A Few Problems with School IT departments

I’d like to begin this post by saying that I have nothing against individual IT departments but I direct this post primarily at the whole of the school-focused IT industry; I do this because I feel that school IT departments simply follow by example (the example being that of what is set by the IT industry). Although I think that it is mainly the IT industries fault individual school’s IT departments are not entirely blame-free as they collectively have done what they’ve been told.

I’m going to break this down into 5 sections and discuss each individually and then come to a conclusion; the sections will be: Computer Hardware, Networking Solutions, Choice of Student’s Software, Use of Monitoring ‘Spy’ Software and Communication with Students.

Computer Hardware

Computer hardware is a particularly sticky issue as the choice of this varies significantly between schools, types of schools, Local Educational Authorities (in the UK) and most notably country. Overall I see the trend that in schools with significant amounts of hardware such as my own that the computers and other resources such as ‘Smart Boards’ are not used anywhere as much as they could be used. My school has high-end, expensive computers (at least 100 of them) which possesses large 19-inch monitors and 3.2GHz processors; the fact of the matter is that most of the time simply using the computers for surfing and word processing will never reach the boundaries physically set by the computers. The school I visit has at least 20 of these so called ‘smart boards’ and I often go into classrooms possessing them and quite often they are not used at all and when they are used their ‘smart’ functions are never used, they are simply used as projectors.

At schools with significantly less computer technology they seem to get along perfectly adequately without the need to splash out on extravagant luxuries such as smart boards or high-end computers. As I see it there are two uses of these high end computers: to satisfy what I call ‘Microsoft’s Minimum’ (the minimum system requirements needed for each of Microsoft’s subsequent bloated releases of the Windows operating system) and to show off to prospective parents who think that the future is solely based in the art of communicating by means of a computer; life isn’t changing that much. These are both completely ridiculous arguments for having such vast quantities of computer power under one roof.

It is quite easy to see where the ‘need’ for this is coming from: the IT industry. Microsoft consistently and systematically informs users that they need to upgrade their machines for the next, ‘better’ version of Windows and as a result offering leases of windows to schools which seems to enable them to upgrade to the next version of Windows simply by signing a new contract for about the same price meaning that it pressures schools into upgrading computers.

Networking Solutions

My school generally uses 100Mb/s Ethernet cables to connect the computers in the school together and a variety of switches connecting all the computers to one magical Microsoft ISA server to connect to the internet. Quite frankly the log-on takes far too long and so I think that Gigabit Ethernet could be in order in some places to replace the archaic 100Mb/s connections to each individual computer and some fibre optical connections between buildings.

WiFi is a complete mess as well at my school, you must supply your MAC code and ask them for Access to the network using your user-name and password. Why can’t they just let everyone log onto the network with their user-name and password? To me it just seems that they’ve felt pressured into needlessly secure it using a MAC address due to industry ‘standards’; as if it wasn’t easy to spoof a MAC address anyway.

Choice of Student’s Software
Yes, I understand why all schools (in the UK at least) use Microsoft Office; businesses all across the world use it but surely there’s some place in schools to give the students some choice between what the school wants to use and what they want to use. For instance I think that schools should install copies of Open Office on machines so that when you go in and use the computers you’re not forced to use Microsoft’s backwards application set. I would also like to see Linux in schools for the exact same reason; my school’s IT department is opposed to it for two reasons: the Microsoft servers that they use to route all of the traffic are very hard to configure under Linux and, the big one – they can’t control students as effectively as they can on Windows. This I believe is all up to industry pressure to effect forcing schools to conform and buy what they want them to buy: proprietary and highly-priced software. I have yet to see one computer in my school running Linux; at least run a small scale test to see if it integrates well with the infrastructure!

Use of Monitoring ‘Spy’ Software
Okay, here’s the story: I got ‘called up’ to the IT office in my school for typing things like ‘I can see you, fuck off’ into the Internet Explorer location bar and hitting enter; the IT staff evidently searched the logs of which sites people had been visiting and found those words. Sure, I know I shouldn’t have done that but quite honestly I didn’t actually expect anyone to be reading those statements after I had hit ‘return’ and the words had disappeared into the ether; so I was wrong and okay, maybe it’s okay for them to be searching the logs of visited websites for profanities – I’m not going to argue with that. What I was told next was that they very often monitored what students were doing on their computers and that they even had key loggers. What kind of IT department is this? One that logs every single keystroke that people type and stores it for future use by the IT department? Passwords, emails, user-names, even Credit Card details of the head of my school all stored with easy access for the IT staff. All of this without even telling people that they were doing this to begin with – that’s not right. What if a rogue user – or dare I use the word ‘hacker’ – managed to access this treasure-trove of information? I raised the issue though my school’s student council only to be knocked down and told to simply put up with it. Students still aren’t warned about the key loggers. I think you can make up your own mind about that one.

Communication with Students
Communication between my school’s IT department is abysmal, I emailed them in January asking for Google Docs to be unblocked (yes, that’s right it was blocked) and got an email back saying that they’d discuss it internally and that they’d get back to me with the decision – It’s now 17th March and I haven’t received their decision. I went up to talk to them to see what was going on with it in February and got told that it’d be a while until they could even discuss it internally.

What’s the issue with Google Docs? Apparently it takes control away from them meaning that they can’t monitor what students bring in and out of school. I find it pretty hard to vindicate that as a response, it’s just not right. Do you wonder why people are accepting the Big Brother society? It’s beginning in schools and there’s no one there that can see it happening, has the will power to stop it happening or even wants to stop it happening. Now that people have started simply accepting this in schools it’s easy to see how it can develop even further in the future. If people can’t communicate to even argue their point effectively then they just don’t bother with it in the future.

I’ve asked my student council representative to ask for a committee between students, IT staff and non-IT staff teachers but honestly I can see that not happening. At the time of writing my school has blocked the BBC Blogs and the BBC News streaming video. There is not much that can be done about it.

School IT departments are seriously flawed and I’m sure it isn’t only my school’s IT department. No one seems to care and students aren’t in a position to stop it; this issue isn’t publicised nearly enough. Who knows when or even if it’ll end?

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3 Responses to A Few Problems with School IT departments

  1. penguinator says:

    I completely agree with you, especially on the “more tech than necessary” part.

  2. Aodh says:

    I have to agree with you on the hardware issue as until quite rrecently my schools computer labs consisted mainly of pentium 3’s and apart from a slow boot-up speed I don’t think it really mattered for the web browsing and document work that we do. Also as a plus we use openoffice in my school yet still you see a few students complaining for some reason.

  3. ewanm89 says:

    It’s probably something in the region of a 2GB fibre backbone, now if they weren’t using such a slow database for authentication…

    They can’t control the students at all with windows, a competent admin will know that management/consultant telling them it is better with windows knows it’s bullshit… however most aren’t competent.

    And yes, the thing is, you are the one who can fire those idiots in a few years time ;), a school is nothing without students…

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