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Guest Thinkers

Education needs geeks, but we need a special kind of geek who is one of us

[This is a guest post from Don Watkins, responding to an earlier guest post by Doug Green. If you’re interested in being a guest blogger, drop me a note. Happy reading!]

Earlier this week I read web posting about replacing your technology coordinator/director with a building administrator. As a guy who has spent the last twenty-three years serving at a small K-12 I disagree. However, I do understand a growing frustration led by Scott McLeod and many less known names around our country and our world. Getting rid of your technology director and filling that position with a building administrator would only exacerbate the problem. I came to my position in 1987 at a time when most schools had technology coordinators who were re-purposed mathematics teachers many of whom taught a programming class or two, with languages like Pascal. I am not a mathematics teacher and had no experience and only a B.S. in Liberal Arts. What I lacked in experience I made up for with verve and enthusiasm that has remained my trademark. We had about fifty Apple II and IIe computers along with a smattering of Commodores. Since then our department has grown to group of several microcomputer technicians but only one of which is available each day to serve the needs of over five hundred computers, nearly a hundred printers, dozens of software applications, twenty-nine file servers which a year ago were virtualized and now we are even supporting a cloud infrastructure that insures our students, teachers and administrators have twenty-four x seven access to nearly all applications whether at school or at home and even from some java enabled mobile phones.

In a small school district with meager resources I took it upon myself to learn all that I could and along the way I earned a Masters in Educational Psychology with an emphasis on Learning and Technology. I became a hypercard programmer, taught students to keyboard and write using word-processing software. We used FredWriter which was free and an alumni (who is now a Facebook friend) donated 5.25 inch disks which had FredWriter on one side and a data disk on the other. While I attended the State University of New York at Buffalo enroute to the M.A. I met Dr. Douglas Clements and with the aid of my wife a third grade teacher at the time instructed elementary students in Apple Logo and a special geometry curriculum written by Dr. Clements and his colleague, Mike Battista. In the early 1990’s we had our first local area network using Lantastic and I had to learn a bit about star topologies and running cable. A few years later we put in category 5 ethernet when everyone around us was putting in IBM Token Ring. Research and hard work saved our district tens of thousands of dollars initially and if you factor in not getting taken in by the Token Ring crowd we saved the district from cost of rewiring. I was an early adopter of both Windows NT and Windows 95 and we became the first school district in our area to move in that direction at a time when everyone else was using OS/2 Lanserver and Novell. This too saved tens of thousands of dollars. We were early adopters of so called “white box” open architecture computers which were custom designed and made from quality components.

My efforts have always been to knock down walls and to build bridges to places of opportunity for our students, our faculty, our administration and our community. I see my role and those of my fellow technology directors and now technology integrators, curriculum directors, curriculum specialists as people who can and do encourage innovation. We owe this to our various constituencies. We do not serve them well when we accept the status quo. When someone tells me that this or that can’t be done I make it my business to prove them wrong.

Ten years ago we were forced by fiat to filter in order to comply with E-rate. I railed at the idea of having to filter and it was during a conversation with a vendor of a particular filtering product that the salesman, who was no doubt tiring of my soapbox lecture about the first amendment, suggested that I build my own filter with Linux. I accepted his challenge and bought my first copy of Suse Linux from Amazon and proceeded to hack my way to a filter eventually using open source products Squid and Squidguard to fit the bill. At the same time I encountered stiff resistance from IT traditionalists upstream who insisted that I was treading in dangerous ground. I called SLD and made sure that I was not breaking the law and kept moving forward. Eventually we began to use Red Hat and later Fedora Linux with Squid and Dansguardian another open source product that created a great filter. The upstream skeptics were silenced and others followed my lead.

The experience gained with filtering led me to an exploration of Linux in much greater detail and now a liberal arts guy with no computer science in his background began building Linux servers in closets and using hardware that no one else wanted. Eventually I was able to secure some special legislative funds from the late New York State Senator Patricia K. McGee who rewarded my entrepreneurial initiatives and granted us sufficient funds for a couple of us to get more advance professional training in Linux and other open source tools. My Linux training and my love of design led me to open source web systems using Apache, MySQL, PHP and eventually to PhpBB, WordPress, Drupal and now Moodle. Long before I laid eyes on Drupal & Moodle I could see how PhpBB could be used for student learning. From my earliest days I have loved learning and sharing what I learn with others.

