"With the introduction of new hardware and increased demands on support staff comes the vital question: How will this help us teach? Inevitably, this question is asked first not of the teachers themselves, but of technologists."
Richard M. Beattie, director of technology, Brunswick School, Greenwich, Conn., in "The Truth About Tech Support," from the September 2000 issue of Electronic School
Installed technology needs ongoing maintenance and support, or it will not remain functional for long. As technology has become embedded in the school setting, schools and districts have had to come up with systems to support it, and have had to create support roles and find people to fill them. This chapter provides rules and guidelines for assessing the systems that support technology use.
It is a challenge to assess the status of maintenance and support mechanisms and people because the alternatives are so varied. In the early stages of implementation of technology in schools, the need for maintenance is often unanticipated. Volunteers are pressed into service, or teachers with an interest in technology are assigned support roles in addition to their other obligations. Such systems and roles are difficult to sustain. It is a hallmark of the institutionalization of technology that more formal systems for maintenance and support have been established.
Current trends in support for technology systems include the establishment of more formal technology support structures, often using helpdesk software to track requests for support and responses; at the other extreme of the spectrum, trends include the incorporation of students in middle and secondary school as sources of technical help and outsourcing to nonschool persons or entities, either on a volunteer or more formal contract basis. It is worth emphasizing that in the latter situation, as with any situation in which work products depend on persons not under the control of the organization, proper documentation is an essential requirement and should be made an explicit part of any outsourcing contract or agreement.
Much of the information that a school or district needs to assess the status of maintenance and support systems can be extracted from a database on inventory and maintenance of hardware and software. Indicators are provided below for measuring both maintenance and support of technology resources in school administrative and instructional settings and for assessing the roles of personnel providing that support to teachers, students, and administrative staff.
Maintenance in this chapter means those preventive, diagnostic, updating, replacement, and repair procedures that a school or district has in place. Maintenance can be provided either by persons who are part of the school system or through an outsourced contract. It includes documenting trends and patterns in the use of applications or equipment. Specific maintenance items might include:
The term support refers to actions taken on behalf of users rather than to actions taken on equipment and systems. Support denotes activities that keep users working or help users improve the ways they work. (Readers should note that professional development and training are explicitly excepted; they are discussed in the following chapter.) Included under support might be such items as:
As with maintenance, support can be delivered through a variety of mechanisms, including in-house technology specialists, external volunteers, or outsourced contracts.
Indicators in this chapter address the procedures, response times, support sources, and workloads related to maintenance and support.
The key questions of this chapter are divided between procedures and personnel, although these issues are as related as two sides to one coin. While support rules of thumb have been recognized for business settings, schools still operate on a comparative shoestring. Recommendations for support levels do exist (see "Four Ways to Ensure Quality Tech Support in Schools").
Technology has not yet fully established itself in the school setting, as it has in many business sectors. When the network goes down in a school or district, the administrators, teachers, and students just wait until it comes back up. Any information lost may not be restored. In the instructional setting, preparing for an outage may mean that teachers file printouts as backup materials. The same outage in the business world can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales; lost instructional time has not been valued in the same way. Yet, as schools rely more and more on the use of technology (both administratively and instructionally), the loss of time and information is increasingly understood to be expensive and disruptive to the learning process. Maintenance and backup systems are therefore begining to be recognized as important throughout the school setting.
