7.5: Strategies to Increase Efficiency
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For much of the history of computers in schools, the “timeliness” of repairs was ill-defined and repair deadlines were not critical. When computers were only one or two per classroom and they were only marginally used in the curriculum, a computer being inoperable for a few days or even weeks posed little disruption to students’ work. This was largely due to the fact that computers were simply replacing other technologies; for example, the middle school students I visited as an undergraduate replaced graph paper and pencils with computers to create graphs for their science fair projects. Most of the information those students created and consumed information was on paper, students could be engaged even when “the computers are down.” As computer rooms arrived, dysfunctional computers posed a greater obstacle to learning, but only if the number of students exceeded the number of operational workstations and as long as needed files were not on malfunctioning computers.
As electronic digital information and interaction has come to dominate, and computers have become vital to how information is accessed, analyzed, and created in diverse classrooms; it has become essential that malfunctioning computers be repaired in a timely manner, with timely being defined in hours or days rather than weeks. Especially in schools were one-to-one initiates are underway, teachers plan their lessons based on the assumption that students will have access to devices, so repairs need to be addressed quickly to minimize the disruption to learning that arise from broken computers. Responsive technology support systems, as a result, are designed to increase the efficiency of technicians so that the time between reporting it and it being resolved is minimal.
IT professionals adopt several strategies to increase their efficiency. Interesting almost all malfunctioning IT can be traced to software; files become corrupt, new devices or new hardware introduce conflicts, and other temporary faults are introduced with updates. Almost all of these software problems can be avoided or resolved with a few strategies. Imaging allows technicians to reset the software on entire systems, freezing prevents changes to the software in systems, and remote access systems allow technicians to log on to computers that are connected to networks from remote locations and then affect software repairs.
In the vocabulary of IT technicians, imaging refers to the process of creating a file that contains the copy of a computer hard drive, then sending that to the hard drives of other computers. This strategy is particularly useful in situations where there are a large number of the same model installed in one place.
Imaging occurs in three steps. First, a single computer is configured exactly as it (and the others) needs to be. The operating system and applications are updated, network settings established, printers configured, and old data files are removed and unused applications uninstalled, and any other maintenance tasks completed prior to creating the image.
Second, the computer is restarted using software that bypasses the operating system on the hard drive. This may be done with software installed on a USB disk or that is stored at a network location. Typically, this includes a minimal operating system, so keyboards, network adapters, displays and similar tools function as the software to create and receive the image file is loaded into the random access memory. Third, the software imaging software is used to either create an image or receive an image (overwrite the current hard drive with the contents of a stored image).
There are several complicating factors in creating and using images including:
- Images are model-specific. If a school distributes five different models of laptops to teachers, then the IT staff must manage five images, and they must be sure to deploy the correct image to each model. More recent imaging software is minimizing the need to manage different images for each model, but the IT managers must still be clear about exactly which software titles (including drivers and extensions and configurations) need to be installed on each model.
- It is essential that systems used to make images be thoroughly tested before its images is made and deployed. An error in setting up network printers on the computer used to make the image, for example, can make a whole fleet of computers unable to print if its image is deployed. Technicians must confirm all settings are correct to avoid the need to repeat the process.
- Some reconfiguration of recipient computers may be necessary. Several factors such as the types of software licenses that are on the hard drive used to create the image and the specifies of how devices are named on the network and the methods used to create user profiles determine how much unit-specific configuration is necessary after it receives an image.
- Imaging does irreversibly erase the contents of a hard drive, so data that has not been backup-up is lost. For this reason, technicians ask, “Do you need the data on this computer?” more than once before reimaging a computer.
Typically, a technician will reimage a computer when it is observed to have unusual and difficult-to-troubleshoot symptoms; technicians are frequently heard to say, “Well, that is weird,” immediately before deciding to reimage a computer. If a technician suspects a computer has been infected by a virus or other malware, then he or she is likely to reimage it as well. The great advantage of this strategy from the technician’s point of view is that the system will be set back to a “known good” configuration with a well-known and standard practice. Further, in the hours that it takes for an image to overwrite the hard drive on a malfunctioning computer, the technician can attend to other repair, because the process completes without further input from the technicians once it is started. Imaging takes a few minutes to initiate, and several minutes to reconfigure unit-specific settings, but when the image is being received, the technician can attend to other work.
In addition to repairing malfunctioning computers, imaging is used for large upgrade and maintenance projects on fleets of computers. A common addition to the “to do” list of technicians over the summer is to “image the computer room” (which may be either desktop or laptop models). This finds a technician creating an image then sending it to all of the computers in the room. This does necessitate large amounts of data being transferred, so it can interfere with network performance when it is underway (which explains the need to do it over the summer). In all uses of imaging, it is a method of resolving software problems with great efficiency.
While imaging is a reaction to software changes that have adversely affect the performance of a system, freezing is a strategy that prevents software problems from occurring. A technician installs the application that provides the freezing function and then configures the system exactly as he or she wants it to function. Just like imaging, all updates and applications are installed and the network configuration along with network printers and other peripherals are installed, configured, and tested. Once the configuration is confirmed, the technician calls the freezing software (which is running in the background, unseen by the user) and enters a password which provides access to the controls that can be used to change the state of the computer to “frozen” and restarts the computer. Until it is “unfrozen” by a user who provides the password, then each time the computer is restarted, it returns to the state when it was frozen.
