It’s Trendy- So Just Pay for It

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By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

 I try not to rant. However, I saw some terms of service a few days ago that made me angry. I was reviewing program that another school is running. Within the bullet points was this one:

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Tuition, for this program, is one price. I cannot elaborate more because I do not have permission to re-advertise this program, and I need to keep it anonymous. The program is not in question, nor the price. The issue is that a school will pay a fee per student and that fee will cover 40 to 60 hours. Let’s look at what that means.

 

40 or 60 Hours
Curriculum Hours Hours Per Week Number of Weeks to Complete
40 2.66 15
45 2.66 16.875
50 2.66 18.75
55 2.66 20.625
60 2.66 22.5

Based on this chart, if a student can participate for 2.66 hours per week (2, 80 Minute Sections) , they will need 15 weeks to complete a 40 hour course. A school year is usually 36 weeks long. Therefore they will need about 50% of the school year to complete the program. If they are in a 60 hour program, they will need 75% of the school year to complete the course.

So what is the school paying for? A 40 hour course or a 60 hours course? The tuition is the same, and there is only a minimum guarantee on the hours. Planning for a 40 hour course and 60 hour course would be very different, and therefore, the price should be different. The outcomes will be different.

Obviously, the company is charging for 60 hours. If they were to only meet 50 of those hours, students would lose almost a month of instruction.

So why would anyone consider this contract without heavily amending the terms and conditions? Because the program is trendy.

The school wants to advertise they are running a trendy program- parents will respond positively. Administrators or teachers with KPIs around innovation will go with a trend because it does not need to be explained. Also, trending programs usually have resources and personnel readily available. These programs are easy to start, and, schools are paying for convenience.

I get the logic for going with a trendy program. I do not get the logic for being ripped-off.

There is always an opportunity cost when money is appropriated. Investing in a program should mean investing in a sustainable program. This program would not pass a basic audit. It is a bad deal, and probably a bad value if the plan can fluctuate in providing an opportunity for 50% or 75% of the year. This is not something students can do independently. They are tethered to the program, and this program does not scale easily.

As it scales it gets increasingly more expensive; the value remains uncertain; and the outcomes are difficult to measure. The worst part is, if someone questions the deal, and it falls apart after the contract expires, the next similar program will probably be denied based-on the previous experience. That again, is opportunity cost.

Just because and expert walks into a school, does not mean common sense should walk out. Good third-party programs are not cheap, but they do not have to be economically unbalanced and unaccountable.

Freedom VS Structure

freedom

I left it alone. Everyone was using it. Everyone had the permissions needed to customize their space. So I left it alone.

I set some guidelines. I spoke to everyone about best practice. I even made exemplars and samples so people could have a visual representation of what best practice means.

Ultimately, I made a mistake. Too much freedom and not enough structure. Concepts of Freedom vs Structure needs to be designed and adhered to within any online learning environment or environment that provides shared resources. Without structure, there will be chaos, and this will often require a complete reboot of the design.

The questions are simple: which pieces do people have to live with, and which ones can they fully customize?

I thought about this, and created some guidelines to make certain when planning a design not to accidentally get carried away with flexibility and customization

Resources used by students across year groups, or across the curriculum, should be centralized and universally linked from all pages or courses

This means if I have a list of “things” that students use, and those students are
not all in the same course or cohort, then that list should be easily found regardless of where those students are in the online environment.

Build boxes or menus that follow users and never change position

Making hyperlinks is very easy, but they can be overwhelming in an online
environment to users who are in multiple courses, using multiple menus, etc.

In most content management and course management systems, boxes and menus can be created that follow all users from page to page. These resources are always on the same part of every page.

Teacher groups and subgroups need to follow a group plan for resources

Schools group teachers together in a variety of ways. Some by entire division, for example The Primary School Division. Others use departments, for example The Math Department. There are many that plan by grade level as well. In addition to these core groups, schools make sub-group combinations such as All Primary Math Teachers or All Secondary Year 9 English Teachers.

We often forget how complex these groupings can be.  The online environment is supposed to be designed for students, teachers, and possibly parents to find resources easily. If these groups and subgroups do not agree on a standard for how they will design their content, then jumping from one course to the next could be very confusing.

