School IT folk – the Swiss Army knives of the industry…

In a post earlier this month I talked about how I thought that IT staff in schools were no longer just men (and women) in cupboards, and that the role had become much more important in recent years. I had some really fantastic feedback, one particular comment from Terry McDonald, a network manager, really caught my eye though; he said:

"I find more and more that school network managers, such as myself, are a breed of highly skilled, multi-disciplined professionals that are expected to work miracles on a regular basis with little in the way of resources. Where else but in a school can you work with – Active Directory, Virtualisation, SAN’s, SQL, HTML, Programming, Wi-Fi, etc, etc, etc. In industry you’d normally specialise in just one of these areas."

I think Terry raises a really valid point – schools have large networks and small numbers of people to manage them. The demand placed on technical staff is high and calls for so many skills that it really is not a job for the faint hearted. Aside from the base technical skills required there are also the other idiosyncrasies to consider, such as the timings of the school day, the exceptionally broad ability range of users, "that" pupil who does everything in their power to mess up your network, the list goes on…  It is this rich mix of skills and abilities that, in my opinion, make the technical staff in schools such a valuable asset – I’m not aware of anywhere in industry (and feel free to correct me if I am wrong) where there is a more diverse role.

Target Audience

I am willing to bet that most people who work in IT have seen that immortal clip from the IT Crowd where Roy answers the phone and, without missing a beat, immediately fires off the line "have you turned it off and on again?"; a question I found myself asking nearly every single day.  Of course, in the same clip Moss is the polar opposite and goes straight in at the deep end with jargon before being hung up on!  I found that being able to adjust how I spoke to different people based on their ability was crucial in being able to help them; it’s not something that came easily, either. Looking back I can’t help but feel that my first IT role was soured by my own inability to communicate properly – something I’ve really tried hard to fix ever since.

So being the jack-of-all-trades in systems administration, network management and desktop support, being a good communicator, and being able to work under pressure from people largely indifferent to your plight is what begins to make up a school network manager or IT technician – all this and often get paid less than your contemporaries in the private sector?  It’s a tall order in my opinion.

So why do so many people do it?

altWell, I loved it – it is a role where you can make a real difference to hundreds of people every day.  Yes, most days you answer the same questions so frequently that getting the answer tattooed to your forehead might be quicker than explaining, but that only accounts for half the job – each day was different; presented its own problems and challenges.  IT in education is such a rapidly expanding part of the IT industry in general and even in the relatively short time I was working I saw so many changes to the way technology was implemented that if you took a look at schools in 2005, and again in 2008 you’d see totally different attitudes to IT.

We really are the Swiss Army knives of our profession, working in an incredibly diverse, fast-paced, role that will never get boring!

What’s in a [user]name?

Sifting through various educational forum posts and blogs recently I came across an entry that discussed the conventions by which pupil usernames are created on a network – and what information they contain.

When I joined my comprehensive school in 1998 I was given the username 98MARSHALLJ. The school had always used the [year of entry]+[surname]+[first initial] convention; indeed I continued the practise when I took responsibility for creating new intake users in the schools I have worked in. Unfortunately in recent years the dangers of sharing aspects of your digital identity with strangers have become all too prevalent and IT managers and policy makers in schools are beginning to look at just how revealing something as innocuous as a username can be.

Take, for example, a simple email:

To:<img style="background-image: none; border-bottom: 0px; border-left: 0px; padding-left: 0px; padding-right: 0px; display: inline; float: right; border-top: 0px; border-right: 0px; padding-top: 0px" class="alignright size-medium wp-image-758" title="E

Hello Joe,

I really like under water basket weaving too!


From this perfectly innocent email we can determine:

  • Roughly how old I am from the first the digits – typically denoting year of entry.
  • My full name.
  • The school I’m attending.

For the ‘Facebook Generation’ this is more than enough information to begin searching the Internet with. Anyone could do a simple search of a social network such as Facebook or MySpace with the few details above and narrow the choice down to a few people in a couple of minutes.

From here people with malicious intent could begin making moves on a pupil.

There is a strong case to be made, if only for this reason, that user names on an school network should be obfuscated to reduce the amount of information volunteered unintentionally. Instead of the ‘traditional’ nomenclature for creating users, IT managers could opt to use a pupil’s UPN number, or any other unique but not identifiable string.

"Sir, I’ve forgotten my username!"

