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Taking Back the Net
Part 1 - Making the Case
©1999 Gary S. Stager

Originally appeared in Hotsource, an Australian online magazine dedicated to educational computing.

This series of articles is intended as a combination manifesto, survival guide and optimistic view of teaching and learning in the digital future. Feel free to agree with some of the thoughts and disagree vehemently with others. Just do something.

Schools are spending unprecedented sums of money on computer networking. This series will explore staffing issues, low-cost alternatives and advice useful in making informed decisions.

Computer networking can be a bunch of wire or a vehicle for transforming the nature of teaching and learning. The outcome is the result of educational leadership. It should not be assumed that wires, routers, servers and network administrators automatically have a positive impact on the educational process. In too many cases poorly conceived networking plans have had an adverse impact on teaching and learning. Informed leaders need to consider the costs, benefits and trade-offs prudently.

Stating the obvious

The net (Internet) and the school network are not the same. A school's wired or wireless LAN (local area network) connects the computers in your school for the purposes of sharing files, file space and controlling the computers from one location. A LAN or WAN (Wide Area Network - perhaps used to connect several campuses) may be connected to the Internet and World Wide Web, but not necessarily.

Too many schools equate networking with computing. Computers offer powerful opportunities for learning whether they are networked or not. Using MicroWorlds does not require a network. Neither do MIDI composition nor micro-based lab science. Networking is good if done well. If a choice must be made between more computers or more wire, choose computers. If the choice is between an additional network administrator or laptops, choose laptops.

Schools do not need to network their computers. Kids do need access to the Internet. If your school can afford computer networking and adequate Internet access on campus - terrific. If your school has the will to take some risks and challenge convention - fantastic! If not, rest assured that kids will have access to the Internet outside of schools with increasing frequency and technical sophistication.

Goal 1

Schools should have an educational rationale for investing in network infrastructure

It's the personnel stupid!

Well-meaning school administrators confused by network jargon understandably reach out for assistance. Ignorance of network technology and tight budgets often lead to the hiring of affordable, yet underskilled network administrators for a school. Let's face it, employees with networking expertise are a precious economy. Schools can hardly compete in the marketplace.

While a school can surely survive a network administrator who learns on the job, such a person lacking appropriate social and communications skills can be a disaster. Immature and arrogant network support personnel too often use knowledge of Windows NT or Unix as a weapon against teachers. Schools are delicate complex organisms susceptible to irreparable damage when invaded by a foreign often-hostile force.

The course most expedient for the network personnel may be at odds with the needs of a classroom teacher. 52 character alphanumeric user ids are a problem for a classroom of six-year olds. Too frequent network outages due either to maintenance, errors or upgrading may wreak havoc on a teacher's educational objectives. Professionals, like teachers, become dependent on their email and can not tolerate having their email addresses changed without reason. Classes are interrupted needlessly when a machine crashes and support staff must be summoned to type in a secret password to bring the computer back to life.

In one school computer lab I opened a window only to have the previous window close. Opening a third window caused the second window to close. Since I had never encountered such an odd phenomena in twenty years of computing, I had to find the "network guy" for a solution to the problem. He proudly declared that he had set the computers to open only one window at a time. I congratulated him on inventing Microsoft Window, but required an explanation. "If kids can open more than one window at a time, they can move files." I thought that was the point of Windows, but apparently this wire jockey's convenience was more important than the functionality of the school's computers.

Today the dungeon, tomorrow the world!

They tend to multiply like rabbits. One network technician begets another and another…

One of the biggest challenges facing schools is reigning in the cost and power of the network personnel. Human nature, poor planning, the rapid obsolescence of technology and incompetence often lead to an expanding technology support team. Now the person you hired to provide wise counsel and support is now a manager with a kingdom to defend. If the lead person lacked either technical know-how or appropriate people skills, they are now in a position of leadership. Add unnecessary features or draconian security measures to the network and your cost of maintenance increases.

It is extremely difficult for schools to avoid the rise of this sort of empire built on quicksand. One thing you can do is subcontract as much of the installation, maintenance and administration of the network infrastructure to a responsible, well regarded professional organisation responsible for customer satisfaction. Regular status meetings should be scheduled in which educators can share their needs, concerns and success stories with your network support personnel. These meetings should be held frequently and focus on self-correction.

Another approach is to have kids take responsibility for the care and feeding of school technology. This approach executed expertly by Generation WhY,, trains students to install, maintain and operate the technological infrastructure of a school. Generation WhY even leads kids to collaborate with teachers in the design and execution of lessons using technology. More related ideas will be explored in future columns.

Goal 2

Network support personnel work for teachers, not the other way around

Information wants to be free

While the power of the Internet is multifaceted, the democratization of publishing offers the most expansive benefits for teaching and learning. Opportunities for collaboration, publishing and the development of learning communities exist only when students and teachers have liberal access to all the net has to offer. That means that every kid, teacher and administrator requires a personal email account, web space for publishing and access to the rich resources of the web without undesired surprises created by technicians with idle time.

Ignorance of the technology and denial of substantive societal changes leads school policy-makers to expend excessive energy towards locking down hard drives and filter the web in irrational ways. Hysterical fear of alien abduction, pedophiles from Belarus and the freedom associated with the democratization of communication causes well-meaning educators to render their network investment impotent.

Goal 3

Every item in a teacher's classroom should be fully supportable by that teacher. While computers are still too primitive and buggy we should expect more from hardware manufacturers. The school doesn't employ people to support whiteboards, telephones or goldfish.


You're not a bank! You're a School

Schools like to own and control more than necessary. Many schools are accustomed to isolationism. Intranets were developed to protect sensitive organizational information, like financial records and fund transfers. There is little in the tuck shop menu, children's poetry or sport schedules that needs to be restricted to the world. Please weigh the potential benefits vs, costs when determining if information can be available to the public. After all, the Internet breaks down the timeless boundaries of time and space. Kids in far-away lands might actually learn a great deal by collecting something as trivial lunch data from schools around the world.

If there is no good reason to restrict access to a piece of information, put it on the Internet - not the Intranet!

They're just computers!

School computers are often treated as if state secrets are stored in the middle school computer lab. Regular backups, student responsibility and a climate of good citizenship reduce the need for such panic. Grades, contracts and sensitive information should not be on the same network. That's just common sense.

Stager's First Rule of School Networking

    The more money spent on the school network:

      • The more paranoid the people in-charge will be
      • The less it will actually work

Stager's Second Rule of School Networking

      The more you restrict net access and computer functionality:

      • The less useful it will be
      • The more kids will be inspired to create mischief
      • The more expensive it will be to maintain

The Internet is bad for business

The Internet is bad for the educational software industry. You simply need less software today than you did in the past. The net is equally bad for the business of schooling. Free access to expertise, collaborators and a boundless audience for your expression threatens the traditional school power structure. When your livelihood is threatened, you can always sell fear. Subsequent columns will address ways of addressing this hysteria and the accompanying quick fixes being proffered.

In future columns

  • More on thinking rationally about security issues
  • Sources of free and low-cost alternatives to owning mail and web servers
  • Using the net to improve education
  • Add amazing functionality to your web sites
  • Be your own ISP
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