Someone with oversight of the online environment must ensure that the groups are planned properly and  follow a standard. One example of a group standard would be stating that every group agree required subscriptions for students be linked at the very top of every online course or page. Fairly, simple, but very useful and easy to communicate to students and parents.

Have a review cycle for subscriptions 

Subscriptions in a big school are difficult. I will write a post on ways to manage subscriptions, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that a school (or your school) has the planning of subscription acquisition and renewal down to a science.

Now you need to ask yourself, how often are you checking on the actual usage statistics of these subscriptions? Who is using them? How often? In what subjects? Who is using them at home or off-plan just for additional self-guided learning?

These questions need to be asked and answered at least every other renewal cycle.
This is also a good time to see if new competition exists. Most new subscriptions require some trial period before adoption. I would advocate communicating the cycle to faculty, so that they have a time frame in which to introduce new subscription ideas.

Flexibility and Freedom to choose are important, but so are structure and standards. Like a neighborhood, without some zoning and agreements, one person’s choice could negatively impact another person’s property. Those involved in technology leadership are well suited to set standards that balance the environment for all user groups. This is not a popular job, and one that is never appreciated, but doing it well will result in a daily positive impact for the entire community.

Tony DePrato

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https://itbabble.com

How to Help Your Dude Named Ben

If you are not aware, “A Dude Named Ben” refers to the generic and often ignored systems administrators who work at/in organizations.

When the IRS lost all their emails, they claimed total ignorance, and had no idea who their tech people were. This video is entertaining and can explain the origin or the term, but has very little bearing on this post. Enough background! Let’s get into it.

Every school has at least one “Dude Named Ben”. I often find in times of crisis, such as massive hardware failures, Technology Directors and School Administrators do not know how to support the process and procedures needed to literally save critical technology infrastructure.

In many situations, the school administration and the head of technology do not have the professional experience required to deeply understand infrastructure, therefore, they avoid managing or being directly involved in situations related to critical infrastructure.

The fact is a good manager or leader can always help a person who is working on a tight timeline and is highly stressed, and often feeling totally isolated with the problem. Here are some simple steps to take to assist any Dude Named Ben, without getting in the way.

Make the Timeline and Targets

Unless the situation is dangerous or hazardous, the first thing that should be done after the briefing is to set the timeline and targets. Many people want to just start working, this is not a good idea. People need to talk out problems. Most people relate well to time and urgency.

  • Start by asking what steps have to be taken to get the status quo back.
  • Then ask what needs to be done to determine what caused the problem and prevent it from happening again.
  • Then start inquiring how long each step should take, in a normal situation.

Now there is a set of goals and a general understanding of how long it should take to complete them all. If time is actually lacking, then start asking the tough questions such as, “Which of these steps could we skip, and be operation but not perfectly operational by our deadline?”

This is where leadership matters. This is where ownership of the consequence can shift, and the system administrator(s) can work and feel supported. There is always a chance of failure, and people working in fear are not going to work as well as someone who is being supported by leadership. Also, this process builds confidence. When administrators take time to listen and understand, the barriers come down and an honest explanation and list of issues will surface.

Set Some Rules for Health

Yes, I know how it sounds, but it is important. If you have a team that must pull a 12 hour plus shift, or work in some adverse conditions, then make a plan to keep people healthy. Provide food, drinks, and mandatory breaks. Set points where everyone steps away from the problem, reviews the targets and timeline and reflect on the work. This is a great time to make adjustments and reconsider some priorities.

A manager or leader can control and manage all of these things for the team that is handling the problem(s). It is one less thing the team has to worry about, and they will appreciate it. Odds are, the problem will be more complex than it seemed initially. So having a team that is willing to go that extra mile without being asked will make all the difference.

This is an Opportunity, so Seize it

When things break, and have to be rebuilt, it is an opportunity to make improvements.
It is critical to know why the failure happened, and to mandate that steps be taken to prevent it, not to fix it. Fixing can imply that the old system needs to be patched and kickstarted back to life, only to once again fail.

Seizing the opportunity could cost some more time, but the benefits often outweigh the loss of time. Identify those who will suffer the most for the lack of the resource(s). Explain the problem, and that the idea is not to fix but to expand and improve. Use the word opportunity often, and get the stakeholders to agree.

