Sunday, April 8, 2018

Watch Out Tech Tyrants: G Suite is Not The Enemy, but A New Breed of Servant Technology Leader is Coming for You

By: Amy Mayer, founder of friEdTechnology

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I have this conversation, or one very similar to it, every week . . .

Me: Let’s talk about what Google Services you’re using including what does and doesn’t work in your district.

Instructional Technology Contact: Well . . . our tech director says we can only use x; we wanted to use y, but he’s in charge of that, and there’s really no talking to him.

But last week, I had an even more interesting conversation with a new technology director of a school I first worked with three years ago.

Three years ago after speaking with an Assistant Superintendent who hired us to help several campuses with Back to School PD and a teacher knowledgeable about Instructional Technology in the district, I learned that their Google setup was hopelessly flawed with regular services not working properly; student accounts were not set up, and teachers were toggling back and forth between their consumer accounts (@gmail.com) and their district accounts because so many things didn’t work; many had abandoned their district accounts and simply used their personal consumer accounts. Students were stuck doing the same. The tech department was unhelpful, providing a shoulder shrug when instructional staff asked for changes or improvements or just for things to actually work. They’d given up. As for our staff, we’d make do. We’d need to be prepared to have teachers use their Gmail accounts. There wasn’t really another choice. There was no one on the technology staff who would create the accounts or make sure the accounts that were there functioned. There was no mechanism to even ask and no accountability of this staff to instructional employees.

I want to remind you, this is a SCHOOL. The very goal of it is to educate students. I was speaking to the people responsible for making that happen. They had no hope.

Two years ago, at the same district, the story was similar; we helped with Back to School PD, and not much had changed.

Last week though, the call was very different; it was with the district technology director; a CTO,
who was fairly new to the organization. He’d never met me, but I had three years of history about this school in my head when I got into that Hangout (my first sign that things had changed, he wanted to meet via Hangouts). After feeling out the new director, let’s call him Ted, to see what he knew and was willing to admit about the history of his organization, and then understanding that he was basically hired to fix the very situation I experienced, he gave a startling statement, one I have heard rarely. It went something like this:

(all speech is paraphrased and written as I recall it)
The previous staff was anti-Google. The instructional staff wanted it and was trying to use it, and yet the technology staff was literally causing problems for them. Not only were they not fixing problems, they were literally making new problems for instructional staff. They wanted Microsoft. That’s where their certifications were, and they didn’t really care what the instructors or directors wanted.
Of course, I was intrigued. Ted talked about all of this in past tense, via a Google Hangout. “So, what happened? How did that dynamic change?” I asked.

“None of those people work here anymore.”
That part made sense, but “I mean, did you have to fire them or what?” I wanted to know.

“I had to fire some of them. Most of them left on their own. My philosophy, OUR philosophy, is that the tech department of a school district is a servant department. We serve education, educators, and students. That’s our only purpose. If you couldn’t get on board with that, it became obvious to everyone, you better find another job. You just weren’t going to be able to fit in here.”

Right then and there, Ted and I bonded. This,” I told him, “is the new model for technology departments, and you may not have come with an education background, but you are a harbinger of things to come.”

This was the first time that I’d had a conversation like this with a tech leader from industry, but it certainly was not the first time I’ve had one like it. In all of the other ones, the person I was talking to who was newly in charge was the same beleaguered instructional technology person who originally told me things were hopeless and all s/he could hope for was a swift retirement to end the constipation of progress.

In another instance in a different public school district, the superintendent told the tech director: “Make x work, or else. We need it; we’ve told you we need it. You’ll do it, or I’ll have no choice but to replace you.” He still didn’t do it, the instructional technology lead replaced him. Until he found a new job, he worked for her as a campus technician. I was in the district while this situation was in place. We even all went to lunch together . . . 

Tech directors: I’m not trying to diminish your role. You’re as important as ever. We want to get along with you, but we also need you to know, the average stay of the superintendent who’s allowing you not to serve the needs of your school district is a scant three years, and your story of fear (it’s not secure, it doesn’t work, etc.) is not going to work with that new superintendent whose previous district had a free and functional system, one you insist won’t work.

I’m convinced that the reason most of the non-servant tech directors who remain are acting, or rather refusing to act, out of a set of fears. Sometimes enumerating them helps dispel them, so here they are . . . 

