CAB (computer assisted bureaucracy) in schools.

Having just heard Micheal Gove (Education Secretary of State) announce his intention to free up schools from the tyranny of safety restrictions (I think he said a ‘Dangerous Book for Boys approach) my last post about safe-enough Internet...

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Having just heard Micheal Gove (Education Secretary of State) announce his intention to free up schools from the tyranny of safety restrictions (I think he said a ‘Dangerous Book for Boys approach) my last post about safe-enough Internet safety seems apposite.

This follow up post then comes straight out of Mick’s Dangerous Book and involves breaking out of the Windows Domain (now that is scary..edugeeks are trembling now) into the sunny uplands of freedom.

Background

Watching a teacher use school ICT resources for his or her daily work is a salutary experience. Many are ironically proud of the skills used to carry out their daily tasks.

These tasks include:

  • -checking the 30 or so e-mails in their MS Outlook inbox, replying to some (reply-all naturally) and sending out a few of their own.
  • -filling out MS Excel sheets with students’ test results (saved on teaching-staff shared P: drive or sometimes T: drive.
  • -filling out report forms and grade sheets on a MIS database system (usually SIMs on MS SQL)).
  • -completing ALIS, MidYIS, Yellis and GCE grade predictions for CEM the exam boards and SMT (senior management team)*.
  • -updating departmental hand book (on P: drive) and schemes of work using MS Word.
  • -saving worksheets downloaded from Internet on students’ shared drive (S: ?).
  • -creating work sheets with graphics and all sorts using MS Word.
  • -preparing ‘death by MS Powerpoint’ lessons for students.
  • -creating risk assessment pro-forma for school trips.
  • -accessing SIMs database for info on students’ needs for above trip and addresses of parents.
  • -booking rooms and minibuses using school Intranet.
  • -using a MIS to find out where Jones Minor is Period 3 so that he can be given a note to take home.
  • -submitting news-updates on the charity walk for school-wide information boards on Intranet.
  • doing all of the above from home on ancient laptop via a slow VPN.

Note, after all of the above is done, actual teaching will occur and (by the way) the computer kit used to do all above (with its oh so sensitive info and legal stuff) is also to be used to teach students!

Reminder

The work of a school is to ‘learn’ their pupils, the ‘work’ described above, even if I were in a charitable mood, only makes it to meta-work status. But meta-work now consumes a disproportionate amount of teacher-effort-time. But worse than this is that the computer facilities required to deliver the above waste of space also means that the computer facilities must be ‘bolted-down’ really hard so that:

  • the rubbish meta-work can carry on reliably and
  • the students can not mess it up.

Make no mistake the list above is no exaggeration, it will be recognised by any ‘teacher’ caught up in the surreal world of CAB (computer assisted bureaucracy) which has had a staggeringly negative affect on the profession of teaching and has created an entire parasitical class (often called management) which feeds off its activity.

Result?

School computer facilities are now for grown-ups with office tasks to carry out..not for children and learning.

Ok lets get real, nothing will ever change the march of bureaucracy (and I really do believe this), some kind of low-IQ ratchet system seems to operate to increase bureaucracy indefinitely until systems collapse...but if we cannot change the poor teacher’s miserable burden we can at least liberate the IT facilities to make it possible to teach students (time allowing).

Last week I looked at the Internet this week it is the PC-network

Virtualisation, Live CDs, thin clients and all that..

Those lumps of metal and plastic dotted around the school that we call computers are a quite the chameleons. They are not as one may assume MS Windows XP computers or Apple Macs or even Linux computers they are compilations of standard hardware components given marketing identity by virtue of the software that makes them do stuff.

The answer to liberating this hardware for the purposes of teaching and learning involves changing their identity temporally for the purpose of the class.

(We have agreed that the bureau-network is untouchable ergo it must not be touched so let’s just ignore it).

1) Thin Clients

One way of metamorphosing the computers on a Windows Domain network was to boot into an alternative network provided by a thin-client server lurking on one of the switches. Linux LTSP was a great contender for this honour for after-hours clubs (the LTSP server is a DHCP server so does not much like rivals on-net) and still has a following in LUG groups using communal facilities.

The LTSP server is bundled with Ubuntu nowadays but the steam has gone out of the project, or rather the enthusiasm for this very useful technology has died with the advent of data processor intensive video applications... so let’s move on.

2) Virtualisation

Oracle’s Virtualbox is not only a free and open source product (don’t you just love these philanthropic mega-comapanies?) but indeed an excellent and flexible product. Modern PCs in schools are more than capable of running virtual OS’s along side their original, so pick one of your choice that you can install what you will on it without messing with the admin network.

VM Ware’s Workstation is an equally good product that allows you to do the same. Create a virtual parallel universe on your Windows network and do interesting stuff.

If you stick to free, open source software there are added advantages. Not only is it free but you can give the same software to students to use at home.

Live CDs

In the Linux world most of us are already well used to booting operating systems from CDs to see how they suit us before installing them on the hard. This approach works very well in schools with older equipment. Just try booting Puppy Linux from a CD or USB stick, it will blaze along on any old equipment.

Summary

Modern software allows us to ‘have our cake and eat it’. That network used currently for mostly office-centric tasks can morph into new identities dedicated to the purposes of teaching and learning and filled to busting with free software.

Our web centric approach defined in the last blog means that there are no problems about where to save students' work, how to share files or how to communicate once you have dropped out of the comfy embrace of the Domain.

The shared drive (P: or T: or any other letter that betrays a 1990s Windows network) is best served on-line as indeed is any e-mail facility (which by the way ought to be private not part of a school-wide system which allows any child to e-mail any other unsolicited)**

Conclusion

At the end of this the second post on liberating school ICT we have a situation where students have safe-enough Internet access and computers that can be used to do new and interesting things without messing with the network that houses all that data-protection, child protection sensitivities.

The next step is what to do with our new found freedoms? What shall be taught and who will teach it will form part of the next post.

* what? You don’t know about these acronyms?

CEM is Durham Universiy’s Centre for Examination Monitorng; ALIS is advance level information system; MidYIS is the middle years information system and Yellis is the baseline testing system. Yes folks, a whole industry exists to monitor just how effective our discredited exam system is in over-testing children and rendering teachers ineffective.


** School e-mail is a nightmare. They usually have the form [email protected]
Unsurprisingly kids use this facility to write to each other or whole class groups. This makes privacy impossible and is the best possible vector for peer-group pressure, bullying and all the rest. The school's respond by installing e-mail parsing software to scan mails for bad phrases..typical ad hoc fix loved by the terminally dumb....e-mail should a private address like phone numbers.