Your Dude Named Ben is a person. Remember that. If you can form and manage teams, you can help in times of crisis. Trust me, it is not fun being that guy -sitting alone- and knowing everyone is waiting for you to pull-off a miracle.

 

Tony DePrato

www.tonydeprato.com

 

2015 – Bad IT Planning is Still Going Strong

Variable

Consider this question: If you want to run an event, start a new curriculum, communicate better with organisational stakeholders, audit for efficiency, train a group of people economically, or simply show a movie to a large group of people, would you do those things with technology? Would you require support from specialists or tech support?

The answers are simple. Yes, technology is required. Yes, most people need help doing anything outside of their normal routine. I would estimate that 90% of the events and activities within organisations require technology and technology support. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of those people planning events or core organisational changes take the time to plan for technology, and with specialists, before finalising plans.

It seems to be assumed that anyone working in the Technology Department can support any type of project, without time for planning and preparation. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way planning looks at technology. Technology and those that can manage an implementation are not trivial accessories. They are a necessity.

I often find that people in tech support are juggling problems that are occurring in realtime due to organisers being unprepared. The expectation that “things should work”, is unrealistic when those “things” go from unknown to known minute-by-minute.

The scale of this problem is not limited to trivial activities such as presentations and one-off media projects. As anecdotal evidence I would like to offer this gem: A building project to construct a new performance space, not consulting the Technology Department before designing and building the facility.

The space was not built to physically accommodate the required systems needed to make the space functional. By the time anyone from the department was involved, it was too late
to change the dimensions of the space. The space will never be what it could have been, nor will ever be as cost effective and efficient as it should be.

The worst part is this anecdotal evidence is not from a single situation. This has happened to me on at least four occasions I can remember, in the last 5 years. Technology is seen as a requirement and an afterthought at the same time. This is paradoxical logic.

Working in education and education technology, I see many people wearing many different hats. Most are happy to be a teacher, a network specialist, and a live music mixing specialist, all in the course of a single day. That is not an exaggeration, that is literally how my day, and those who do my job at other schools around the world, flows.

Very few jobs require a skill set that is as diverse and flexible as those working in educational technology. Often due to budget limitations, committed educators have to create opportunities for children by creating the infrastructure and resources. Thus, Technology Departments within schools are often staffed with people who have diverse skills are varying degrees of proficiency. In other words, often they can do the impossible, but they need to study and practice. They need time. They need to prepare.

All organisations need take a step back and look at their organisational charts. They need to start shuffling the pieces to eliminate the paradox. If technology is a requirement, then it must be a requirement, a driving force, and a regulator from the beginning of any project or event. Instead of forcing the entire technology department to react and play defence, organisations need to allow technology to implement strategy and coordinate outcome.

George: I think I understand this. Jay Peterman is real. His biography is not. Now, you Kramer are real.

Kramer: Talk to me.

George: But your life is Peterman’s. Now the bus tour, which is real, takes to places that, while they are real, they are not real in sense that they did not *really* happen to the *real* Peterman which is you.

Kramer: Understand?

Jerry: Yeah. $37.50 for a Three Musketeers. ~Seinfeld , The Muffin Tops

Tony DePrato

www.tonydeprato.com

The Whitelist vs The Blacklist (Not the TV Show) and Your BYOD Implementation

WhitelistVSBlacklist

A whitelist is a a list of users, IP address, etc. that have permission to do something, and a blacklist is just the opposite. For example, organizations routinely blacklist websites that employees should not use.

In a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model, schools are often faced with the issue of how much they should or should not manage devices and user access. Due to the cost of many management solution, and the choice of BYOD for the sake of resources and budgets, schools often cannot afford corporate level BYOD security systems.

Many schools choose to use their firewalls, Wifi Controllers, and other core components to create user access lists using MAC addresses, leased IPs, and whitelists/blacklists of users. Most of this work is done manually, so having a good strategy is extremely important for efficiency and human resource management.

The key issue is to decide what your philosophy is. Are you going to punish or are you going to reward? Another way to state that would be, “is good network behavior going to earn a student freedom?”.

I believe if a school chose BYOD, and they did so for reasons other than saving money, the school should adhere to the principles that BYOD supports, such as independence, self -management, and self-reliance. If the school adheres to these positive principles, then the goal should not be to directly manage devices, unless a student violates school policy. The goal would be to use a blacklist system to manage those students who continually fail to manage their devices and fail to behave properly.

