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Who's Minding the Store?

In your zest to use technology in your district, don't forget the first step-tech support.

Principal: I don't know what I am going to do with some of my teachers. They are so resistant to using technology and stuck in their ways. I move heaven and earth to bring the best computer infrastructure to the school, and they just let it sit there.

Sound familiar? Administrators repeat these words over and over on the battlefield of technology integration in our public schools. There are many "reasons" for this, but this month's column exposes the nasty truth. Public schools don't do an adequate job of technical support. Read the teacher retort below:

Teacher: I'm not going back into that computer lab again. Stuff never works. One day it's the Internet connection, the next it has something to do with the network crashing, and then four of the computers got trashed by the class before me. It's not worth it.

Who looks after the technology infrastructure at your school? Do you have on-site support? Does support come from a trained IT professional, or does a "techie" teacher or media specialist squeeze tech support activities in between classes? Across the country, answers to these questions vary wildly. Tech stars such as Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., sport several well-trained, on-site support staff to ensure their vast computer infrastructure functions effectively. Not surprisingly, technology integration is ubiquitous across classrooms there. Contrast that scenario with many, less fortunate schools, where such support, when available at all, is off-site, and "volunteers" on the teaching staff try to solve daily problems. Is it any wonder that horror stories about idle computer labs often spring from these situations?

Stanford professor Larry Cuban's work delves insightfully into the world of classroom teachers and their frustrations with technology integration. High expectations and big expenditures from administrators often ignore the reality of tech support in schools. Try facing a classroom full of 30 seventh-graders in a computer lab that is "down," and figure out on the fly what kind of lesson you can conjure up that will keep the lid on the class for the next 40 minutes. We may never realize the benefits of technology integration in schools until we merge the realities of classroom teachers and policy makers. Effectively addressing issues of tech support in our K-12 schools represent a necessary first step.

What should the standards for technical support be? This is not an easy question. The landscape of tech support is changing daily as the promise of remote access enables a centralized cadre of tech professionals to provide off-site support in real time. Until this vision is achieved, we rely on on-site professionals to guide us. Recently, the state of Maryland adopted a new five-year technology plan calling for "at least one technical support person for every 300 computer work stations" and "at least one LAN/WAN administrator per 1,250 computers." Few schools in the state currently meet this standard, which for some represents an unattainable dream.

What's a principal to do? Somehow, we must find ways to stretch existing staffing resources to address the need for tech support. The most promising solution may be sitting right under our noses-our students. Particularly at the middle and high school level, students are eager to lend their expertise and assistance to making technology work in schools. One staff member with the expertise to train student techies can deploy them to address the hundreds of simple problems that crop up with hardware and software. More complex problems, or issues relating to network security that preclude student input, can be referred to the professionals.

As most computer support specialists know, most of the problems referred by teachers and students have simple solutions. Indeed, programs such as Gen-Y have demonstrated that students can even play a key role in helping teachers to increase technology skills. And best of all, students and parents eagerly participate in these endeavors because it enables students to explore the world of IT first hand.

Who's minding the "technology store" in your school? K-12 administrators must carefully consider the answer to this question in their buildings, and tech-savvy folks will realize that the success or failure of technology integration efforts may turn on the answer.

R. Scott Pfeifer,, is a principal at the River Hill High School in Howard County (Md.) Public School System.