School IT Tendering

The recent court case in which a school management information system (MIS) vendor took a multi-academy trust (MAT) to court is of concern to schools.   It highlights the potential risk of vendors taking schools, colleges or multi-academy trusts to court where decisions don’t go their way.   In these cases, for me the educational institutional organisation will always suffer a loss, independent of any court decision as their plans have to be put on hold while any court proceedings are undertaken.

Now first, and to be very clear, I don’t have all of the details as to the court case in question so what follows are some general thoughts and my personal opinion on the information I have read in relation to this case, and also on the wider risks and implications.

Tendering processes have to be clear and fair

I think this is one of the key issues here, that any tendering process must be fair to the parties involved and that the methodology should be clear.   Time spent on ensuring this can hopefully prevent time lost in court cases.    It therefore is important to consider the factors that you will decide will influence your decision making.   Some of these are obvious, such as cost, service level agreements, the vendors reputation and size, while others are maybe less obvious.

Total cost of ownership

Examining the total cost of ownership is critical, as the cost of a solution, whether it is a software solution, hardware solution or mixture of the two, is more than just the upfront and annual costs.   There are the costs incurred through use of staff time during the setup phase and then the ongoing maintenance of the solution.   There is the cost of training staff to use the new solution, with this often being a largely hidden or at least difficult to predict cost.    These factors which relate to change management need to be carefully considered and weighed up.

Change management

This is where, in my personal opinion, the issues examined during the school management court case appear to have gone a little wrong.     In this case one of the vendors already had a separate contract for some of the schools within the MAT.   The tending process however did not include these schools so was clearly separate to this contract.   The courts assertion seems to be that the consideration of discounts in relation to this unfairly influenced the decision to go with this vendor, meaning the competing vendor was at a disadvantage from the outset.

A pragmatic view

As a Multi-Academy Trust you want consistency in your MIS due to economy of scale and ease of support when working on a single solution rather than differing solutions across schools.   This put one vendor at a disadvantage from the start, in tendering for a new contract limited to a subset of all schools.   I wonder if the school could have approached the existing vendor regarding exit from their contract and put out a tender for all the MATs schools?    I suspect the existing vendor may have been reluctant here however it seems, in hindsight, to have been one possible solution.

We also need to acknowledge the real-world disadvantage; As the MAT is already using one vendor they already have experience of that vendor, including trained and experienced staff in using it, experience migrating to it or setting it up, etc.   In any abstract examination of two equal solutions, where we have a positive experience of one of the solutions, plus have people already trained and skilled such that they could support others as a migration is undertaken, it seems clear to me that we would tend towards this solution, thereby disadvantaging the other.    It’s the availability bias, its confirmation bias, and its risk aversion and sticking with what we know versus what we don’t.    I note that if the current solution was poor and ill fitting in the schools currently using it, this would likely have disadvantaged them in any tendering process.   The fact it didn’t suggests to me that the solution in its practical, everyday use, rather than in a sales demo, has been viewed at least neutral if not positively.   I also note, assuming the two solutions did compare equally when disregarding the fact the MAT already had practical experience and skilled staff working with one of the solutions, would we then expect the MAT to simply flip a coin to pick a solution and in keeping the selection process fair?

Conclusion

For me this whole incident is of concern.  We are in a time of limited budgets plus time pressures yet this court case took up both and may signal similar cases occurring with other vendors and schools.   I note that the MAT is planning to appeal the decision so this may help in providing some clarity but only time will tell.   In the meantime, it highlights the need for care in tendering processes especially where they relate to bigger sums, such as where large MATs may be involved.    My learning experience from this incident seems to be that time spent in planning the process and ensuring transparency at the beginning may prevent time loss further down the line.    Sadly, it has taken this incident to make this more apparent.

The only final thought I have to share is that I hope it all gets resolved as soon as possible as until it does all the schools in the MAT, and all the many students they support are simply sat waiting to find out what will happen next.  This period of watching and waiting can’t be a good thing.

References:

United Learning loses High Court battle over £2m MIS deal (schoolsweek.co.uk)

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Its only Artificial Intelligence!

Meta released a chatbot for use in the US where its responses are based on internet based data.   It wasn’t long before the chatbot was being less than positive about Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.   Overall, a bit of a novelty but it might also give us a little bit of insight into the Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning algorithms which underpin an increasing number of the services we use online.