Deciding, without cause, to lock down the property someone else owns (even a student) is not a core principle of a good BYOD program. That is a core principle of  program that needs resources and simply does not want to buy them. Locking down systems also means focusing massive amounts manpower into a process that is disconnected from teaching and learning. Anytime people in a school spend most of their time not working toward education, there is going to be an opportunity cost paid by the students.

As technology diversifies, and students are flooded with entertainment and pointless apps, the options for regulation become limited. Access to the Internet at school might be a privilege, but students equipped with small high-speed mobile devices can choose to by-pass a school network in order to achieve whatever goals they have.

Obviously this type of circumvention will disconnect them from their teachers and learning resources. Choosing to whitelist students by directly managing their personal equipment, will spark their urge to deploy their mobile options.

Allowing student freedom, until they push to the bounds of the school’s AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) to far, is normally seen as a reasonable response by most students. The student community as a whole will always want some management and protection from theft, fraud, and other malicious behaviour. Therefore blacklisting students who act maliciously and giving other students as much freedom as possible will strengthen the BYOD community and various initiatives,

Tony DePrato

www.tonydeprato.com

Gestalt Thinking and The IT Department

gestaltLast week I spoke to someone who was doing some consulting work at an international school. They were trying to assess what was causing the various problems. It was not money or resources. It seemed the administration was trying to make things work. So as we began to speak she asked me a few questions about the organizational structure. I gave her a very clear answer and opinion. She told me what I told her was contrary to every other person she has interviewed about these problems.

I told her I firmly believed that if a school can support and afford it, the technology structure should be formally defined as Educational Technology (EdTech) and Business & Operations (BusOps).

I told her that certain plans and projects should fall into each of those divisions and be managed according to strategic plans and initiatives. In other words, the IT Department needs a clear focus, people need to know their main roles, and the regular school administration should be involved in tracking and accounting for the IT projects.

If a school cannot afford the staffing to support a real separation, then the policies in procedures governing the IT department should clearly define priorities, standards, and
any and all division of work.

In my current role I have a 70 page policy manual that is growing. It will soon be, after much debate, split into an EdTech/BusOps model. Various types of projects will start to be filtered directly to people who can do those projects autonomously, because those projects were planned and budgeted.

Does this mean as a department we will never meet and plan? No. It means after we meet and plan with the school administration, we each should be able to do our work with some oversight. I ask for oversight all the time from the network engineer, and he asks for my oversight on projects that impact the classroom. As a team we make timelines, we debate over priorities and resources, and we constantly allocate jobs to each other.

However, when the year is coming to a close, and it is time to reflect, we have projects that each group of people has completed or failed to complete. We can report on issues related to EdTech separately from issues related to BusOps.

But here is the problem, and I know this all too well because I use to be “the problem”. I was the IT coordinator and integration specialist who would blame the IT engineers and support staff for everything. I accused them of not being diligent and focused. I believed they did not care. I saw them as the weak link, and eventually I took it upon myself to manage them from that perspective.

It worked. Things seemed to be better and more organized, but there was a huge downside. Firstly, I was still completely dependent on them for supporting the school, I could not actually do all the work alone. Secondly, they were so afraid to make mistakes that I could not expand the technology past a certain point.

So I had to change. The first thing I had to do was listen. I found that these people had not always been the way they were. They had been marginalised, blamed for issues they predicted but were unable to resolve due to funding, and no one had given them any sort of additional training or time to pursue learning.

Of all these things, the last one I consider nearly insane. I do at least 6 weeks worth of training a year just to stay even, if I want to really grow, I need a solid 8-12 weeks of training. I do this mostly on my own time and spread the training over the entire year. My contract allows for professional development, and in the past, my contract also allowed for professional development. The engineers and IT support people were allotted nothing. No time. No training. How could they improve?

The next move I made was to make a list of everything they had done, and done well.
I clearly started communicating these things to everyone, and in every way I could. I wanted them to be able to own projects and successes as individuals in a department.

Finally, I started telling teachers and staff to back-off. No more verbal demands. No more undocumented communication. No more narratives about slow internet. I made reporting issues a formal non-email process, and jobs were assigned based-on skill set and location. If we were short staffed, everyone did their best to cover any and all jobs.

