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.

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