It is highly unlikely that Meta specifically programmed their chat bot to suggest that the CEO did “a terrible job in testifying before congress” however this is the feedback it provided upon being asked “what did you think of mark Zuckerberg”.    This response is likely the result of the chatbot analysing data sources on the internet and identifying this response as most likely to be true, or at least true in the perceptions of those sharing their thoughts online.   So here we see a couple of problems:

  1. As users and even developers, we will not necessarily be able to identify how the response was arrived at.   It’s a black box system;  We can see the inputs and the outputs but not the process.    Considering this should make us a little bit nervous as, especially for important decisions, it would be nice to understand how the answer an algorithm provides was arrived at.   Imagine an AI being used in assessing mortgage applications;  How would you feel if no-one can example why your application was refused?    From a user point of view, as a black box system, there is also the danger that the service provider does have control over the algorithm and therefore can directly influence and control feedback to suit their own needs.  In this case the black box system provides a smoke screen for potentially unethical practices.
  2. The chatbot repeats what it sees to be true or the commonly held belief, based on the data sources it accesses.  Bias could easily be introduced here through the internet sources which the chatbot is provided access to or through the queries it might use in identifying pertinent information.   We should be naturally questioning of a solution which may be inherently biased.   One example of this is the issues surrounding facial recognition where the AI was trained largely on white rather than coloured faces, due to the predominant skin colour among those developing the AI solution.  As such we ended up with AIs which did a poorer job of facial recognition when presented with faces with non-white skin colour.
  3. Again, relating to the repetition of commonly held belief, the chatbot may simply act as an echo chamber for commonly held beliefs, disregarding minority views.    And if a number of chatbots were to be used together they might be able to powerfully shape the truth on social media channels through repeatedly posting.

Some of the above is of concern but then I start to think about the alternative and a human rather than AI based system.    Humans are not transparent in their thinking processes although they might seek to explain how they arrived at a solution, we rely on sub-concious influences and decision making processes to which we have no access.    Humans equally like an AI based system may be biased or may seek to service their own needs or the needs of their employer.    And humans also tend towards the likeminded, which therefore creates the echo chambers mentioned above.    So maybe AI is no more problematic than a human based solution.   

Is the challenge therefore that AI is technology rather than a human being like us?   Is it maybe that this difference may influence our feeling of unease or unhappiness with the risks mentioned above, and that we simply accept similar issues in human based processed because, after all, we are “only human”?

IT Service: To help or to develop self-sufficient users?

One of the key roles of IT services or IT support teams is to resolve issues, to fix things.  But if this is the sum of expectations it represents a short-sighted view, as all you may get is repeated calls related to the same issue.   As such IT services teams also need to try and develop users such that they are more able to resolve their own issues, only needing to seek IT services help for specific technical issues.    So how do we navigate between these two options?

Statistics: Calls logged, resolved, time taken

We often need to identify methods by which we measure our efforts.   In schools, for our students, this is the exam system and terminal exams at the end of the year.   For IT teams one easy measure is to look at the number of issues reported, issues resolved and also the time elapsed.    These are easy pieces of information to gather using a help desk software solution.    The danger here is that what is easy to measure becomes what matters rather than us choosing to measure what matters.   As such the repeated call by the member of staff related to the same issue can be viewed positively as it will be simple to resolve and close the call quickly therefore reflecting positively on the statistics.   Is this use of IT staff time, repeatedly resolving the same issue for the same person, achieving value?

Learner Helplessness

Another issue with repeatedly and quickly fixing issues for staff is learned helplessness.    Although staff will be happy to quickly and easily have their issues resolved it equally doesn’t encourage them to be self-sufficient.   It in fact encourages them to call IT in future for all problems as this is likely to be easier and less effort than trying to find a solution for themselves.    When working with Primary School teachers, I remember some teachers approaching this issue with their students, by using “C3B4ME”.   What this basically means is that students shouldn’t approach the teacher for help unless they have tried 3 other sources such as books, their fellow students, the internet, relatives, etc first.    I have actually had this poster placed on our IT Services noticeboard at the entrance to our offices as I think it is as valid for staff and for senior school students as it is for primary school students.