This key question assesses maintenance and support systems in terms of the number of maintenance incidents, the amount of downtime, and the stages of response to a request for maintenance; provisions for preventive maintenance; access to FAQ resources and technical manuals; backup and disaster recovery procedures; replacement and upgrade procedures; and diagnostic and repair procedures.
|Reliability of equipment and infrastructure||Number of maintenance incidents for current academic year per workstation/server; cause category, location.|
|Average number of hours of downtime for current academic year (per workstation/server, etc.).|
|Average number of calls to help desk/ tech-support services, per workstation/server.|
|Average time elapsed between initial call to help desk and response call to end user.|
|Average time between initial response call and notification of problem resolution.|
|Preventive maintenance procedures||Preventive maintenance schedule established.|
|Preventive maintenance checklist provided for enduser.|
|FAQ access provided (to tech support; to end users).|
|Access to technical manuals provided for end users.|
|Backup procedures in place.|
|Disaster recovery procedures in place.|
|Update and replacement procedures||Replacement/upgrade schedule established for hardware.|
|Replacement/upgrade schedule established for software.|
|Diagnostic and repair resources||Help desk support software available (trouble ticketing, resolution tracking).|
|Diagnostic software available (where appropriate).|
|Appropriate repair instruments/tools available on school premises.|
|Basic replacement parts in stock.|
TERM DEFINITIONS AND CATEGORIES
Cause of maintenance incident, categories: human error; software failure; hardware failure; network switching device or router failure; network cable or wiring failure; wireless system failure.
Downtime: the amount of time a machine or system spends in an inoperable state; alternatively, the amount of time between a call for maintenance and the resolution of the problem.
Technical manual location categories: at workstation; in classroom or laboratory; in library or other building central location; at district office or technology support office; online through local resources; online through vendor or other remote resource.
As schools commit more funds to the purchase of technology, they must also look at the support needed by the end users of these purchases. Most school systems have designated an office of technology support, but rarely do tech support personnel work directly with school staff. Usually, the only times tech support visits a school is when there is a major infrastructure malfunction or new equipment is being installed. Even more rarely can central-office technology support personnel be of assistance in educating users, say, on how a software package works.
The majority of support personnel time is focused on acquiring, installing, and maintaining hardware and the technology infrastructure. The ratio of end users (or computers) to professional support personnel is generally very high (see sidebar topics "Four Ways to Ensure Quality Tech Support in Schools" and "Tech Support Rule-of-Thumb"). As schools record the levels of support staffing and maintenance incidents, they can work to determine acceptable support ratios.
Much support for instructional staff comes from volunteer or part-time technology coordinators, working on donated time or in addition to other instructional obligations. Help desks are still a relative rarity. Use of students in these roles is not uncommon.
Indicators for this key question assess numbers of support personnel and full-time-equivalent (FTE) hours, the extent to which support personnel have other responsibilities within the school system, the total number of person-hours of technical support committed, and various ratios-of support calls to FTE staff hours, of support staff to the number of computers, and of support staff to the number of users.
|Technical support staffing||Number of dedicated persons assigned to technical support (at building, district levels).|
|Percent of FTE hours assigned to technical support (including dedicated positions) (at building, district levels).|
|Percent of FTE hours assigned to technical support, by primary area of responsibility.|
|Source of technical support||Average hours of technical support at the building level by source.|
|Average hours of technical support at the district level by source.|
|Technical support workload||Number of calls handled by FTE position, and by dedicated positions.|
|Ratio of calls or incidents to FTE support staff hours.|
|Ratio of technical support staff to numbers of workstations/servers.|
|Ratio of technical support staff to end users.|
TERM DEFINITIONS AND CATEGORIES
Full-time-equivalent (FTE) support staff hours: Total number of hours committed by support staff (equals the sum of FTE levels for each support staff person).
Primary area of responsibility, categories: Part-time teacher; full-time teacher; part-time administrator; full-time administrator; student; outsource contractor; volunteer; school staff technology support specialist; district staff technology support specialist.
Many of the above indicators might be derived from their inclusion in the support portion of a school's technology plan, which clearly should extend from the classroom to the central office. Some possible components of this plan could be district help desks, a workable staffing ratio of support personnel to end users or computers, and the degree of outsourcing for technology support. The implementation of these plan components could lead to the development of other indicators for this key question.
As stated, almost all of the data for the indicators listed above can be derived from the support portion of a school's technology plan. Other sources of information could be the school district's maintenance system for technology equipment, an incident tracking system (which may be computerized), or maintenance agreements with outside vendors.
