The IT tail wagging the pedagogical dog

I was recently talking to a teacher who attended a PD day I ran in Melbourne, when he expressed an all-too-common frustration. He returns to school after such a day, inspired to implement his new ideas – but finds his efforts thwarted by roadblocks at every turn. Roadblocks erected by his school’s computer technician who has unbending views about which web services, sites and devices are ‘best’. Teaching staff have no say in the matter.

On his school’s network YouTube is blocked. iTunes is blocked. Dropbox is blocked. One teacher wanted to bring in his own AppleTV and connect it to the projector in his classroom, but the technician wouldn’t allow it. Staff are not permitted to install software on their school-issued laptop and if a teacher brings in his own laptop to school, he is not able to connect it to the school network.

I hear teachers lamenting this situation often (more often than you probably imagine). I’ve even known a few teachers who, having started out inspired to reform their teaching, have eventually given up trying because their IT department wouldn’t support any of their initiatives.

It’s wrong.

I’m not saying some sites shouldn’t be blocked at school and I absolutely appreciate the instrumental role that a technician plays in a school (great technicians are worth their weight in gold! — this I know from my own school experience). Neither am I saying that technicians shouldn’t offer advice and guidance about technology choices. They obviously have invaluable experience, insights and knowledge. But a technician’s primary focus is necessarily on technology, whereas a teacher’s is on pedagogy. We need to remember the primary purpose of schools and keep those two foci prioritised accordingly.

If an application or service poses a real threat to the security of the network (Bit Torrent, P2P), then I think it’s the technician’s place to make that call. But in many schools, something is disallowed because the technician thinks students will waste time on it (YouTube, Twitter) or they just don’t like it (Macs, Weebly), or it side-steps a system they have spent time setting up for the school (DropBox, Schoology). In such cases it’s not an issue of network integrity but classroom management — making it an educational decision that should be decided by teachers.

Great technicians are enablers – reducing the friction of implementing new teaching ideas.  Alas, in some schools the technicians are the source of the friction.  Teachers (and principals) shouldn’t put up with that.