Training

So, from the above it might seem clear that we need to seek to train staff to be self-sufficient.  If it was that simple we would all be doing it.   Sadly, the challenge here is often time and intrinsic motivation.   On the time front, staff in schools are already busy and there is a dearth of free time available to conduct training, therefore requiring something else to give, to free up time.  Also, where staff members approach IT teams with an issue they largely need this issue resolved immediately as it might be impacting the current class or a class due to be taken later in the day.   Linked to this, the motivation is about removing the issue to the teaching or admin task to be progressed;  There is little motivation at the point of contact with IT teams towards learning a bit more about IT or about developing additional technology skills. 

Maybe a future

I suspect part of the future may include the greater use of AI and chatbots.    More and more schools force staff to log their issues via an online reporting tool rather than supporting direct phone calls.  This makes sense due to the time taken for a phone call and the resultant resource usage where direct phone calls are supported.    Augmenting this with AI that can easily and directly inform users as to fixes for common issues or can direct them to user guides to assist, freeing up IT staff time to focus on those issues which aren’t as easy to fix.   This obviously relies on the accuracy of the AI to accurately interpret and categorise the user input.    A challenge that I believe will occur here is simply the lack of detail which sometimes is entered within support calls from users.   Am not sure we can do much about this, however a chat bot might simply deal with this by stating the need for further information.

Conclusion

If IT teams focus on fixing issues, staff skills will likely never improve and we will simply repeat the same guides and instructions as solutions to the same problems.  This doesn’t feel like a productive use of time.   Alternatively, we could try a focus fully on training with each call, however this is likely to result in user frustration and take too much time.    As with so many things, the issue likely lies between the two.  We should seek to fix issues as efficiently as possible while also seeking to inform and to educate.   We should also use the data we gather to identify the common issues and again seek ways to share and train users to resolve these issues for themselves.

I feel it is the role of IT Services teams both to help resolve issues but also to develop user self-sufficiency such that they can increasingly solve their own problems; a difficult balance to achieve.

The asymmetry of relations between schools and the providers of solutions they use.

During last year a third-party software solution vendor decided to change its pricing model, which in turn resulted in a significant cost increase to the school.   It is only now however that I have had time to write and share my thoughts on this.   Now, I can understand their reasoning for the increase, given their model made them significantly cheaper than the competition when we originally looked to source a solution, and therefore despite providing a similar service, they would have had lower income.   That said, it still felt unfair.

So, what are the factors here?

Communication

In this case the communication wasn’t great, as it wasn’t until our renewal that they communicated the cost increase with us, where clearly, they must have planned the change including modelling its impact on both the company and its users.    I would have hoped that they would have clearly communicated their plan for a price increase in advance, outlining to customers the reasoning for the change and how the new funds would be invested and used to the betterment of the product and therefore its loyal customers.   A little bit better communication, and more information may have made me at least a little more understanding as to the change.   Sadly, in this case all we got was a quote with a price significantly higher than the cost from the previous year.

Training and sunk costs

Following this unfair treatment, it might seem logical to simply change vendors, especially now where this vendor is now comparable in terms of price with other solutions.   The challenge here is that we can’t purely look at the bit of software and its cost, we need to consider the number of users, type of users, training and support, the complexity of the system, etc, if we are truly to identify its impact or the impact of trying to change systems.   This is where it gets difficult as it will always be easier to stay with the solution you have, than to change to a new solution, especially where the solution you have has been in use for several years.    You have already paid the cost of setting the solution up, adjusting processes and training users.   With any change in solution these costs will still need to be paid.   At this point you need a robust motivation to change, where in my case, the minor feeling of unfairness is unlikely to be enough.

So, what to do?

I decided that as the total cost of moving to a new solution was higher and represented more uncertainty, despite the feeling being unfairly treated, I decided to stay with the vendor in question.   I did however make sure our unhappiness as to this incident was made clear.   Maybe there will be some potential for negotiation on cost following this however at the time of writing this is unknown.   I know this decision seems imperfect, but we live in an imperfect world.

Wider implications

The above incident however highlights the wider implication where we invest in solutions for use in our schools whether they be learning platforms, productivity suites, management information systems or other solutions.   As we invest, and use and eventually embed each system, we need to consider what our exit strategy might be.    Although we hope each third party may have us, the customer, in mind it is likely their key focus is on their continued commercial operation and on growth where possible.   As such the customer isnt us as an individual school or MAT, but schools, the collective group of schools they currently or in future may wish to sell to.

We are investing in their platform to provide something to our schools which we can’t provide for ourselves.    They however are less invested in us as we are but one school in a sea of schools to which they sell their product.   The relationship is decidedly asymmetric.