As software to freeze computers has been used, additional features have been added. For example, the directories in which operating systems updates are installed can be left “unfrozen” so that necessary updates are not deleted when the computer is restarted. Also, some user directories can be unfrozen, so that documents created by users can be saved to a frozen computer. While it does prevent many software-induced problems, there are several reasons that IT managers may avoid using this solution:
- Commercial software to freeze computers can be very expensive;
- Unless the version of the software allows for unfrozen directories, it necessitates files be stored on systems other than the local frozen hard drive;
- Unless properly configured, it can remove critical system updates or data;
- As hard drives have approached and exceeded terabytes of storage, the freezing process can lead to noticeable delays in start-up which interfere with the perceived performance of computers in many school settings.
Maintaining Extra Inventory
Especially in those schools in which there is an active oneto-one initiative, some IT managers will purchase extra computers so that dysfunctional computers can be immediately replaced for students. In some school IT shops where there is extra inventory maintained, a student who finds his or her computer malfunctioning for either software or hardware reasons will find a technician who removes the hard drive (containing the operating system, applications, network settings, and the students’ data) and installs it in another unit that is identical to the first. This allows the students to return to learning as normal and the technician to troubleshoot the broken devices or return it for repair by the manufacturer after updating the inventory and ticketing system so those records are accurate.
On-Site and Remote Service
The efficiency of IT repairs can be improved by both increasing the access to repairs on-site and increasing the capacity for technicians to affect repairs remotely. While this may appear to so obvious to be superfluous, the strategies and implications for IT managers are quite different.
Assigning trained IT technicians to work in specific school buildings and ensuring the technicians are well-known to students and teachers and having them work in accessible and well-equipped shops does result in repairs being more efficient, but hiring and retaining employees tends to be a very expensive option in schools (and all other organizations). The question is often asked by school leaders, “How many technicians do we need given the size of our fleet?” Many variables (including the age of the machines, the operating system and other applications installed, the nature of the network, the robustness of the design, and the type of use to which the machines are subjected) affect the number of repairs needed in a given time and the complexity of those repairs. Because of these many variables, there is no reliable heuristic for calculating the number of IT technicians that are needed for a fleet. If the load of repairs overwhelms the available technicians on a regular basis, then steps must be taken to improve their capacity to affect repairs; this can be by providing the technicians with more training or better work conditions, or hiring additional technicians to chare the work.
Placing a technician in every school to be the primary source of IT support at that site does improve efficiency of repairs but coincidently it increases dependence on that technician, thus efficiency can actually decrease. When teachers and others depend on the technician, they are unlikely to develop their own troubleshooting skills, so rather than resolving a problem with a few minutes of troubleshooting, productivity (or at least technology-rich productivity) stops while the technician is summoned then arrives to affect the same steps that are within the capacity of other adults. Not only does a technician-dependent teacher demonstrate poor capacity to learn and to problem-solve, but he or she can delay opportunities for learning while waiting for technicians to become available. Further, this can take technicians away from jobs that require their expertise, so both repairs are delayed. For these reasons, when on-site technicians are place in schools, there must be clear rules about what constitutes an IT emergency, and clear expectations of troubleshooting steps and procedures teachers are trained to take and are expected to take prior to seeking assistance.
Technicians also increase efficiency by using remote access tools log on to desktop and laptops computers form any place on the network. Using remote access, they can install and update software, change configurations, troubleshoot, and otherwise manage those workstations over the network. Access to remote access tools is closely managed by IT managers as it can be used for nefarious purposes as well as legitimate troubleshooting and repair. These tools often use protocols and ports that can be exploited by malware, and using these tools can expose the computer systems and the data stored on them to the threat of unauthorized access.
Information technology professionals comprise a diverse group of professionals and the skills necessary for one specialty within the field are not necessarily transferable to others. Hiring professionals that fulfill the needed role in a school with the appropriate skills necessitates school leaders understand the specialties within IT professions. It is also important for school leaders to accurately and clearly define expectations and that IT professionals can clearly match job descriptions with his or her skills. Accurately describing and filling positions also avoids the waste of paying for skills that are unused or for needing to provide unbudgeted consultants to fill gaps in the knowledge or skill of hired individuals.
Regardless of the positions funded in budgets and the staffing decisions made by school leaders, all of the roles described in this section must be filled by individuals if a technology support system is to be comprehensive and complete. The titles given to the positions that fill these roles vary and the nature of the individual retained to fill the roles are determined by local circumstances, but strategies utilizing full-time employees, part-time employees, shortterm employees, and consultants have been effective, and of course, a single individual can play multiple roles. It is rare, however, to find one individual who can fulfill each role with expertise.
