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Dulling the Knives…

March 28th, 2009

I had an extremely disappointing day yesterday. 

Some background: I’ve been teaching my Grade 8 classes about information management since the beginning of January. We started off with spreadsheets, and are wrapping up now with a unit on databases. I’ve been really happy with how things have progressed. We’ve been doing some really innovative things, and I’ve learned a tonne in the process. Judging by the work students have been submitting, so have they.

Yesterday was supposed to be the last lesson.

I had planned something awesome. In the previous semester, some of the things we had touched on, through journal entries, collaborative activities and extended research projects, were cloud computing, software-as-service, hardware & software, interface design, and business models in the tech. industry. Yesterday, we would have brought everything together through an interview with a business owner.

I had lined up a speaker who writes web-based data-management software for businesses. He co-founded a company just over 2 years ago, and I’ve watched (and helped) his product grow into something quite polished. He has designed, built and secured his own technical infrastructure, and has an extremely impressive workspace, running on a high-end platform. He makes human interface decisions on a day-to-day basis while designing software modules, and his product is completely database driven. He makes his revenue in large part through subscriptions – not by selling his software outright. And he’s managed to attract several fairly big clients.

Great software.

Great software.

I planned to set up an iChat video conference between him and my class. I would project the video chat onto the board so everyone could see. iChat Theatre would enable him to share photos of his office, and his hardware back-end. Screen-sharing would allow him to demonstrate his software, and then fire up his database server and give us a peek under the hood. We’d be able to discuss hardware, software, interface design, relational databases, and business models, all focused around a living example of what we had studied. The opportunity for reinforcement and learning would have been enormous.

“Would have.”

A week ago I started preparations to get this thing off the ground. I researched all the ports I would need opened for iChat, and compiled a list to submit to our I.T. department. The response? It would be too complicated to set up for just one lesson. I pleaded for alternatives, knowing there’s always more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to networking. Nothing worked. Finally, three hours before the lesson, still trying to ‘get out’ over the right ports, I phoned my speaker and cancelled the conference, indefinitely. Instead, I showed my students how relationships work in Microsoft Access, and then we started a unit on publishing.

My students have no idea just what they missed out on yesterday. As for myself, I was so upset that I was tempted to simply run out and buy a mobile internet stick from my ISP, so this would never happen again.

I have a huge chip on my shoulder when it comes to I.T. administration in education. In all my experiences, there seems to be an overwhelming bias against teachers. Because we are percieved to not have the formal qualifications, we are treated as liabilities – not assets – by network admins.

I’ve worked in the I.T. industry going on 8 years. I know how to program in several languages. I do graphic design. I create web applications to interface with database servers. I’ve been hired by the government, the military, higher education, and the private sector. I’ve set up networks. I’ve designed database schemas. I have a broad base of knowledge, and if I don’t know how to do something, I can get in touch with about half a dozen people who can help me.

I understand that there are a lot of people out there, working as teachers, with little to no technical knowledge. But I’m not one of them. Without a flexible network policy, and without a constant dialogue between teachers and administrators, I’m forced to abide by the same (suffocating) restrictions imposed on others ‘for their own good’.

In education, network administrators are supposed to be enablers – those that make things possible, not those that explain why things are impossible. There are times when exceptions are necessary. An inflexible network policy only stifles innovation. It imposes mediocrity. It dulls all the knives in the drawer, so nobody gets hurt. 

All I wanted to do yesterday was slice some bread.




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