Conclusion

I wish I had a solution for this issue but sadly I do not.   The relationship between a school and the third-party solutions it uses isnt balanced and as such even if the vendors direction is currently aligned with yours, it is unlikely to remain so.

The only recommendation I can therefore offer is to be aware of the asymmetry of the relationship and have an eye on possible alternatives should the push become significant enough to offset any training or other costs.    Also, where unhappy, be sure to make vendors aware as it is likely you won’t be the only person, and if a vendors collective user base all complain the vendor may be forced to reconsider any proposed changes.

The big vendors we are all using, such as Google and Microsoft, may represent the above issue taken to an even large scale.  If their solutions ceased to align with school needs, how easy would it be to move solution, where all your data, your training, etc is so heavily invested in these solutions continuing to remain in alignment with individual school needs.   This may be an even more significant risk, however hopefully one which we will never need to realise.   As such it may therefore be ok to have at least considered the risk.

Technology and efficiency

Technology can make things easier or more efficient however as with most things, there is usually an opposing drawback or disadvantage seeking to balance things out.    

Take for example the recent plans by some Scottish schools to introduce the use of biometrics, and in particular facial recognition, to try and speed up its lunch queues (You can read more about the plan here).   Using facial recognition means that the student can be recognised as they arrive at the till allowing lunch staff to quickly scan foods items and apply to their lunch account, where the lunch account is topped up with credit by parents via an online portal.   This will likely save a few seconds in lunch staff identifying the student on their system in order to apply the costs.   A few seconds doesn’t sound like much but if you consider 600 students going to lunch each day, even a single second grows to 10mins saved per lunch period or 50mins per week or even over 3hrs per month.   The potential benefit is pretty clear, but is this enough?

Cost

The first, and likely most obvious drawback in any technology implementation is cost.  The cost of hardware, the cost of software but also the cost of planning, implementation, training and support.   In almost every technology solution there will be an additional cost to be considered and it will be necessary to examine whether this cost is worth the proposed gain of the technology solution.    And we need to be careful to ensure we look beyond the initial financial costs and consider the more long-term support, maintenance and replacement cost, the total cost of ownership.   In the case of facial recognition in school canteens, it might be easy to compare this cost against the improvements in service or even a notional cost saving in terms of time saving.

Cyber Security

The other factor which is almost always guaranteed to act in balance is that of cyber security.    Adding addition systems or solutions will likely increase the schools cyber attack surface and risk, even where appropriate risk mitigation strategies have been put into place.   It will also add complexity which again increases risk.   As such, cyber security needs to be considered in establishing whether the proposed gains are sufficient to outweigh any risks or costs.

Data Protection

Data Protection, which is linked to cyber security, is yet another factor that needs to be considered.   It is likely more data or different types of data might be stored as the result of the proposed technology change.  We need to be sure that we have processes in place for managing this, and that we continue to comply with UK GDPR or other data protection legislation.   In the case of facial recognition this is particularly important and one of the stumbling blocks impacting on the Scottish schools proposal.    We need to ensure that data gathering is proportional and reasonable to the purpose for which it is being gathered.    In the case of gathering facial recognition data of children, below the age of 18, it is questionable whether this data gathering exercise, which means gathering sensitive biometric data, plus relates to children, is proportional when the aim is to reduce queuing and waiting times at lunch.    Simply put, technology can bring about the improvement in waiting times, however in the form of facial recognition technology, it is questionable as to whether it should.

Conclusion

I often bleat on about balance.   Seldom do we make gains through technology use without there being some sort of trade off, cost or other balancing factor.    Financial cost is the most obvious of the costs however we equally need to consider the longer-term costs of support and maintenance.   Additionally, the cyber security and data protection related risks also need to be considered in detail before proceeding.   Just because technology CAN be used isnt enough;  we also need to ask whether it is right to use it, and whether it SHOULD be used.

What is the role of the IT Network Lead to enhance Teaching and Learning?

The below post is based on my recent presentation at the EdTech Summit in Birmingham, my first face to face conference in over 1 ½ years where I was asked to present on my role, which is effectively leading IT Services and how it fits into supporting and encouraging the use of technology in teaching and learning.