Myths versus Facts . . .

MYTH: Google isn’t secure; Microsoft is. I’m protecting my staff and students from untold horrors they could experience if I install and configure G Suite for Education.

FACT: Google has signed, agreed to, and modified itself to conform to every single security and privacy request of every reputable organization that has presented requests or pointed out flaws. It is absolutely safe and secure, likely more so than the local servers your school district still hosts. You can learn more about that here. And listen, with the market share what it is with Chromebooks right now, this article from 2017 says 58%, if there were serious and significant risks for kids, you would be hearing about it, and not just from fear bloggers paid by the competition. Remember, TEACHERS are always the biggest and best safety net between kids and the dangers of the web, not you. No filter in the world can do the job of a competent and caring teacher.

MYTH: As a tech director, I'll lose control, and/or, so much will be taken off my hands I won't be able to justify my job or the size of my department.

FACT: My department will be able to focus in on serving the educators and students better, helping to assess emerging technology tools and trends, speeding up response time, and becoming partners in facilitating educational progress.

MYTH: I purchased this software (usually an LMS) and teachers aren’t using it, or they’re obviously just trying to satisfy the district requirement to use it. I spent a lot of money; people seemed to want it, but now they don’t. They keep asking for Google Classroom and I heard that’s an LMS. We’ve already GOT an LMS, and it does the same things! There’s no way I’m allowing that to be used when we already have an LMS. I’d look like I wasted district funds, and I just cannot have everyone thinking I made a mistake.

FACT: New software comes along. It changes and improves all the time. What’s the “best” thing this year may not be the best thing next year. You can’t be “right” about a software decision, you can only be “right now” about a software decision, as in, what’s the best thing to solve this problem RIGHT NOW. Google Classroom may NOT have done what you wanted three years ago when you first made that purchase. I’m not even sure it existed then, but it DOES now and it does some things your LMS can’t do, like distribute copies of a template seamlessly, give students a simple way to turn work in, and give teachers an easy way to comment on and return it. It probably does not do some of the fancy things your LMS does but turns out most teachers don’t care about that after all. We see our students face to face every day, and a lot of those advanced features are for asynchronous learning. We just don’t need them, and it’s too much trouble to use your purchased system.

MYTH: My Microsoft Certifications are what give me value as an employee of this organization. They’re how I got the job, and if I hold on to Microsoft, they’re how I’ll keep it and justify my salary.

FACT: Your ability to adapt to change would be much more valuable than any certification you got years ago from a company that has lost its foothold on the field of education. With more than 70 million G Suite for Education users nationwide, the spaces inside education where your Microsoft certification is going to earn you a position are shrinking fast.

MYTH: I don’t know how to manage Google, and I don’t want to learn anything new. I’m embarrassed to ask for help at this point, but I also don’t want to turn the reins over to someone else who already knows or who is game to figure it out. If it’s easy, and anyone sees that, it could jeopardize my position. Not only would my skills no longer be valuable, but someone without my qualifications could be eligible for my job.

FACT: Well, I’m afraid there’s not much MYTH there. It is easy or at least easier. There is probably more than one Instructional Technology person around who could do this, is willing to ask for help if s/he can’t, and will work as long as it takes to figure it out and get a system working. Since s/he comes at this problem with no expectation of already knowing, s/he is primed for success in this new world where leaning on past certifications will no longer impress anyone but instead where the only mark of respect is reserved for what works. The role of tech director is changing but not the value of the tech director. A director who serves educators and facilitates instructional progress is now, and will always be, invaluable. 

Tech Directors, it’s time to get help. There is no shame in asking for it, and in fact, you should be proud of yourself for embarking on a new challenge. G Suite is designed to be “easy,” but bringing your technical skills to the table will get you far. Most of us instructional types would much rather turn over those DNS settings and site verifications to someone like you. We’re also willing to examine the risks and benefits with you. Let’s decide together. Let’s make sure everyone in charge understands the reality behind what’s possible and that we’re not making decisions out of fear. Let’s figure out what’s likely to go wrong and do what we can together to prevent it with reasonable precautions, then let’s figure out how we can deal with what comes our way together. 

This kind of thinking is what will save your job . . . and restore our faith in you.


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