Mike Dronen
Executive Director of Technology
Minnetonka Public Schools

Perhaps less now than a few years ago, the mystery surrounding technology and technicians – how things tick and how technicians tick – can feel a bit shrouded … harkening all the way back to magic elixirs and those who peddled them. In my earlier days as a teacher, technology and tech staff seemed that way to me. And now, working on the technology side, I’ve likely, and, unfortunately, probably contributed to it. I have learned that for the most part, our technology colleagues are neither trying to schlep an inferior product or service or sell a magic elixir (not true for all vendors), nor trying to keep anyone from looking behind the wizard’s-curtain.

Below is a short list of 10 things some of my technology colleagues (education and private sectors) have in common and would want our superintendent or CEO to know.

First, we do things a 5th grader could do. Nothing new here. We move technology equipment around, put iPads in cases, attach district ownership stickers to a Chromebook, count to make sure we have enough spare light bulbs for our projectors, and reply to emails asking, “How do I change a font?” A portion of our technical work is, as you see, managing inventory and answering basic questions.

However, my K-12 technology colleagues from around the state also have engineering skills (or immediate access to them) on par with those found in the best IT departments in corporate America. A number of former entry-level technicians I’ve worked with in my career now serve as IT leaders in companies like Apple, serve at “three-letter” government agencies or have founded their own highly successful technology companies.

Second, we are always looking for the next big thing. Then there is the divide. You know. This is the one between the awesome thing that the instructional department wants to do and that automated monotoned “no,” neither loud, nor flamboyant that is heard from “tech” even before the teaching and learning folks have finished their request. Ever heard that?

Well, the times they are a-changin’. The gift that this last generation of MN K-12 technology leaders left us all and specifically challenged our current generation of tech leaders to do was to place the mission of supporting the instructional mission of the school district first. This has led to an energized set of technology leaders who are as passionate about putting the student learning experience first as anyone else in their district. To that end, the progressive technology leader is on the hunt for even better tools and means to create richer and extensible learning opportunities for our current charge.

At the same time, these same technology colleagues are also the most critical of the next big thing; as like many of us, they, too, have often dealt with specific technologies that have been over promised in capability. School leadership does well when they invite their tech folks to the table early on in any new product evaluation stage.

Third, we don’t want you to know how vulnerable we are. Not that long ago, the largest technical vulnerability to school districts and business was a failed server hard drive. In that case, if we did our job well, we had both a backup of the data and a replacement drive. While proper backup procedures remain an essential IT basic, hardware security is almost a thing of the past. Today’s vulnerability is information security. With so many compromises among so many businesses, information security needs to be front and center for every school district. Has your technology department taken the time to perform a basic information security risk assessment?

We do want you to know that tech staff take information security seriously, and we want district leadership to know that information security is a district-wide responsibility – not just a task done by the technology department. It IS possible to reduce information security risks in our school districts. Well-run district information security programs have layered security processes, policies and technologies in place to protect district and student information, financial information at industry standard levels, and sometimes better. Properly implemented information security practices reduce risk and help protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of district information – from physical, technical and human threats.

Fourth, we don’t want you to know we are constantly monitoring near misses. Near misses?

Several years ago, I had the unique opportunity to spend some time in a secure government facility with a dozen air traffic controllers. As I listened on my headset to the conversations between them and aircraft and watched radar on the screen of the sector we were responsible for, I quickly learned that at any time there might be multiple aircraft that would need to adjust their position to stay at an acceptable distance between other aircraft. As the controller I was with was controlling a busy sector, it was common that a flight course change was communicated, and the pilot immediately respond. At one point the controller asked me off-radio, as a kind of test I suppose what the problem was on his screen, in his sector, “Mike, we have a flight vector change needed as two aircraft are on a collision pathway. You have 10 seconds to tell me which two aircraft. I need to radio one of the two pilots to make a correction within the next 30 seconds. Go.” I had no clue. The controller, in a matter of fact manner called on the radio, “Delta 452 climb to flight level 2-4-0-0.” The pilot radioed back, “Climb to flight level 2-4-0-0, Delta 452.” Voila’, issue avoided. I learned this time frame was typical and completely manageable in air traffic centers around the world.

In a kind of similar fashion, most district technology departments have deployed technologies that alert them and allow them to monitor many events per day and night, making adjustments as needed. In a real way, monitoring and preventing near misses. Well run technology departments monitor to avoid technical and security near misses 24x7x365. Sleep well.

Fifth, it’s probably good that you know that our cyber abilities are less than those of the NSA.

The software tools available to manage portions of the tech environment in our schools are impressive: tools to track device location, remotely administer a device, understand what software the devices are running and what kind of data the device may have interacted with or to protect the device from unwanted threats, these are tools used to secure and provide good technical service. And while processes like vulnerability scanning, penetration testing and open source intelligence gathering have an important place, it’s important to note that the kinds of security and monitoring a school district does are not intended nor even close to the nature and capabilities of an organization whose primary mission is to gather information about state actors and foreign intelligence!

Information security needs to be “owned” districtwide; it is not the sole responsibility of the technology department. Support from the superintendent’s office is essential for continuing to move forward with information security.

So, while your district’s technology staff may not have the kinds of abilities penetration testing engineers do at the NSA, know that your staff possess technical capabilities far better than those of Sponge Bob Square Pants.