I think it is important to tackle this question by breaking it down a little;   The first thing I believe that is worth looking at is who should lead on the use of tech in relation to teaching and learning.    For me the answer to this is simply that it is unlikely that any single person will possess all the relevant skills and experience in relation to school strategy, technology, pedagogy, curriculum content, classroom management and a variety of other factors.    Leading technology in a school requires a team of people working together with the network lead, director of IT or whatever title is in your school, being one of these people.    So that maybe answer the overall question, that the IT network leads role is to work in partnership and collaboration with other tech leaders in a school to support, empower and encourage others in the use of technology within teaching and learning.

And what does effective use of tech in teaching and learning look like?    This is a really important question.   It is sometimes easy to consider tech use to be high impact, flashy, high tech, etc, but the reality of it is that good tech use should largely be transparent to the teacher and learners, being simply the natural way they do things.   So, it is important to acknowledge this and therefore accept that good technology use may be subtle and nuanced much in the same way as good teaching is, rather than something obvious that jumps out and hits you in the face.

And then there is the word “enhance”.    So, technology can bring more to the teaching and learning experience, making it better?    Am not sure how comfortable I feel with this and the possible implication than teaching without tech might be a lesser experience;  I believe great teaching can occur even without the use of tech.   Tech is simply a tool but a tool which brings with it a variety of options and a flexibility which may not have been as possible or easy to achieve without tech.    Borrowing from the SAMR model, tech could augment, an alternative word to enhance, modify or even allow the redefinition of learning.   The potential is beyond simply enhancement.   It is also worth acknowledging that we increasingly live in a technology enabled world, and therefore technology is likely to be the norm in the world beyond schools our current students will eventually be faced with.

In terms of the wider IT teams and their involvement, here I have a worry that IT teams are often the staff behind the curtain, invisible in their day-to-day efforts, until things go wrong.  This isn’t right in my view as IT teams work hard day in day out to make things work, to set things up, to manage and administrate and to ensure that technology simple appears to work.  The reality is that lots of work goes in on a day-to-day basis, even when things are working well and the technology has become almost transparent in its use in the classroom.   There needs to be greater acknowledgement of this and of IT staff’s role as partners in teaching and learning.    And this from someone who has been a teacher, a teacher and IT admin and an IT Director.

Conclusion

IT Network Lead, IT Manager, IT Director, or whatever you want to call them should be actively part of discussions regarding technology strategy.  They should be seen as partners in the process of teaching and learning using technology;   They may not necessarily bring the pedagogical knowledge or curriculum content knowledge, but they bring the technology knowledge.   And above all leading tech in a school is a team effort!

Developing User Self Sufficiency

I have previously written in relation to the large number of support calls received by IT departments in schools especially towards the start of the new academic year.   A significant portion of these calls relate to users forgetting how to do something using technology, with a number of these relating to what I would consider simple issues.    Using Windows+P for example is a common solution to the common problem of computer displays not showing on classroom projectors, instead showing only on the desktop monitor.  But should IT teams still need to deal with such simplistic issues in a world where Google can quickly serve up the answers?

Self Sufficiency vs. ease

I suspect one of the challenges here is simply ease.   With a good IT support team, a simple issue can be quickly solved with an email or a phone call, with little effort on the part of the user.   This ease of solutions, with every occurrence, reinforces that this approach is the easiest, most convenient and therefore the correct and preferable approach (for the user at least!).

A preferable solution viewed either from the long-term point of view or from that of busy IT support teams, is that users be able to fend for themselves, that they are willing and able to make use of Google to find solutions to their own problems.   Again, if this was to become the common approach, it would eventually reinforce itself as the best approach.   In doing so users would become more self-sufficient and resilient to issues, while IT support teams would be freed up to deal with the issues which are more technical in nature or cannot be solved through a simple Google search.   This always reminds me of the teaching approach used in primary schools of “C3B4ME” or see 3 before me, which encourages students to ask friends, search the internet, read books, and generally consult 3 sources before approaching the teacher in relation to a problem or challenge.

Part of the challenge in the above may relate to the cognitively demanding nature of teaching.   A teacher is considering content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, the individual traits, and behaviours of each of their students, assessment (formative and summative), timekeeping and many more things in a lesson, so if the cognitive load can be reduced a little by fielding IT issues to IT support, I can see why this may occur.

Usability

I also think it’s important to acknowledge how system and app usability has changed over the years.   When I first started using IT most products, including productivity software and even games, came with detailed instruction manuals.   Now I will admit to not reading these and instead jumping straight it, which is how I suspect most people would have operated, but when you hit issues you had something to refer to as this was therefore you first port of call.    These days more consideration has been given to usability making the learning curve for many apps shallower than it may have been in the past.  Detailed instruction manuals are no longer provided as solutions are more “usable”.  This seems like a good thing, so why do IT support teams still get so many calls?