Naturally, one of the more obvious reasons for adopting an easy-to-remember naming system is that pupils can be like goldfish and often have trouble remembering their own password from week to week, let alone a complicated user name. Ben Nunney, @bennuk on Twitter, from Microsoft’s Live@Edu team talked about what makes an e-mail address, and some of the considerations there are (simplicity, single sign-on, etc), over on the Live@Edu blog.

Personally I feel that it should be an enforced learning curve for the pupils – there are many things you have to learn to remember in life from your National Insurance number through to your car registration number and more, so the practise of learning something like this should not be avoided but encouraged. Not only that, but the reasons behind having an obfuscated user name could be taught to pupils as part of any lessons on digital identity.

Times are changing…

Over the last few years the link between pupils experiences of computers in schools, and their development of a digital identity on-line has become much tighter. Pupils freely communicate with others using the various resources available to them – some pupils first email account may be the one provided to them by their school.

At this early stage in their on-line life they may already have the choice over how much they share about themselves made for them by ‘the system’ over something as simple as a user name.

Some could call this scare-mongering or cynicism – others, a precautionary step in protecting pupils.

So then…. What’s in a [user]name?

If you’re interested in finding out more about digital identity the University of Reading is behind the This Is Me project aimed at helping people learn about their digital identities by producing and testing learning materials for use by individuals and groups.

School IT Staff: No Longer Just A Man In A Cupboard

IT today, in many industries, is essential.  If ‘the system’ fails it can have catastrophic consequences resulting in lost earnings, lost work and, for the poor people whose fault it is deemed to be, lost jobs.  Businesses have come to realise the importance of IT and spend significant amounts of money ensuring that they have a reliable and well-managed network staffed by qualified, experienced, people who keep the system running smoothly.

Over the past 15 years IT has grown in use and importance in schools across the country.  Gone are the days of a lone BBC Microcomputer and dot matrix printer sat in one classroom, only used by the brave and bold.  Now schools are awash with desktops, laptops, interactive whiteboards, projectors – just about anything you can think of!  Similarly, gone are the days of the paper register that would be carted back and forth across the school containing those ubiquitous / registration marks – now it is all entered electronically into a management system like SIMS. It’s safe to say that IT has wormed its way into the fabric of schools, not just in teaching and learning, but in the business functions of the school too.

Large enterprise-sized networks, on a shoe-string budget…

The major difference between a business and a school is that schools still do not, or cannot, place the same value and investment into its systems.  This disparity means that they are running large enterprise-size networks often with one or two members of school IT staff to manage them on a shoe-string budget of a few thousand pounds per year.

I have worked in two comprehensive schools as IT technician and Network Manager – in the second school my office was a converted cupboard which I had to share with 13 servers, 8 switches and enough cabling to make looking for a needle in a haystack seem easy. I had one member of staff and no real budget – each time I needed something I had to beg my case to the Deputy Head teacher in the hope that there might be some slack in the budget. The school relied so heavily on IT that if something went wrong (which due to the age of the equipment, it often did!) the place would grind to a halt until it was fixed.

Schools, like businesses, need a solid and reliable IT infrastructure staffed by an appropriate number of people who are qualified and experienced in running such large networks. It is no longer the case that companies like RM can supply simplified network management tools for the part-time hobbyist to use in running the school network – it’s grown way past that now. IT has reached business-critical status and needs to be treated that way.

My experience has also taught me that budgets are the biggest constraint in this respect – with schools squeezing every last penny out of their annual pittance; with the core focus on pens, books, staff and providing a roof over people’s heads it is easy to push the black hole that is IT to the bottom of the priority list.

I would like to see industry helping to fill the gap in this area. Let’s face it, school IT staff in a public sector school are not going to command the same salary as those in the private sector and so that’s where people end up going. This leaves schools to be run by part-timers, often parents who have pupils in the school, or who need the holiday time. Businesses should see schools are places to invest time and money in – after all, the pupils of today will be the employees of tomorrow, and surely they are worth the effort?

School IT Staff: No Longer Just A Man In A Cupboard

Many schools have come to rely on IT very heavily in recent years, both in teaching and in day-to-day running, yet due to various factors internal, and external, they cannot adequately staff or invest in the maintenance of these systems. This leads to huge, complicated and aged networks being run by hobbyists who lack the necessary skills or qualifications to provide the level of support required in such large systems.

The public sector in England and Wales needs to realise this problem and begin to effect a positive change towards this business critical apparatus and start offering positions within schools and local authorities that more closely match the salary of their private sector counterparts in order to try and attract more skilled workers into these public sector jobs. Running a comprehensive school network is no longer just a man in a cupboard.