Lessons from Malfunctioning Networks

In the last year, leaders from several schools reached out to me to provide some advice as they and their technology leaders were managing serious disruptions in service. Some were the result of failed devices, some were the result of misconfigurations, some the result of malware; all were solved and all led me to some conclusions that affect how I understand computers and schools:

Our computer systems are very complex… perhaps too complex. A principal at a small elementary school contacted me after the router in his school failed. His faculty and students could no longer connect to the Active Directory hosted at the high school in the next town. After a conversation about what his faculty needed, we decided his network was no longer going to connect to the district-wide network. We repurposed a server to provide AD and a building-only local area network. His administrative assistant was connected to the necessary business systems in the central office after an hour of work.

He reported when I contacted him later that faculty were very happy with the system, it was less affected by conditions outside the town and latency problems when starting up had disappeared. He was most happy that we had avoided several thousands of dollars of expense. He saw no reason to connect his network to the one at the high school, so we simplified the system, saved money, and improved performance.

Our students are resourceful… very resourceful. A school had a serious malware infection that was taking several days for the technicians to identify and resolve. When the infected devices were on the network, bandwidth went to effectively zero.

A teacher who had been very active using a virtual classroom had students who were equally dependent on it. In the “no-Internet-available” school, the students were very concerned about some classmates who had limited access to the Internet away from school. They decided to make sure those students accessed what they needed to prepare for a important upcoming test. They used their cell phones to set up personal hot spots. They helped classmates connect to the virtual classroom and they downloaded the materials.

Teacher know their students… technologists need to listen. During a system update over the summer, the technology coordinator removed the generic accounts used by elementary students. This was done quite reasonably to make the system more secure.

When youngsters arrived in the computer room, they could not log on. (The technology coordinator forgot to tell the teachers that the generic account was disabled.) When they heard the new usernames and the default password (which would be changed at the first log on), they started students setting up accounts.

The complexity settings had not been “turned-down” so students were having little success creating passwords that met the required complexity, and they were having even less success when they tried to log on later. Their passwords were too complicated for students who were just learning the keyboard. A teacher said to me, “You have to convince them to change this, my kids don’t want to come to use computers! It takes them too long to log on.”

The principal was reluctant to tell the technology coordinator what to do, so I convinced the principal to take a walk with me to see the students’ frustration using the computers. I convinced the principal to stand up for his students and teachers and they began using more simple passwords.

In my experiences, I see students and teachers who are increasingly capable users of computers. The users of school networks know what they need. My experiences convince me that technology decision-makers must make technology decisions that meet the needs of teachers and students.