The general perception of usability is correct in general terms, but when looking at specific solutions in schools it may not hold.   So, a user might have been able to work out TikTok and Facebook on their own with no help but when they hit the schools management information systems (MIS) they struggle.   The MIS is then saw as highly specialised, which to an extent it is, so this merits a call to IT support rather than a look at the help tools or a Google search.

What are IT Services for?

The other question I have in relation to this issue is, if users do become more self sufficient and solve more of their own problems, what does this mean IT Services teams will be doing?   As I mentioned earlier, I believe they would simply be freed up to focus on more technical issues which can’t be easily solved through the support of Google.   I also think the extra time available would also allow them to spend more time looking at how to better use technology, rather than simply repeating the same solutions to repeatedly occurring simple issues.

Conclusion

The challenge for IT teams of encouraging user self sufficiency while still being helpful and user focussed is an ongoing and long-term challenge.   Human habit, ease and user confidence are all wrapped up in this, making the challenge very much a human rather than technological challenge.   This is an important consideration and to me highlights the need to focus on a longer-term plan and the little day to day actions, including the potential to “nudge” behaviours towards the intended outcome of improving users technological self-sufficiency.  

Ultimately IT teams in schools want to see technology used to maximum impact.   I think developing user self-sufficiency in relation to technology, and likely user confidence as associated with self-sufficiency, will help us better achieve this.

There is no tail

I have previously written about how technology is sometimes seen as the solution to all problems, even where sometimes the problem relates to process or people, and therefore is unlikely to be significantly addressed by technology.   A related issue is where technology is seen as the silver bullet but able to act on processes without the engagement of the process owners and those the understand the process. Basically where IT teams are asked to solve a problem using technology without the support of process owners.

This issue often raises memories of concerns being raised as to the tail wagging the dog, in relation to technology, or concerns that what should be happening in relation to an organisational unit or process is controlled and directed by the technology.    I have always understood this view as a teacher.  The process, learning, shouldn’t be directed by the technology, it is the students and the learning which should direct things.    The issue though is that this is overly simplistic.   There are limits of technology, there are risks related to technology use, there are drawbacks or disadvantages as well as advantages to using technology.    As such the technology available, risks, etc need to be taken into consideration and as a result may influence and direct how technology is used in learning, and therefore the learning itself.   It’s a two-way street, although on a continuum I will always come down more on the learning or process side of things rather than the technology side.   Technology should be an enabler.

My concern here is where the IT or technology staff are asked to come up with a solution to fulfil a certain need, IT is the silver bullet, but the task is almost handed off to IT staff rather than engaging IT and technology staff in a partnership with the owners of the process or issue concerned.    The IT staff are unlikely to understand the process in question so how are they to develop or identify a solution which would meet the requirements?  Even if they identify a solution which meet the end requirements, there is the potential that the process involved will not meet the needs or requirements of the process owners.    In order to be successful this challenge needs to involve both the IT staff, bring technology and IT understanding, and the process owners and operators who understand the specific needs and requirements around the process being looked at.     The two groups of staff need to work in partnership each bringing their own expertise, knowledge and experience.

Conclusion

IT projects have a horrid habit of going both over budget and over time.  This tendency occurs across different industries and also within education.    IT staff might not fully understand the problem, the process owners might not clearly communicate the problem, IT staff may try to apply the problem to the solution rather than finding a solution for the problem, there might be scope creep over time, and that’s just a handful of things which can make an IT project more complex than is ideal.   For me the key is partnership and each group of people bringing different things to the table.   What if there is no dog and there is no tail?

The Wi-fi’s not working? Or is it Facebook?

The other days outage of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram highlighted to me the complexity of internet services, and how they rely on various technologies, hardware, software, and companies to make things work.  This is the reality, yet the perception is that it is simply “Facebook” or “WhatsApp” a single simple service.

The same is true in schools in particular in relation to Wi-Fi.   How many times have I heard about issues with Wi-Fi?    I would suggest, too many, yet “the Wi-Fi isnt working” implies simplicity where it doesn’t exist.  The need to “fix” the Wi-Fi suggests a single point of failure, a single issue or technology to look at, where in reality the service relies on a number of different technologies and different companies to make work.

