For the past three years I’ve been running a small 40-station mac lab and the other morning I was met by a little error message that I’ve seen several times before but have previously ignored: “Your startup disk is almost full. You need to make more space available on your startup disk by deleting files.” with a giant red exclamation mark. In a normal “lab,” being the administrator, I’d log on to the computer and go through the users folders and do some housecleaning: deleting “strays,” duplicates and large hard disk hogs. But my district, in it’s infinite wisdom, has given me an administrator account that cannot see into any user folders (or install any applications), which makes the account largely useless and is also why I previously ignored the error message. Alas, as we head toward the end of the school year, my classes are working on large InDesign files and the error message is going to show up on more and more computers. I could ignore the message, but eventually, without some intervention, this situation is going to grind the whole lab to a screeching halt. So I sent a little message to the powers that be in the district office via the helpdesk help ticket form:
Brief Description ………… Admin access to user folders on computers
Detailed Description ……. Users are saving files locally instead of saving work on classroom server, so computers are running out of space. Every time a new user logs in a new collection of files is being created. Admin account does NOT allow access to these user folder. I need access in order to purge abandoned logins and folders where users are saving their work. I need access to all user folders of all computers.
Troubleshoot Steps ……. logged in to computers around the lab. cannot access user folders.
Then the firestorm began.
Of course I didn’t know I’d begun a firestorm until my department head, the other computer lab teacher, told me the next day that she’d gotten emails from district IT managers and was on the phone with them because they were thinking of changing out the admin account and wondered why I was wanting to access user folders. I guess either I wasn’t clear enough with my memo or they didn’t believe me. My department head convinced them not to change out the local admin account (which would have been the third time they change it in the last 12-months), but said that they were concerned that the district admin account was going to leak out. So rather than upgrade the privileges of my little pathetic local admin account, ’cause God knows I’m going to rape and pillage the network infrastructure, they decided that they would send out a technician to come out to my lab and manually do the hard drive pruning for me.
Okay. I’m sure that most of my fellow educators would welcome direct district intervention ’cause we already have a full-time job teaching, so their willingness to deal with the hardware would be generally thought of as a “Plus.” Yeah, that would again be in a normal world. But I live in a world where this district and school doesn’t have enough money to have very many electives beyond my own journalism/yearbook/computer basics courses (which will probably all “go away” when I move to Florida). I work in a district and school were one person in every core department is having to find a job at another school. I work in a district and school where there aren’t enough technicians to really support the aging technology that we are using (I mean, it took them four months to send someone out the last time I issued a trouble ticket). So the logic of sending someone out versus upgrading my anemic admin account escapes me.
See part of the reason I get fired up about things like this is because I’ve seen it before and it’s never good for the end users, in this case, our students, and is tremendously wasteful of the most important resource at the disposal of the district, the onsite technician, in this case moi. Twenty-nine-years ago, as a greenhorn in the switch-rooms of Pacific Bell I saw switchmen ignore alarms because the company was transitioning to a centralized management system where they were told what to work on by a remote management office. In hindsight, once the technology was much more mature and no constant human supervision was required, I guess the remote management system saved money. But at the time it was a perfect example of an facility management philosophy that failed to value one of the company’s best assets: the pride of the onsite technician to make sure that “his” equipment was always up and working. All of that was being thrown away because the business managers believed that the technology was going to get good enough to eliminate expensive human intervention. Sadly over time the managers were correct and the giant phone company buildings that used to be a buzz with armies of technicians managing the switches are either empty cavernous memorials or have been replaced with small unmanned one room buildings. Unfortunately (or fortunately) education is not like the phone company, thus the remote management model will never really work.
Technology companies like the phone company are by nature dependent on continually re-investing in their technology. It’s what they sell to their customers. Education, on the other hand, almost always under-invests or invests just enough to put the hardware in the classroom for the photo-op but never enough for ongoing maintenance or training. Remember, remote-management requires stable, mature technology operating in an a stable consistent environment. One of the things the phone company learned, which was very different from the old electro-magnetic physical switch days, was that things always worked better when you had as few as possible humans sticking their fingers in the mix. That is, the old switch required daily physical maintenance by that army of technicians I mentioned earlier. The newer electronic switches operated best as closed boxes that no one touched after installation. But technology in an educational environment, by definition, is going to be manhandled by armies of little and big humans every day and every hour that the school is operating. Therefore technology in education requires a greater onsite support system, and a more balanced investment between hardware/software, maintenance and training. The fact that technology continues to function in the classroom is largely due to teachers and volunteers working around the system, making personal investments in the classroom technology to make it work or tolerance for systems that don’t work to the point of really never using the technology (“because it’s always broken!” is the too frequent refrain).
So the district technician came out, spent a couple hours logging in to every computer and deleting any file not accessed since the beginning of April. The original “disk full” computer turned out to have other problems that is going to require that I issue another trouble-ticket so that the technician can come out and do a more thorough system re-image. He’s been out to my lab one other time fixing network login problems and a iMac with a dead CRT. I do appreciate the support, especially with the latter three problems that I didn’t want to have to troubleshoot. But at the same time the relationship needs to be more symbiotic where I can do the small, needs to get fixed now things like emptying unused user logins or reinstalling a broken application and they can come out and troubleshoot network bugs. But as long as they insist on locking me out, then I am more apt to let little bugs remain and wait until I run out of enough computers for students to use before I issue a ticket. Eventually the system will grind itself to a halt. The system is not working and in 22-days it is going to lose me as an unutilized assett. jbb