Chief Information Officer
It is only recently that educational organizations have adopted the practice of using “c-level” title for those in management positions. Chief financial officers (CFO) manage the business operations of schools and chief academic officers (CAO) are responsible for all aspects of teaching and learning within schools; individuals in these roles report to the chief executive officer (CEO) who typically hold the position of superintendent of schools. Added to the c-level of management in organizations including schools is the chief information officer (CIO) who manages all aspects of the information technology systems within the organization.
Of course, no c-level executive managers work and lead within a vacuum, so—at the highest level—decisions are made to satisfy the needs and limitations of the entire organization, but the c-level manager is then responsible to carry out the implementations those decisions within his or her area of leadership. The role of the CIO in schools is to advise the other top-level leaders on the nature of the existing technology, the steps necessary to maintain it, and the potential changes that will improve it. Of the many decisions made by the CIO, perhaps none is more important that those involved with installing and upgrading information networks. The individual who fills this role in a school has a level of responsibility similar to those of the other c-level managers and will be qualified by having a comparable level of experience and credentials (including having earned advanced degrees). The CIO will be compensated at a similar level as well.
For much of the history of computers in schools, a single individual was allowed to decide what technology to buy and how to install it. The rationale behind this practice was that those individuals held quite specialized expertise and educators were willing to defer to those with greater expertise. In many cases, that method of decision-making led to technology that was ineffective and even led to conflict as technology decisions were made for technology reasons. As CIO’s have been integrated into technology decision-making in schools, there has been a shift towards making technology decisions for teaching and learning reasons. The specific role of the CIO is to advocate for technology that both meets the need of member of the organization and that is reliable and robust. He or she will advocate for rational decisions regarding infrastructure planning, personnel decisions, and support, at the same time he or she ensures technology decisions do not hamper teaching and learning or other organizational goals.
In some colleges and universities, the IT decisions related to teaching and learning are made by the CAO and the CIO builds and maintains the systems deemed necessary by the academic leaders. That model has yet to become wide-spread (especially in K12 education), but it is anticipated it will become more common.
Once computer networks are installed and configured (usually in consultation with external engineers and technicians), system administrators employed by the school ensure they remain operational and functional. These professionals listen for network problems by both attending to reports of malfunctions from users and by monitoring system logs, and they both resolve problems that are identified and they take steps to ensure continued health of the network.
Among the specific responsibilities of IT system administrators is ensuring users and devices can access network resources, configuring software to backup files and checking those files are being created as expected, upgrading the operating system and driver software on the servers, and otherwise maintaining network hardware and software. They also play an important role in planning for and deploying software and hardware upgrades, and this individual pays particular attention to potential conflicts that may be introduce when networks are changed. In general, if changes are made to a device that manages local area network traffic or that stores data accessed from across the LAN, it is the system administrator who performs the task. This individual will also work closely with technicians to ensure that use devices are properly configured to access the LAN and Internet.
Most system administrators have completed an undergraduate degree in information systems, and they are also likely to hold credentials awarded by IT vendors and professional organizations. In many cases these credentials require effort and understanding that is comparable to graduate certificates and graduate degrees in their field. As a result of their level of training and expertise, system administrators should be compensated at a rate similar to teachers, but their salary should reflect the year-round nature of their work.
Technicians are the individuals who have one of the most important roles in IT system operations in schools as they are the face of the IT department to most members of the organization. A technician is likely to spend his or her day troubleshooting and repairing end users’ devices such as PC’s, laptops, printers, and other peripherals. Because these professionals spend they time interacting with teachers and students, it is essential they have excellent customer service skills and are comfortable interacting with teachers when they are in stressful situations (due to malfunctioning computers) and with frustrated students. On those staffs with multiple technicians, the group can be very interdependent; they collaborate on solving problems and give each other tips. By documenting the repairs they make (ideally in the ticketing system), technicians contribute to the emerging knowledge of the IT systems and they are identifying those that are becoming so dysfunctional as to need replacement. A further role of technicians is to identify network problems that need to be resolved by the network administrator.
The CIO plays an active role in ensuring the technicians who are working in the school receives the professional courtesies and the on-going support they deserve. Many technicians arrive in these positions with an associate degree or similar levels of training that prepare them to understand the systems that will repair, but in many cases, they do not have experience with the specific devices or the specific practices in use in a school, they must receive training as part of their jobs to stay current and to provide on-going support.
A relatively new specialist to join the IT staff is the data specialist. The need for this specialist arises from both the skills necessary to manage the databases in which demographic, health, behavioral, academic, and other information that is housed regarding students and the increasing demand for data-driven practices. Schools store vast amounts of data in sophisticated databases; while inputting the data is a minor aspect of the work and it requires limited expertise, the expertise necessary to prepare and run queries of the database so that questions regarding correlations and performance can be answered requires much greater expertise. Often this work includes creating scripts that produce reports that are used to support decisions made by school administrators and teachers.
These professionals represent one the first ventures into the field of educational data analytics by schools. In this field, educators seek to apply the methods of data science to predict student needs and performances. It should be noted that these methods have proven informative for some aspects of learning (Macfadyen, 2017), but findings suggest they are not useful in predicting deeper learning (Makani, Durier-Copp, Kiceniuk, & Blandford, 2016).