Some possible issues

Starting with the user device might be a useful place to start.   This can impact on Wi-Fi.   Recently my team came across a device where the DNS (Domain Name System) server was set to that of Google on the device rather than getting the DNS from the schools’ network.  For safeguarding reasons, we want to see the DNS requests so prevent the use of DNS servers other than our own so this student instantly had issues accessing internet services due to this.  I suspect they may have changed the DNS server for the purposes of bypassing home filtering such as that provided by the likes of Sky broadband.    Next there are students who may be using VPNs to bypass filtering.   Again, depending on the VPN used, this might impact their internet connection or the speed of their internet connection.    Updates which havent been installed on devices may also have an impact or possibly updates to the apps on device rather than the device itself.        

Moving beyond the device, the Wireless Access points may cause issues in terms of signal strength or in terms of their capacity to handle requests for different connected devices at the same time.   I will admit they also may occasionally fall over of their own accord.   It may also be that a “noisy” device is saturating the APs with requests leading to an impact on the service.   Or the issue could be to do with network switching or even the internet bandwidth available to serve all users.    Again a noisy device on the network could be impacting overall network performance.   Your DNS servers or DHCP servers, which provide devices the IP address they require, could also be at fault if they are not operating as they should.   And this is just scratching the surface of the potential causal or contributory factors.

And it doesn’t stop there; The issue might not even be within the school and could relate to issues with the service or site the students are trying to access.   It may be a reputable service which is simply having issues at a given moment in time, a bit like the recent Facebook issue, or it could be a less reputable site which simply isn’t trustworthy or reliable.  It could be that the site uses authentication from a third party, such as Facebook, and this is what is causing the issue, or that the site uses an Infrastructure as a Service (IAAS) vendor and it is they who are having problems.    It could even be a largescale internet routing issue.

Conclusion

This all makes me thing of the Arthur C. Clarke quote regarding advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.   The challenge is Facebook and internet services in general appear to be simple, in we can all easily use them.   There is no magic there, and as such there can be no magic in their inner workings.    Or at least that is the user perception.  This however is untrue.    There is magic.    There is the magic of so many different technologies, hardware, software and companies working together in unison to deliver the services we come to expect, or at least doing so most of the time.    That is until something goes wrong somewhere in the chain leading to that familiar cry:   “The Wi-fis not working!”

Technology can solve all?

Sometimes there is a belief that technology can make all processes more streamlined and efficient.   I will admit that technology does have the potential to make some or maybe even most processes a bit more efficient through automation, validation of data, etc.   It can also allow us to reimage workflows and processes, however there are times when this isnt the case.

The issue I am getting at here is trying to use technology to solve a problem where the problem itself doesn’t exist in the technology domain.   This might be using technology to solve a human problem or using technology to solve a problem with a given process.

Consider a complex process involving lots of different people who provide approvals at different stages of the process.    This might be seen as a poor process as it may result in action not being taken due to a small number of people not responding or providing their approval.  If this is a manual email-based process it seems logical to use technology to make the process more automated and remove some of the manual processing from the equation.    We might be able to setup reminders, etc to stop people failing to respond.   The issue for me is that the problem may be the complexity of the process.   Does it need to be done this way?   Why do we do it this way?    Is it simply because we have always done it this way?   Does it need all of these approvals?    Could the process be simplified?  

For me, before we look at using technology, I think we need to examine the underlying processes, people, etc first with a critical eye.   We need to avoid trying to use technology as a blunt solution to solve process or people related problems, instead dealing with these problems first before then looking to technology.

This isnt necessarily easy.  In the past I have spent time with departments looking at and mapping their processes and then querying why each part of the process exists.   In some cases there has been a reluctance to accept any changes (“We’ve always done it this way”) therefore either necessitating a bespoke solution or a highly complex off the shelf setup.  Neither of these options work due to potential costs, both financial or resource, and dangers of fragility associated with complexity.  In these cases, I have had to walk away and indicate there may be dissatisfaction with current processes, but there is also a lack of willingness to make concessions and accept change as required of any new solution.   It’s a no deal situation.

I continue to want to support the greater use of technology generally, but I am equally concious that we need to use technology where it matters and where it has impact.    Sometimes technology might only present a marginally gain but at high cost.    We cannot simply look at an issue and expect technology to solve it.    It’s that old, famous phrase: “crap in, [technology enabled] crap out”.  

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