Thoughts and Observations on ICT in Education

I've been following @mpesce's coverage of #acer today - that is, the Australian Council for Educational Research's 2008 Symposium.

Mark is someone that I've heard quite a bit about from what people have said to him on Twitter - until recently his profile has been private, and I've been itching to follow him. He's regarded very highly among the AU Twitter community, and for good reason - he's a clever man, and you can see that in his writing.

Education is something that I'm passionate about - I'm passionate about giving the next generation the very best foundation to build up on. I'm a strong believer in that if all that my generation does in their lifetime is to improve what the next generation can do, then we have succeeded. That's why I'm a Scout Leader, and that's why Griffin Multimedia provided affordable technical support to primary schools in Western Australia - because anything I can do to help to make kids smarter, more productive, more empathetic and more understanding members of society is a good thing.

To be brutally honest, working at the schools in WA was a major eye-opener in that it really concerns me that in a world that is becoming increasingly technology orientated, schools are being left behind. I'm going to outline a few of the observations that I made over my time working in these schools.

I believe that there are two major problems that need to be solved in the education system in Australia, and they both come down to support. Support for the infrastructure, and support for the teachers.

First, a bit of background. I worked at 3 suburban primary schools in Western Australia over about an 18-month period or so. I left WA almost 12 months ago, and so some things may have changed for the better since then. I sure hope so. I was also involved with helping to administer the network at my high school while I was attending, and so I understand many of the problems that are faced in that environment too. Other states and territories? I have no idea, but I can only speculate that they would be in similar positions.

Griffin Multimedia went into these schools as IT support consultants. That is, we rocked up each week for a few hours - usually whatever their meagre ICT budget could afford, and we did whatever needed to be done - whether this meant managing the network; diagnosing and fixing hardware; troubleshooting, installing and configuring software; installing hardware and networking; or training staff. Some days we'd even change ink cartridges in printers. We were called in to do all of this for one major reason - nobody else was handling it.

At the time, most of the staff, including principals, were of the same mind - the education department gives us computers, but give us no support to keep them running. You need a server to manage your student files? Here, have some hardware. You need some classroom PCs? Here, have a few. Oh, by the way, here are some companies that can deal with them for you. You'll need to give them a call, get them to come in and give you a quote. Oh, and they'll likely charge you over $110 an hour (not including transport). I hope you have large ICT pockets.

In most cases, we walked into schools that had ICT infrastructure that was next to useless. All of the schools where we worked were, when we arrived, :

  • an ad-hoc mixture of old and new PCs, some so painfully outdated that they were over 5 years outside of the Education Department's own "ICT Guidelines" on replacing PCs;
  • often running incompatible versions of Windows and software - Windows 98 machines next to Windows XP in the same classroom, or inconsistent versions of Office between classes;
  • often either not networked, or only barely so as to provide Internet access, with little or no file sharing and often poorly networked printers (if at all);
  • configured without any security, often using administrator logins; riddled with spyware and adware, further degrading performance;

The biggest point here is that these PCs were not an asset to the teaching staff or the students - they were slow, they were buggy and they were just a hassle to use. Staff spent more time trying to get the computers to do what they needed to do, rather than actually teaching with them.

After this, I have to say that this made me greatly concerned to hear the Labour government's plan to increase the number of laptops in schools for student access. Whilst this is a great idea, with the current suppot systems for schools, this money could be much better spent.

As anyone who works in IT can tell you, computers need maintenance. Networks need maintenance. Whether this ranges from the occasional defragmentation of the hard drive, to cleaning out adware cruft, applying security patches, upgrading operating systems or upgrading hardware - any network, of any number of hosts, needs maintenance. Without this support, any new hardware provided to schools might be shiny and new for a few months, but after that, when they start to be used - who is going to maintain them?

Let's take a brief moment to build up a semi-realistic case study here. Let's say we have a small primary school - 30 students per class, one class per year group, years 1-7 have computers. The Education Department's guidelines suggest a minimum of 2-3 PCs per classroom, as well as computer labs for full class sessions. The official figures are about 1 PC per 10 students, or so I have been lead to believe in conversations with principals and IT teachers. So that's about 210 students, and about 21 or so student computers - minimum. In most schools, that's likely to be closer to 40-50 or so PCs once a laboratory of computers is added in.

That is 20-50 computers that need to be maintained. That's network infrastructure for 20-50 computers that needs to be maintained. There will be at least 1 curriculum server that needs to be maintained for those students, and that will likely be used as a fileserver, a web proxy server, and perhaps, if they're super lucky, some sort of ActiveDirectory authentication server to handle all of this. Add on to that, a school might host their own website, there is DHCP to be considered, and all of those other "behind-the-scenes" type of services that need to be provided in order to ensure a cohesive network. Note that at this stage we're not even talking about network printers, scanners, projectors, smartboards, cameras or anything else snazzy that a school might have.

Considering all that above, now envisage a school where every single one of those 210 students has a PC.

Now, I am aware that Rudd's plan involved students in year 9-12, and that's fair enough. Thankfully, many Secondary Schools have the resources to employ full time System and Network Administrators who can deal with all of this. But for them, their problems are even larger. In schools where each of those year groups might be 100 students each, that may mean 400 new hosts on their network that they need to support. That's 400 more connections to already busy file-servers. That's 400 more connections to already busy proxy servers. That's 400 more hosts sending and receiving network traffic across the network infrastructure, the core routers and saturating wireless links. 400 hosts means a network that either needs to be subnetted, or needs to be re-configured to a different IP address range. Where a Class C (255 hosts) might have sufficed, now the network needs to be changed to a Class B to support 65025-or-so hosts on the one logical address space.

