Tech Departments: sliding sideways, fading away

We’ve all heard of things going pear-shaped.  I’m more interested in when things go sideways, or maybe fade away.

Traditionally, a tech department has kept its domain limited to specific types of technology—desktops, laptops, servers, tablets, smartphones, networks, Internet access, printers, school databases, core office software suites, phone system, copiers, scanners and sometimes the security and access control systems.

If there isn’t a media department, the tech department picks up digital projectors, digital cameras and camcorders, digital recording hardware, televisions, display monitors and even sound systems for school dances.

In general, however, tech departments try not to pick up the responsibility for everything that uses electricity (such as electric pencil sharpeners and laminators), but I’ve seen that happen as well.  (Not fun.)

Specialized software and hardware has always created interesting problems for tech departments.  Sophisticated gear and software for art classes (Illustrator, Maya, large roll printers) shouldn’t be bought in isolation of the tech department (since it needs to spec the correct hardware and peripherals and file storage and backup, etc.), but overall it’s a department-specific need and is therefore more like a set of textbooks than a tech department purchase.  The same may be true for video production software and music production software (and USB keyboards, Midi devices, or similar).

The situation becomes even messier in Science, where probeware and related software is really a cross between the tech department and the science department.  The tech department has never spec’d and bought microscopes or Bunsen burners, but what happens when the microscopes are all digital, or a FLIR camera is desired, or a new suite of probeware?

The same can occur in Athletics with heart rate monitors, held-held computers for data collection, and advanced video analysis software (and the associated cameras and workstations needed to run it).  Tech departments have never bought balls or nets, and Athletics have never bought camcorders, video workstations, and hand-held computers before.

In a perfect world, a coalition of work needs to take place between the departments and the tech department to make the right decisions.  Grass root discoveries and requests from the departments themselves may always be the strongest, but sometimes those requests are limited to only one or two people (and sometimes they move on to other schools before a pilot project can take root).

What I’m considering, in terms of “going sideways,” is how a tech department can have a broad enough vision to carefully suggest new software and equipment to other departments (art, athletics, science, music, math, and others) in a meaningful way.  This is a tricky business, because the ownership of the tools needs to be with the departments in the end (unless the tech department is so large that they can be called to run a roll printer whenever it is needed, for example).  It is also tricky because the costs of the new gear are likely to come back to the tech department budget, since we’re walking into new digital realms in a lot of these areas.

One example is the rather expensive 2D laser cutter we spec’d with a MS science teacher last year, which was purchased and is now in use with MS Science, MS Design, HS robotics, and HS Architecture and Design.  Even more than a roll printer, this is a high tech and somewhat high learning curve device that was hard to budget for.  It is working out this year, primarily because of the hard work of the lead teachers who requested it, but it’s an example of some risk exposure in order to move forward (and the traditional MS/HS science budgets weren’t equipped to just add it to their purchase list).

As noted in an earlier post, I really see technology in education skewing to hands-on learning experiences (like the 2D laser cutter) as we go forward.  We are at a high plateau now with a well-used virtual learning environment (Moodle), a heavily used email system (Zimbra), extensive use of computers for writing and research, and a growing online portal for a variety of information straight from the student information system.  These are all great and part of the equation, but they are also virtual and mostly cerebral.

The counter-weight to this will be the technology that is more hands-on, such as my son doing stop-motion animation with our Nikon at home to post on his Youtube channel.  And the students building tea lamps using materials Illustrator-designed and cut by laser.  And the heart-rate monitors, and science probeware, and USB keyboards, and Lego robotics, and First robotics, and the recording studio…

To move further into those realms, tech departments have a role to play via collaboration, research and helping to find and responsibility use the budgets.  I consider that a somewhat “sideways” move, because it just blurs the boundaries of a tech department even more.

Who knows?  In the end, it may be that a growing percentage of the teachers themselves should be considered members of the tech department; i.e., the tech department itself isn’t really a department any more at all, but a state of mind.  I kind of like the idea of tech mavens all over the school in all departments.

How can I achieve that…

Meanwhile, it’s time to go to some sessions at the NAIS annual conference.  It was bright and sunny here in National Harbor yesterday, but it’s going to cloud up and rain today.  I still have a nice view of the Potomac.

So you want a career in technology?

I had about 20 eighth graders sign up for a short talk I did this week about my career.  It was one of those classic career day sort of things.  I started by saying that I remembered career day back when I was their age, and it was fun to hear about what architects and lawyers and accountants did, but I was more interested in how they got there (i.e., what were they doing when they were in eighth grade that may have led to their fates).

I noted that my generation was “rotting their brains” by watching too much t.v., just as their generation is “rotting their brains” with Facebook and computer games.  I confessed to watching a lot of t.v. at their age, but still I seemed to survive, and it wasn’t the only thing I did.

Here’s the Prezi I created for the little 15 minute talk:

Some explanation:

Having a passion— story about a very happy phone line installer I met in Philadelphia. Doing it for 13 years, wanting to do it for another 20 years. I admired his passion for a basic but fulfilling job.

Being Hands-on— the importance of taking things apart and building things. When I was 15, I bought two Morris Minor 1000s at an estate auction, and rebuilt the best one entirely. I learned a lot from working with machines.