The identifiable units for recording purposes related to maintenance support are each incident, each technical support staff person, and each piece of equipment requiring repair.
The data elements listed below can be used to create the indicators listed in this chapter. The complete list of data elements for this guide can be found in Appendix A; a number of detailed examples illustrating the creation of indicators from data elements can be found in Appendix B.
LIST OF POTENTIAL DATA ELEMENTS FOR A UNIT RECORD: SAMPLE UNIT RECORD FOR INCIDENT DATA
For each incident:
For each support person:
Records kept and aggregated at workstation, building, or district level.
Maintenance and Support
Stopping first at the help desk, John asks Deb the tech what the problem is.
Deb answers, "Well, John, the server has a network interface problem. I'm bringing the network up again, but I checked our logs and found that this is the fourth time this problem has occurred this month. Since we're paying so much for maintenance on that server, we've contacted the vendor to request a replacement under our service contract."
Then she adds, "By the way, John, Dr. Neussup's secretary is anxious to see you. She's struggling with a survey on hardware and software use in our district."
John says, "I've already seen her and answered her questions. Now I've got to go and see the high school Science Department folks."
[To be continued...]
As school technology systems get more complex, schools must further professionalize their technical support departments. No longer can schools rely on members of their academic departments who have an interest in technology to perform major system upgrades, maintenance, and troubleshooting. Anecdotal evidence shows a rising level of burnout on the part of those educators who have added the informal title of "computer expert" to their list of responsibilities within schools.
Unfortunately, schools have a long way to go. As a point of comparison, large companies strive to have at least one professional computer support person for every 50 computers (laptops or PCs) in use. Few, if any, schools enjoy a ratio this low. With the many other demands for hiring in most school systems, it's no surprise that administrators cannot focus on improving tech support departments-especially if this would come at the expense of hiring teachers to provide additional educational options or reduce class sizes.
Nevertheless, for technology to reach its potential in K-12 education, technology experts-not just technophiles-must be intimately involved in using a school's precious technology dollars to match the school's mission and serve its unique student body.
Achieving these goals starts with a firm commitment to quality in technical staff. This can be achieved in four ways, according to the author:
Reprinted with permission from Electronic School, Copyright © 2001. All Rights Reserved.
Keep in mind that the corporate standard is to have one support personnel for every 50 laptops or PCs. In schools that distribute computers to every student, that means 400 students and faculty members would require a technology staff of eight-hardly the norm.
Beattie, R.M. (Sept. 2000). "The Truth About Tech Support," Electronic School. See http://www.electronic-school.com/2000/09/0900f3.html
"Critical Issue: Promoting Technology Use in Schools," Pathways to School Improvement, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. See http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/methods/technlgy/te200.htm
Fitzgerald, S. (2001). "Five Measures of a Tech-Savvy School District," abstracted from "Taking the `Total Cost of Ownership' Concept to the Classroom." MultiMedia Schools. See http://www.eschoolnews.org/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=2791
Merit Network and Western Michigan University. "Michigan Technology Staffing Guidelines." This is an ongoing project; the web site provides documentation on roles and responsibilities for support staff, and includes staffing level estimates. See http://techguide.merit.edu/
Murray, B. (2001). "Tech Support: More for Less." Technology & Learning Magazine. See http://www.techlearning.com/db_area/archives/TL/200111/whatworks.html
Robinson, T. (1999). "eSN Special Report: Serving up Support," eSchool News. See http://www.eschoolnews.org/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=556
Shaw, T. (2001). "How to set realistic tech-support staffing goals," eSchool News. See http://www.eschoolnews.org/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=2108
"The Ultimate Preventative Maintenance Checklist." (1999). TechRepublic (downloadable file; users will be asked to register for free membership). See http://www.techrepublic.com/download_item.jhtml?id=dw03119990818jed01.htm