Who Decides IT in Schools?

I’ve seen the requests from many desktop support teams: “Before you add technology to grants, please include us in your planning.”

I understand their rationale. They are responsible for installing, configuring, and managing it. It must integrate with existing systems and be reliable, robust, and secure.

I would be sensitive to their requests and I would include them had I not had experiences such as these:

The business department in collaboration with the computer information systems department proposes a transdisciplinary course. The idea is that business students design media for a business. The curriculum finds students investigating the details of publishing on the web and on social media, the markets that can be reached, and the strategies used in this type of marketing. As part of the course, the students will create media for various platforms. The team developing the course has completed all of the necessary steps for approval and the course is in the catalog and students are enrolling. 

These departments are located in a different building from the studios used by students in graphic design, video, and audio production, so the team requests a bank of six Macintosh computers be installed in their building. They reason students will be better able to access the technology necessary for them to complete their projects if it is available in the same building where they take most of their other courses.

Several weeks after making the request for the machines to be installed (there were computers to be relocated and table space in a securable room near “hot” network jacks had been arranged), the team inquired into the status of the computers. The response from the technicians who were responsible for the installation was, “we have decided it does not make sense to install these computers.”

Teachers decide they want to improve small group discussions in a classroom. Their idea is to install computers on the ends of tables with larger than usual displays. Each table will have 5 chairs for students and include the capacity for students to connect their own devices to the display. The teachers reason students can display work to groups to get feedback and to discuss images or articles in small groups.

When the dean and the director of the center for teaching and learning center meet with the technicians to explain the changes they want in the classroom (changes all funded by a grant), the technicians get very angry they are being asked to make the change. Raising their voices to the leaders, they say, “students can just pull up things on the classroom computer, there is no reason students need to do that in small groups.”

The director of the center for teaching and learning requests two laptops to be used in a flexible space. Basically, it is a classroom with mobile tables and chairs as well as displays on wheels. The space is to be used for faculty to explore various configurations of large and small group teaching and the laptops would be used in various locations in the classroom as they taught and brainstormed.

After waiting two months for the laptops to be delivered, the director asked. The response from the desktop support manager was “these are to be used for teaching, we only use desktop models for teaching stations.”

To repeat my point, I understand the role and responsibilities of IT technicians and managers; I have served that role in schools (for decades and for hundreds of users on multiple campuses).

In these cases, however, we see IT technicians who are overreaching their responsibilities. Sure, they are the ones responsible for managing installed infrastructure, but they are not in the position to veto projects that teachers and academic leaders have identified as priorities simply because they do not believe they have the capacity or that the priorities do not align with their concepts of teaching and learning. 

If those priorities seem to extend them too far, they can report the problem to their managers, and ultimately the CIO. Perhaps they need help setting priorities, perhaps they need training or other support, perhaps they are being asked to do something that is not what the CIO agreed their department could do. No matter the situation, IT professionals cannot make decisions that affect what educators can do.

I explain it to IT this way: I don’t want teachers telling you how to manage IT, and I don’t want you telling them how to teach.

The cases in this post are all variations on situations I have experienced over the course of my career at various institutions. The resolutions: 

  • The CIO directed the technicians to install the Macintoshes for the digital media/ business students
  • The dean identified a different space for the small group discussion stations to be installed. Students could connect their devices, but there was no station for those without devices to share. (This, as it happened, was at an institution that bragged about its inclusive culture.)
  • The CIO directed the technicians to provide laptops, afterall, the CIO reasoned, “if they say they need laptops, then they need laptops.”