Embrace change— Our iPhones are about the same as super computers 25 years ago. Think of today’s super computers on phones 25 years from today. Discuss.

Discover innovations— Innovation isn’t always technology. It may be simply bringing people and their motivations together in new ways, like Wikipedia.

Experience humility— technology can and will let you down. It is fragile and unreliable, but it is also becoming essential. Breakage and failures are part of the process, not avoidable.

Always learning— Because of change, you will be a lifelong learner with a career in technology, so get good at it. But it’s not just because of the change– my 1974 sailboat will take a lifetime to learn how to sail really well. Technology is similar, and lifelong learning is easy in any career ambition you are really passionate about.

To conclude, three recommendations:

Be passionate: right now, it can be able anything. Study it. Look it up online. See what others are saying and doing about it. Be passionate now about anything, and in the future you will find more to be passionate about.

Be hands on:
there is a risk of being all virtual and cerebral about things. Take things apart. Build things. Break things. Fail. Make something you are proud of. Get a bike and take it apart. Build with Legos, sew, paint, get messy.

Any job is a good first job:
babysit, get basic jobs, work for a summer when you are in high school, instead of just travel. All jobs are good first jobs, and your first jobs will continue right through college.

That’s it for now.

Images, Images, Images

Back in November my wife starting getting emails about some image galleries we built using her .Mac account in 2004.  We had posted about 11 image galleries about the restoration of a Cal 20 sailboat my brother and I bought off the side of the road for $600.

Well, we always knew these galleries were popular because their page hits were into many, many thousands.  Some emailed to tell us that they bought the same boat after seeing our galleries and how they could be fixed up.

Then, in November 2010, Apple decided that it wasn’t going to support the homepages part of .Mac anymore.  In fact, .Mac because, etc., and our pages were still there but broken– none of the images still showed.  Of course, they had no easy way to convert the sites over to the “new and improved” sites.

So, a few months go by, and we get about an email a week saying “geez, we really miss those galleries.”  So, being sick for the last four days, I rebuilt them all from scratch, converted all of our online galleries from Gallery 2.3 to 3.01, and then hacked the old .mac pages to show redirects.

Here’s the fruits of the labor:

Sailing, Travel, Life

And, of course, the famous Cal 20 Restoration Galleries.

Gallery 3.01 is pretty impressive– I like how I can now upload dozens of photos right through the web interface now (instead of using Gallery Remote client).  It is also suppose to fix the Google bot problem, because version 2.3 prevented the images from showing up on Google Images and in other searches.

We’ll see how it goes.

Restoring a Cal 20 Sailboat (in 2004)

Quality of Service– Vs. ISP

We’ve had an interesting experience.  Our Meru access points are set to load balance the number of connected clients based on bandwidth being used.  One day as we are tracing access point performance, we tracked a user through a day where his/her Macbook would knock off all other clients from the access point it was associated with.  I.e., it alone was pulling so much bandwidth that the access point moved all other clients off (creating nice issues for us in certain areas in terms of coverage).

We politely talked to the user the next day, because at first we feared the Macbook was infected and was going crazy with p2p or similar software.  Instead, we found that the user had bought four or five HD movies over the weekend at home.  They didn’t download there, but then iTunes had a field day when she arrived at school with our 100mbit connection, N wireless at 300 mbit connection speed, etc.

Since then, we’ve downshifted the N wireless network to a max of 130 mbits (and we’ve also been having to upgrade the connections of the access points to gigabit, because the POE 100 mbit runs are overloading).

We’ve also trialed a Palo Alto appliance, which is less expensive than a Packeteer, but the first thing we tested was to limit to no more than 10 mbits of our 100 mbit Internet connection, which appears to work.  If we have more cloud-based backup users, we may have to do something similar (since home broadband upload rates are only .5 mbit, but at our school it can ramp to 100 mbit).

I think these types of issues are going to affect us more in the future, and we will need to work more on setting up QOS for different sites and services.

The Journey Continues…

I’m working with a project manager now on a restoration and upgrade of a sports pavilion.  He’s an experienced project manager, and he’s worked on much larger projects than this sports pavilion.  As he leads the project, he frequently refers to “the journey of the project” and “taking Joan on the journey” or “delayed steelworks will change the journey of the veranda.”

I find this phraseology refreshing.  A journey is going to have many twists and turns, and different traveling companions at different times.  It’s going to have some detours and delays, or its going to have some tense “rush to catch the ferry” moments.  Journeys also always come to an end, hopefully at the hoped-for destination.

Having driven across the US twice, and cycled across a few states, I can understand this well.  It’s an early and consistent way to acknowledge not everything will be know until the journey goes forward, and an acknowledgment that not everyone who starts the trip will end it. Also, we’ll do the best we possibly can when things go awry (a flat tire, a missed ferry), and we’re mentally prepared for that.

Maybe that’s the right approach for tech integration and project development as well.  Sometimes, we’re so focused on advocating the positive that we neglect to acknowledge the likely set-backs and detours.

There are cases of complete “crash and burn” projects (major investments that had to be abandoned 1 or more years after deployment), but I wonder how many of them may have been caused by not reading the writing on the wall and making an appropriate detour much earlier in the process.

Rainy here today in London.  Have the day off, but there’s too much rain to take the family to the boat yet.

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