A few years ago one of our previous superintendents asked me to examine how we could excite student on the edge. Many of these students were very bright by virtue of their IQ scores but remained listless in traditional classrooms. Around that time too my daughter introduced me to text messaging and so another epiphany occurred and I began to see a connection for learning and teaching using cellular phones. At a time when many of my peers in both the teaching and administrative ranks disdained cell phones, I was looking for ways to connect them to student learning. This journey has led me to an integration of cell phones, web applications using WordPress, Drupal and Moodle and student learning.

A year ago our high school principal gave me an opportunity to return to the classroom that I had been gone from for five years due to administrative overload. He asked me to consider teaching a class that would teach students what not to do with Facebook and cell phones. I asked to think about it for a few days. A bit less than a year ago I began to write a curriculum that was influenced in part by a trip to NECC 2009 in Washington, DC and some of ISTE’s materials including Mike Ribble and Gerald Bailey’s book on “Digital Citizenship in Schools.” I spent last summer reading their book and many others, following tweets from my personal learning network on Twitter and Facebook and writing a curriculum that is a work in progress. I finally learned a bit more about using Moodle including how to build your own Moodle server in our virtual server cloud. Now, in addition to my technology director duties I teach two classes each day of truly amazing young people who have animated my life in a way I never dreamed possible. They have encouraged me along with my personal learning network to continue to grow both personally and professionally. They are eager to learn and love our class times. Their is a waiting list for my classes. We emphasize digital citizenship and students are encouraged to blog each day and to use their cell phones for educational purposes. I’m indebted to many including my personal learning network of Katie McFarland (@katiemc827); Rick Weinberg (@rickweinberg); Mark Carls (@mcarls), Liz Kolb (@lkolb); Steve O’Connor (@steveoc) and many more whom I follow on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

What all of this has taught me is never to accept status quo and always to keep pushing ahead for the sake of those we serve, the students and staff of our respective school districts. Putting a building principal into a position like this one with little or no preparation could be a disaster. A technology director ought to be a bit of a rebel, a diplomat, and a life long learner. Today’s technology directors have to work together with curriculum directors and technology integrators to make sure that today’s students are really being prepared for the twenty-first century. Today’s technology directors must be agents of change, they have to envelope pushers but at the same time they have to work with other professionals who can shape curriculum. No one can do everything and certainly not everything well without help. We are bridge builders who should be familiar enough with the building blocks that underpin our networks. We have to be open to change too. Just today a technology integrator friend was expressing some frustration from an IT guy who told him that DropBox couldn’t work on their network. What the IT guy isn’t saying is that he fears that someone can put a rogue file into the network by way of DropBox. While that’s possible it is no excuse for not opening DropBox so teachers and even students can use it. I know that the IT guy is blowing smoke and already I told my friend and fellow technology integrator that we’re going to try it on our network and that we will be able offer empirical evidence that will allay the other person’s fear.

The nuances of technology direction and management are many and unless the particular building administrator has some keen interest in technology there would be nothing in their professional background either as a classroom teacher or a building administrator that would prepare them. I can say this because I have now completed half of the coursework at a local university that will lead me to administrative certification. Until now, and I can only speak for my own State of New York, no one has picked up the ball. Since the inception of computer technology into schools which began in the late 1970’s now there has been no real standard for technology director or coordinator. Some like me are designated as teachers although like me we have functioned as de facto administrators. Many of us are ten or sometimes eleven month employees when in fact we ought to be twelve month employees and many like me find themselves functioning in a “no man’s land,” where we are mistrusted by both teachers and administrators. Generally, we are highly principled, ethical and driven individuals who are charged with managing chaos. One of my best friends and a fellow technology director has a quote from Dante’s Inferno taped over his door, “abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

Today’s technology coordinators/directors should be grandfathered into administrative positions. Higher Education and State Departments of Education need to prescribe a program of study and certification for technology directors and it ought to include much of what I’ve studied in my administrative course work, but in addition to that it ought to include a special track that emphasizes technology skills and that ought to include network planning and implementation, technology visioning and planning and it ought to include curriculum integration too. Education needs geeks but we need a special kind of geek who is one of us.

Don Watkins, Technology Director

Franklinville Central School

Franklinville, NY



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