Essentially, I split the department by separating the projects and responsibilities.  I was able to see who had skills that needed development, and I planned and funded professional development for the team.

The end result was also a huge policy manual and a smooth running department that could walk into a problem and walk out with a plan.

This was along time ago, but I still follow the same practices. A team should be able to do things that are greater than the sum of the individuals’ qualifications.

Plan. Budget. Divide. Conquer.

Tony DePrato

www.tonydeprato.com

Options Lead to Issues

“Walk on road, hmm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later… get squish just like grape.”~ The Karate Kid, 1984

squish

I am a strong proponent of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) for students and personal ownership of the tools needed for professionals to get their jobs done.

However, in any successful organisation policies, procedure, norms, and culture eventually become established. Within the culture, standards around technology are formed, and hopefully those leading technology have taken the time to write these standards down for others to learn.

This structure does impeded on some freedom. It does say ‘Yes’ to somethings and ‘No’ to other things. Maybe it is evolution, and maybe it is a mistake, but it is how must organisations define themselves.

Lately I have had some conversations with technology leaders who are facing challenges with people reverting to practices that have been removed through policy. It is frustrating and time-consuming to re-hash issues that were settled in the past. The fact is, technology leadership often enables this type of behaviour by proving or allowing too many options.

Here are a few examples to outline some common scenarios where allowing people choice can cripple an implementation.

First off, cloud storage. For the most part, I love using cloud based systems. I am not going to explain why, but I am pretty good at selling people on the benefits. It is easy to sell people on things that I personally use and see the same benefits in. However, it is common for people to try and delay migrating to cloud storage in favor of using their old network shares.

Most of these delays  are related to departments not wanting to manage all the garbage files and illegal files they are using. Garbage is not referring to quality, but to age and file duplication. Within most organizations their are quotas and rules set for file storage. However, most organizations make exceptions to these rules over time. A few departments get so bloated with content, that they cannot move everything to the cloud easily. Nor can the technology department help them, because the time to migrate is days not hours.

Allowing departments more time is a common reaction to the problem. This, unfortunately, is bad for everyone else (usually the majority of users). The people who were initially compliant will continue to access their old network shares. The access was not removed because of the delay caused by a few departments. This flexibility in the plan allowed the community to revert to an old plan and model. The option enabled more bad practice.

I would approach this problem by giving the angry few 24 hours to move all their files to their personal laptops, and then remove their network shares. Why? Because they caused this issue, and they need to decide how much of their data is really going to be worth moving to the cloud. They need to audit the illegal content and find a way to share it so that the technology department is not using official organizational resources to manage illegal data.

Another issue that often surfaces in technology is when a school switches to a new database system, but old sets of data are scattered around in offices. Although the new database is up-to-date and functional, a few offices will always be sitting on years of old spreadsheets. These are not shared or even fully accounted for, they are, however, a threat to maintaining data integrity.

Some people will email data from old spreadsheets instead of generating new spreadsheets from the updated database. Often the solution is to set a data usage policy and hope that people comply. Setting policies and hoping people comply is diplomatic, but it does not keep them from reverting to their old habits and beliefs they may hold in the old system.

I think a better solution would be to create a 14 day period where all work has to be done on new hardware with the new software, and no access to old user profiles and documents. This will not only prevent the bad data from flowing, it will also expedite the training. Nothing is being deleted. Access is merely being regulated.

Working in technology leadership,  I spend most of my time saying ‘No’ or ‘Yes, but not that way.’.

I rarely find myself approving good ideas without providing some structure. I think it is very easy to slip into a comfort zone of trusting people to voluntarily transition out of their comfort zone.

The truth is leadership often involves not being popular. It involves thinking about the whole organization, the stakeholders, and the people depending on longterm success.

Setting a plan in motion and choosing a direction is always a risk. However, once a choice is made it needs to be followed. If the choice is wrong, the momentum will stop and the damage will be assessed. A new direction and choice will be set, and the process will begin again.  A plan can die right out of the gate is it is not allowed to move and evolve down its planned path. A bump along the way should not create forks and decision trees.

Choose and move, and find a path. Stay in place, and wait to be stepped-on. Those are really the only two choices.

Tony DePrato

http://www.tonydeprato.com