundaries with the students and their parents. There are limits, the same way that life is full of limits. Learning about the responsibilty that students have in the worl is important and within the school access to resources is one of these areas, whether it is to PE equipment (wow … that discus really hurts when flung at someone’s head, and no … you shouldn’t intentionally hit the cricket ball at the windows!) or technology. If we don’t show trust to start with, it is nothing personal but it is about expanding your limits at a safe rate.

3 – Ok … if you really want to have a finite set of rules then here you go. A technical and legal-ish defined set outline the services available, how they can be used, their limits and the processes centred around their development, growth and how changes are made.

4 – Agreement. The AUP is implicit as it is part of the school ethos. The same way you agree to wear a particular uniform, to take part in certain activities, to be a constructive member of the school community then you also know there are limits (expandable depending on your growth) that you have to operate in. This applies to staff and students. Some schools opt to have the same set of limits for both … it’s a school by school thing and is based on whether you are happy that use of technology is embedded in the school. The agreement is a conscious move by the school, the staff, the students and the parents to affirm that the understand this. If they refuse to sign then the school must question whether the family truly understands what the school does with regards to technology as part of the curriculum and ethos of the school. If, after discussion with the family (or teacher) there is still a refusal to sign then the school repeats that they are the limits that the school applies. Lack of affirmation to follow them does not mean opt out. It means that you are still in but if you complain when your son / daughter (or you as a teacher) gets hauled up about breaches of the AUP then you cannot use refusal to sign as an excuse!

A number of groups (including rehab groups, church groups, sporting societies, etc) will affirm their stance in agreement with their group on a regular basis. refusal to do so does not mean they are not part of that group, but it is a positive thing that should be embraced. If someone does not take part in it then it is a chance for other members to take the person to one side and find out what the issue is. It can be something minor … a few tiny bits of phrasing that is difficult to publicly say … or disillusionment with the group or a felling that they need additional support.

So .. it is not just about AUPs and technology. It is about affirmation and being positive about your role and the limits you operate in, help define and help grow.

So, there you have it. In spite of doing my best to annoy pretty much everyone, most of the above is based around compromise and a common understanding.

Ok, group hug is over and done with, and normal service now being resumed.

If you want to take more control and ownership as a school, as a teacher or as a techie then I will highlight a number of things for you to look at and investigate. I am not saying that these are right or wrong, but most have sufficient background behind them to show good practice. Also remember that I am basing some of my comments about how filter systems operate on my local RBC. Your Mileage May Vary and access to this level of control may be different from LA to LA, even within the same RBC.

1 – RBC filters are granular. It is common to set a site default level. This means that should people just go onto any old machine and try to access the ‘Net then they get a predetermined level of filtering. Set this as high as possible so people will not just go straight in and browse when bored. For us we can also set it so that when users log into the RBC portal they get a filter level as defined by the school. This means that should the site level be 4 (the most restrictive) and a student logs in then he/she could pick up level 3 or 2. This not only gives you the option to be more flexible, but to also allow you to audit when and what students are doing. You might want to set staff at level 1, the most relaxed, and give them access to tinyurl and youtube. Remember that if you do this then when they are logged in and have their computer hooked up to the projector, should then click on a wrong link then it could take them somewhere very embarrasing, and there is also the temptation for staff to allow students to use their computers / accounts! Data Protection stuff is for another day!

2 – If you want more control then yeah, run your own filtering, but be careful! There are a number of products out there that will do what you want, can sit inside your school and can give you even more granularity. They can tie into your school network so you don’t have to log in to anything, it automagically picks up who you are and what you are entitled to. Access to this sort of control can be delegated to staff (ie temporary blocking of ‘Net access for a specific student) but remember that this is admin work … something that Unions get a tad unhappy with if they find out that teachers are doing it. Also, one teacher may block, another unblock the student and it becomes political. You need to have some sort of change management in there … and this is more paperwork (electronic or paper-based). And this doesn’t get around the fact that you are still not allowing teachers to unblock specific websites. This level of control gets a little scary, but what it does mean is that you can have more control about what each specific group can and cannot use! This harks back to allowing the boundaries / limits that we put on our students to grow.

3 – This is still bypassing a chunk of the classroom management that I made a fuss of earlier. There are a number of tools that can help with this, some automated and some they truly do put power in the hands of the teacher again. If we take the automated tools first, there are the keyloggers and screen grabbers. If they see something going on (eg typing a bullying email) then key words will be recognised and a screenshot taken, a nominated person emailed with the screen shot (sometimes a techie, sometimes a head of year) and it is dealt with under the school’s discipline code. This works in two ways, it creates the environment of controlled watching (ie big brother) whilst forcing students to take responsibility for their actions. The down side is that it is too police like and open to abuse by pupils using other pupils’ accounts. The other option is to use active monitoring tools such as AB Tutor Control or SynchronEyes. Tools that allow a teacher to view each workstation in real time, lock out browser access if required, share a desktop with a student to support them and other tools that each piece of software gives you (eg SynchronEyes gives a virtual interactive whiteboard for the class to use). Again, this fits into the growth of boundaries as you will spend less and less time monitoring as students show responsibility.

So, we have a range of tools, with a range of people having ownership. There should be enough there for everyone really.

Your discipline policy will vary from school to school, but I would recommend that there should not be a difference in the status of teachers and support staff in it, unless it is a defined role (eg behaviour management tutor, dedicated pastoral specialists, etc). This helps to break down the barrier of them and us (from both sides).

Work with your LA to understand the limits of the technological solutions available and rather than have a go for it not being flexible enough have a look at whether you need to employ alternatives to fill gaps or give you room for expansion and growth.

Remember that as a teacher or techie, the responsibility does not ultimately fall with you, but your head. If he/she needs educating as to the possibilities available for using sites that are typically blocked then you need to show you still have some safeguards … an audit trail … and ensure that this is based on a whole school process, not just something for you as a techie or an ICT evangelist!

Finally, you may have realised that I haven’t actually been that offensive to anyone, just making use of stereotyped view points to show how little communication there may be within a school, between schools and LAs / RBCs and between society in general.

This is not a perfect blog entry, far from it. It has a number of holes that need patching over the next year and is based on a considerable amount of common sense. It has been aided and abetted by the AUP produced by an LA colleague, but conversations with frustrated ICT evangelists, conversations with Techies, with LA staff, with RBC staff and with providers of tools for schools.

It has also been aided by chatting with students, who are the first to admit that they want to push the boundaries they have been given, but they want something to push against otherwise how do they know they are growing? But the second thing they usually admit is that given a choice between work and play … it takes a good teacher to make them want to work and it take a good IT system to allow them to do it!

*Edit – decided to remove the password protection from this as I am pretty sure that I have covered everything I need to and no-one I have showed it to yet has threatened me with castration!*