What goes from being a network that can be comfortably serviced by 2-3 trained administrators can now become a network rivalling many medium-to-large businesses - more servers, more hosts, and more network infrastructure means much more work.

The point that I'm trying to make here is that there's already ICT infrastructure in these schools, but what's there is so poorly supported, throwing more hardware at it won't solve the problem. The problem is maintaining the infrastructure.

Who is going to do this for the small schools? Who is going to provide this support? Who is going to be on-site when a disk fails in the file-server and little Johhny and Suzie's PowerPoint presentation is lost? Who's going to find out what the problem is when PC 12 in the lab no longer boots, but sits there beeping? Who's going to make sure that those 10 new PCs work on the school network as they should?

I happen to believe that the education department could, and should, be doing much more to better support these schools. I don't know whether that means Education Department employed on-site technicians, or some method for the department to remotely deploy and manage the network. Regardless of the solution, something needs to be done to actually make the infrastructure useful - we've thrown all this money at it, and now it's just being left to rot.

At most schools, we were on-site for 2-3 hours every school week. In those 80-120 hours a year, we were never out of work to be done, and in fact some of the schools I was very unhappy to leave with much of their network still nowhere near to performing to it's potential. Sure, you can only get so much performance out of some of the 533MHz clunkers, but at least they were there for students to do some work on.

I'll be brutally honest here - we charged peanuts for the support that we provided. We (unintentionally) undercut our competitors shamelessly, even to the point where one quote that a registrar received from one of the Education Department's preferred suppliers was more for transport alone than our hourly rate. But to be honest, I'd gladly do it all again. Not because it was good business, but because nobody else could provide the service at a price that the schools could afford. Many of the schools thanked us profusely for helping them out, as they just couldn't afford the cost to call out many of the other support companies, let alone have them on-site as often as us to keep things running. School ICT budgets are never huge, and that, more often than not, forces schools into one of two terrible situations - either pretend the problem isn't there and don't maintain it; or worse, asking IT savvy teachers to support the ICT infrastructure.

Now, please don't get me wrong. There are some seriously clever teachers out there, and I'm not saying that teachers can't maintain a network. What I am saying, however, is that teachers are employed by a school to teach. Every hour of DOTT time that they spend trying to fix up a computer - which, more than likely, is on the fringe of their skill set - is an hour that they could be spending much more productively. It's a false economy on the school's part, because not only is it a waste of a teacher's time, but I can guarantee that they won't have the time, the experience or the skills to properly, securely, efficiently and completely maintain a school network.

Heck, some schools we spent 3hrs per week on-site and we could easily have spent another 5hrs there each week. And we'd still be going.

Coming back to the teachers for a moment, there wasn't a teacher or principal at the schools that we worked who wasn't interested in bringing ICT into their classroom, and utilising it more. Most of the staff we worked with really grokked how technology was changing, and that the kids were already savvy, and they wanted to know how to get ICT involved in their classrooms.

But in most cases, the teachers and staff lacked the means to do this.

  • They didn't have time to expand their skills - already working with a heavy class workload, there was little time left to learn and fine-tune some of techniques they wanted to teach to their students. For example, one school approached us to begin a weekly "Breakfast Bytes" session with staff in which we could help to train teachers on using different IT tools during some spare time in the morning while they had a bite to eat. Unfortunately, this never got off the ground, but it was a sign that the principal and staff were eager to learn, but were lacking the time or resources to learn the techniques.
  • There was little time available to prepare the class environment for a lesson that heavily involved ICT. For example, the time required to install a software suite across a laboratory, or prepare the computers for a step-by-step lesson for students. In many cases, we were able to ease to burden on staff by installing and configuring the tools and packages for them, ready to be used in their classes.
  • They weren't sure of what tools and software were available to have their students to use. Often, these tools were either an additional cost that needed to be justified in order to be purchased. For example, one class were making environmental radio advertisements, and the teacher was uncertain of what software would be available to do this cheaply and easily. We recommended Audacity in order to provide them with a tool that was free, and simple enough for students to use. It was a simple, cheap solution to something that the teacher was unsure about.

What I'm trying to say here is that I do not believe that the problem lies with the teachers, but rather that the teachers aren't being supported or provided the resources to be able to teach. If we want teachers to bring more technology into the classroom, we need to acknowledge that they first need training - and lots of it.

With the explosion of the Internet, where technology is constantly changing, it's essential that we not only teach children how to work with the tools today, but teach them how to adapt to the new technologies as they emerge. When we finally do hand school-children these tools, and when they're all working as they should, they need to be prepared to use it in a safe and productive manner.

I'm not just talking the usual online safety "don't give out your home address" spiel. I'm talking things that even adults are struggling with - the concepts of SPAM and phishing, password safety and security, and all that jazz. I'm not talking anything full on, or turning our kids into walking SPAM filters - I'm saying that we need to foster an acknowledgement that, hey, maybe this email saying it's from "MySpace Tom" isn't really Tom from class 6.

We need to teach our children to identify between what is advertising and what is real content; that Wikipedia is a great source, but that it isn't without flaws. We need to teach our kids about the notion of anonymity, and the responsibility this entails. Just as we want our children to become productive members of society - to create and not just consume - we should be teaching them to create and share on the Internet. We need to show them where the the mouse is.

But how do we do this? To be honest, I've not really got a clue. But there are awfully clever educators out there who already know this stuff, and who know how to impart this on to the next generation. And these people need the support of the education system to share this with their peers and their students.

I honestly believe that Government needs to acknowledge that there's far more than just hardware required in our schools, and that they step up to the plate and start providing schools and staff with the support to keep their ICT infrastructure running - in both technical support and training.