The good, bad and ugly – A look back at 2013-2014

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This year I stepped into a new role that I wasn’t exactly expecting or prepared for but hey that’s life and it has certainly been exciting to say the least. So, like Tony, I thought I’d take this time to take a look back and reflect a little about . . . well the title says it all. Instead of going into that order though, I’d thought I would start with the ugly first.

The Ugly
The most obvious issues were the networking issues that bookended the school year. At the beginning of the year we were instructed from the powers to be to install a new component into our network. Myself, nor Tony, nor anyone on our team had any say about this. Needless to say it took about a month to get everything working but having a month of terrible Internet (not just WiFi) and that kind of leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the staff. Then towards the end of the year we had issues with two separate issues that caused increasingly poor havoc across our network. While it wasn’t “unusable” for many it seemed that way for some and it just ended the year in a bad place. Neither of these incidents were expected (at least to that extent) and it was ugly. The staff was upset (rightfully so) and I was left in a situation where we had to be rescued and that took time.

Now, onto other ugly. It was our new electronic gradebook we started the year out with but did not end the year with. It was another nightmare. Grades being lost, teachers unable to enter grades, progress reports not showing all inputted grades, serious display issues and much, much more. It was a long first semester for sure. For some teachers it worked fine from day one and others it never worked as it should. When one problem was “fixed” by the company they added new and more features. Needless to say this ugliness was not confined to the staff but spread to the administration and student body. Very few people had confidence in the program and led to grades being questioned . . . often. Teachers have enough to worry about and do than to sit down with a calculator and make sure the grades in the electronic gradebook are being calculated correctly.

The Bad
Now that’s out of the way let’s talk about the “bad” part of my year. I don’t consider this to be “bad” per say, but it was a part of the job I underestimated.I had big aspirations of creating a rotating IT Essential PD program where several workshops to teach people the basics and essentials but that never came to be. I underestimated how many fires I had to put out. I underestimated how projects seemingly found their way to my desk and then consumed my time. I’m not saying that those projects were’t worth my effort – on the contrary. They were important and I was needed and happily helped out, but to make room I had to push other projects off to the side and that included projects that had not taken flight yet. I regrettably didn’t blog enough. My blog just isn’t a means for me to get my opinions and views out in the world but a place for me to reflect and take stock of what I’m doing and where I’m going. It is very therapeutic and I neglected it which was more to my detriment than anyone else’s

One thing that was “bad” was communication in our school. One part of my job that I don’t like was dealing with email. On average I was receiving between 25-40 emails a day. Wow, that doesn’t sound like a lot until you are real busy and neglect it for a day or two then it becomes a problem and demands quite a bit of time to sit down and mow through. I’ve tried several techniques to deal with it but none I like. The problem is not just volume but the content. Some emails are from people who haven’t read their own and are asking a question I’ve answered. Other email issues occur when someone replies to an email that has nothing to do with the original email. Unless I deal with it right then and there it becomes hard for me to find that email again. It gets lost and that person feels like I’ve given them the shaft. Then there are those people who don’t communicate or report an issue because they think that someone else has. Then when no action is taken, they feel that they’re being ignored.

As you can see it’s not just email – it’s a bigger issue and it’s something I hope to address in the next school year.

Then, there was the issue with getting grades out of our new – stand alone gradebook into our student information system. It was a learning experience and I think we have figured out for next year.

The Good
In a word: Google. This was our first year with Google Apps for Education (GAfE) and it worked exactly as advertised. There were a few hiccups of course, but basically Google came through in just about every way imaginable. Teachers were using it in ways I hadn’t dreamed and those teachers that really embraced it found it a tool that changed the way they teach and work with their students. Also, the fact that our students had accounts made emailing keeping in touch with them easier than ever before. If there was an issue I couldn’t figure out – I called Google and they came through each time usually within hours of the inquiry. Just great.

I haven’t even gotten into the fact that teachers are starting to work collaboratively with their peers by utilizing Google Docs more and more and using stand alone word processing programs bringing more synergy and equality across classrooms. Every month so more and more Google Docs created.

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There is still a long way to go to get everyone on board but as you can see as off June 23rd – more than 60,000 Google Docs had been created – not bad.

Another good point was the switch to Engrade. As I mentioned in the ugly part, we were in a bad way with the old gradebook. I realized in early October that this was an issue that was not going to get better. I started looking elsewhere. I found Engrade – good reputation, used by millions and a solid gradebook with a robust learning management system. It didn’t integrate with our student information system but that’s OK and myself and most of the staff were happy to trade that off for a gradebook that actually worked. The best compliment I received about Engrade was none at all. No compliment or complaints meant that it was working and that meant that teachers weren’t . We had a few issues, but they were each rectified within a day or so and their tech support, while not as fast as Google was every bit as reliable.

Also, Google gets better and better. Drive will soon have the ability to open and edit MS Office documents and the add ons are making it an incredibly robust content creation platform.

Printing
While this was a small win – we got half of our school on a card based printing solution from Xerox. Basically teachers send their print job to a print server (not a specific printer). They then go to whatever Xerox machine is nearest to them, tap a card on the sensor and the print job comes out right then and there. The goal here was not to track printing – we were already doing that. The goal here was to cut down on waste and make the printing process more efficient. This did work out. Before teachers would print and it would be sent to a specific printer and print immediately. We had people accidentally picking up other people’s print jobs, people actually canceling other print jobs in order to move their’s up in the queue and even parents and anyone could print from a USB or make copies. Now it is held until they are ready to pick it up and unless you have a card you can’t use any of the features on the machine.

Even when Xerox machines went down, teachers could still go to another Xerox machine and pick up their print jobs. Not super convenient at all but It worked pretty well until the machine was repaired. The only problem we had were the Xerox machines themselves. They went down a little more than what we were hoping for, but the system worked pretty flawlessly for the most part and was a welcomed addition to that part of our school. We intend to roll it out to the other half in the fall.

The final good was Drupal. Tony started our school’s website with Drupal and while I didn’t do much with it for most of the year, I spent time learning the ins and outs of it. Around April, I started to work on a very robust section aimed for just our teachers and to redesign other aspects of it. Drupal made it easy and while our site is still under construction it is much larger than before with a lot more options. What is great about Drupal is that once I have the architecture in place I can turn over the ability to add content to other staff members. Thus freeing my time up to do other projects (PD workshops anyone?)

There were a bunch of ups and downs for sure, but those were the big ones. As a teacher, I could always look forward and know (with a reasonable bit of accuracy) what to expect the upcoming year. With my new role as IT Coordinator I find that pretty hard to do. Maybe with time and more experience I will get there. As of right now, I’m just enjoying the excitement that comes with my job and enjoying a little downtime this summer before gearing back up for 2014-2015!

Patrick Cauley
www.thetechjonesy.com

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About Patrick Cauley

I teach middle school technology and love to play around with tech and teach students and colleagues alike. You can read my blog at www.itbabble.com
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