Sixth, were you aware that one person can fully manage 1,000s of computers and tablets?

I have yet to visit a school district that was over-staffed on the technology side … at least in Minnesota. However, I have seen many that are aware of efficiency challenges and are striving to improve those.

One way we can do that in tech is through the improved capabilities of software-based management tools. Tasks that could only have been accomplished using “sneaker-net” or “wind-shield-time” can now be done remotely, and at massive scale. In just the last four years, “over-the-air” setup allows a school district to essentially hand an iPad, laptop or Chromebook that has not even been unpackaged to a student or staff member and once they start it up, they are guided the entire way through the set-up process – placing the user in the right access groups and allowing them access to just those applications and services appropriate to them. That was not capable just five short years ago.

In my district, one technician (a portion of his week) manages 11,395 iPads and another technician (a portion of his week) manages 2,775 desktops and another (a portion of his week) manages 1,526 Chromebooks. This kind of efficiency using these tools is not unique to our school district, but the capability was far less developed five years ago.

Technicians can manage large numbers of devices efficiently as long as they have a well-built network, adequate infrastructure resources and time to learn these tools. The ROI for making this investment is convincing.

Number seven on our list, we do want you to know that on occasion we make a mistake.

It was late on a Friday afternoon when we began our well-planned learning management system upgrade. Why late on a Friday? Well, as the system was heavily used by our district, (including over the weekends), we had intended to minimize downtime, and, based on our research and plans, we gave us ourselves four hours for the work we anticipated would take one. Four times what we thought we would need. What could possibly go wrong? Suffice it to say, after almost non-stop work from Saturday through early Sunday afternoon, we had the system updated and online by 1pm on Sunday – the time when many high school students are just waking up and starting to think about getting their homework done.

While most technology departments try to fix systems and update them before they are broken, sometimes it us tech folks that actually break them. But, we’ll be burning the midnight oil to get those systems back to normal before anyone notices.

This might be a surprise, but eighth, we want you to know that we want in. The savviest businesses view technology as a strategic asset, and position it as such. It has taken K-12 a bit longer. While it is accurate to say that in the last five years more and more Minnesota schools have placed their most senior technology leader at the cabinet level or directly reporting to the superintendent, there are still districts who don’t quite see technology as the strategic asset that it is or could be.

As I survey my experiences in the three districts I have worked in, those initiatives that brought in technology leadership at the start of an idea or a project were (for the most part) the projects that succeeded, and interestingly, those projects or efforts that brought technology input to the table later tended to be the projects and efforts that went awry or missed out on significant opportunities. One of the superintendents that I served with kept it pretty basic, but always asked these two questions at the mention of any proposal that came across his desk that he had interest in, “Dronen, what’s the worst-case scenario if we do this? What’s the best-case scenario?”

I will concede, there was a time when some technology departments shied away from the business side or the teaching and learning side of the district. Those times are gone. The truth is that most technology departments and their staff want to be at the table from the very beginning – assisting district leadership to evaluate software, ideate together ways that the proper technical tool and process can solve a problem and even assist in creating practices that can place a school district in a position to far better meet its goals than was previously imagined. Tech wants to be at the table, and they are a strategic asset.

Number nine is maybe a little touchy: we don’t want you to know that some technologies are trivial to implement. There, I said it. And no doubt a few of my peers will give me a hard time for saying it, but the truth is, there are some technologies, processes and systems that while appearing difficult to implement, are not. Examples of technologies that used to be a bit more difficult to do and now are not, include things like: user provisioning across multiple applications, adding select features to existing applications overnight and creating a web form that runs more like an application; taking in user input, processing it and then doing the correct thing with it – even sending an email.

Why I’ll hear from my peers about saying some technologies are trivial to implement is because they and I know there are those technologies that seem like they should be easy to implement but are actually extremely difficult to do so. I think the take-away for a superintendent is to ask their technology leader, “Is this possible?” Not all technologies are easy to implement – but some are! Designing under time pressure how to make a square CO2 filter fit into a round CO2 canister on a lunar module might seem easy, but it is far more difficult than locating the YouTube video clip from the Apollo 13 film that illustrates this point.

Last on our list, we don’t want you to know that at times technical staff possibly dislike technology more than anyone else!

It’s true. I’ve found that the most heated and passionate rants about technology are by those who work in IT professionally. There is a kind of agreement in the IT space, that tech stuff should work as it was intended – that is the hope of the technician. And for the most part, the 1’s remain as 1’s and the 0’s remain as 0’s. They get to the location our networks tell them to go and no one is the wiser. But, every once in a while, things don’t quite work out as planned. We have all been there: the application that crashed, the file that got corrupted, that screen that went blue, that WiFi that just couldn’t seem to keep up, that email that I did not intend to cc to everyone (ouch!), etc.

That being said, the technical folks I’ve had the privilege to serve alongside my 27 years in K12 are a top-notch crew. They celebrate every technical win they have, from the largest to the smallest knowing that at the end of the day, each technical win is connected to a win for their K12 colleagues and the students and families we serve every day.

So, has your technical staff shared a form of these ten things with you?

Mike Dronen is the Executive Director of Technology for the Minnetonka Public Schools. He has been a middle school science teacher, science department chair, mentor for new science teachers, web application developer, IT project manager and IT director. When he can’t be found on the grid, he is likely lost on one of the many lakes or rivers in the BWCAW.

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