Delivering the Digital Future
School and college tech workers reclaim the promise of education.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY (IT) has come a long way since the “blue screen of death” that could shut down a college or halt a school district’s payroll. School support staff who work in IT and remember those days were the ones responsible for building newer, more stable systems. And boy, did they ever. Today, these professionals are still sniffing out the newest and coolest tech tools for their students.
Few of us pause to consider how essential technology is to reclaiming the promise of public education. But let’s take a second to think about tech workers. They keep schools and colleges up and humming. Endlessly patient, quietly dedicated and highly skilled, these support staffers work behind the scenes to make sure students get the best education possible.
“IT people in the AFT—you never hear about us, but we’re there,” says Tom Connolly, a tech specialist and testing coordinator at Brashear High School in Pittsburgh and a member of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Besides computers and copying machines, he supports Smart Boards, tablets, applications, online grade books, curricula and the databases needed for testing.
“We keep the computers running, but we’re always in the background,” he says.
Such invisibility—the fact that when computers are running smoothly, no one notices—is the tie that binds AFT members who work in K-12 schools with those who provide tech support for college students or hold together entire college networks. In this article, we’ll look first at K-12 and then at higher education.
The olden days of floppy disks and hissing dial-up connections weren’t really so long ago, but in technology, they’re long gone. Tablets on wireless networks are now the computers of choice in many schools. “Technology is always growing and moving, and there’s more and more need in education,” says Jennifer Davis-Harrington, a tech coordinator at the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School on the South Side of Chicago. In part because of the activism of her union, the Chicago Teachers Union, this preK-8 school was one of only four taken off the 2013 school closing list that shuttered dozens of traditional public schools across the city.
Davis-Harrington loves working with younger children because they’re more open to influence than older kids. Her third- to fifth-graders are using a literacy program online that ties in with the curriculum. She says they’d rather read stories and answer questions online; if they don’t know a word, the definition will pop right up. “It keeps the pace of learning going,” she says.
Every class at the Mahalia Jackson school has a tech center and an iPad cart, with one tablet for each child. The tech coordinator’s tools extend to Smart Boards and laptops, but she and her students adore the iPads. The application Edmodo is popular with older kids, so they can upload their work and figure out ways of collaborating and getting it done.
Students love their math and literacy games so much that they want to play them during recess, but that’s a no-no. Children need exercise; they need to run around. True to form, Davis-Harrington has a technological solution for days when the weather gets nasty outside: a Wii station, so students can dance or play tennis or basketball. “They’re still most definitely exhausted” after playing with the Wii, she declares. “We’ll find a way to keep them active.”
The school’s tech resources are not limited to students, either. Since Mahalia Jackson is a community school, there’s a computer resource room where parents come in and work on their job searches. The tech coordinator keeps those machines going, too.
When you work in an at-risk neighborhood, Davis-Harrington says, it’s even more important than at better-funded schools to show families you’re there to support them. For her, that’s the best way for staff to reclaim the promise of public education. “If your kid doesn’t know how important education is, it’s pointless,” she says. “We strive to instill high expectations and teach children how valuable education is. My motto is: Teamwork makes the dream work. I remind my kids of that every day.”
Davis-Harrington’s official job as tech coordinator keeps her school wired. Her unofficial job—and every PSRP has one—is as a behavior specialist, a job she calls “positive behavior support coach.” Wearing that hat, she monitors the detention room (she keeps iPads there, too), does emergency planning, assists with medical compliance, takes students to get eyeglasses or haircuts, and brings in medical service providers for health fairs. As if all that isn’t enough, she coaches cheerleading. “That’s just the gist of everything I do,” she says.
Technology on campus
Technology is a little different, but not tremendously so, in higher education. There still are matters of hardware, software and computer security. You still have students and staff to support. And you still have a union job, if you’re lucky.
“I was lucky,” says Denise Brinkman, a network security administrator at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., and a member of the Lane Community College Employees Federation.
Largely self-taught in computing, and learning on the job as she went along, Brinkman has worked in both classroom computer labs and in server rooms, dealing with firewalls and the major tech infrastructure of the college. She remembers when people who knew DOS were considered geniuses. Two or three times, she was hired based on what she knew and hoped she could figure out the rest. As recently as 2010, when her college switched its operating system to Linux and she had no Linux knowledge, “it was trial by fire,” Brinkman says. “You absolutely have to believe in yourself, and you have to do the work.”
A lot of what Brinkman enjoys most in both her work and her union is solving problems. Not surprisingly, her favorite AFT initiative is Reconnecting McDowell, in which the AFT, the community and technology experts are coming together to connect students in impoverished McDowell County, W.Va., to the Internet and their digital futures.
How do they keep up?
It’s no secret that technology changes faster than anything else today. IT support staff are only human, and they can have difficulty keeping up, just like the rest of us.
“Nobody wants to hear about growing pains” when a new computer system is going to require months or years to evolve, Connolly says. “We’re in a society of now.”
“This is technology,” Brinkman adds. “You’re supposed to be able to learn it, and you are capable of adapting to change. That’s what drew me to IT in the first place. I love learning new things.”
Anne Engel, a senior tech support specialist at Long Beach City College in California, tries to stay ahead of the curve through online professional development that’s being offered campuswide. She also has attended formal training in fiber cabling, computer systems and Microsoft programs, and has learned on her own.
Part of the strategy Davis-Harrington uses to keep up with technology is to stay away from social media. Instead, she opts for webinars, blogging, conferences and using the tech resources her school district provides.
“I’m very attuned to international technology information,” she says. “As techies, we try to keep each other abreast. It all comes to my cell phone, so I can access it 24 hours a day.” Along those same lines, Davis-Harrington encourages everyone at her school to have their work email sent to their smartphones.
Davis-Harrington collaborates through technology. “I love Google,” she says. After the Chicago schools rolled out Google Docs in 2012, she immediately began noticing that staff missed out on training less often. Once, when she was able to jump into a professional development session at 3:30 p.m. and another school employee couldn’t join in until 4, he just picked up her Google notes and began adding his own. “No one misses a beat,” she says, adding that Google Docs comes in handy for special ed students whose individualized education programs are constantly modified.
“It is a stressful job, but the goal of technology is to make it less stressful,” Davis-Harrington says.
Tim Stoelb, a districtwide network technician for the public schools in Roseburg, Ore., keeps up with technology by doing lots of reading—which isn’t easy when you start work at 6:30 a.m. by checking servers at all your district’s schools, then look online for support requests and drive around fixing a bunch of different problems. His department employs four techs to support more than 2,500 computers across 13 locations.
“If funding allowed, I would purchase a new device and give it a test drive to figure it out,” says Stoelb, also president of the Oregon School Employees Association. “But our biggest challenge is lack of funding. Little, if any, training is available because of scant funding for professional development. It’s lack of training, lack of staff and bigger workloads for those of us fortunate enough to still have a job.”
Which leads us to why, exactly, AFT members feel such a strong need to reclaim the promise of public education.
Reclaiming the promise
Education IT professionals say there’s not enough funding for tech support in schools and colleges. For K-12 students in Pittsburgh, the “digital divide”—the gap in computing tools and skills between rich and poor kids—remains a big funding issue, Connolly notes. Children who live in poverty don’t have access to the latest computers—or any computers—at home, and they have to wait their turn at school.
“In this day and age,” he says, “you really need computers to get ahead. There ought to be computers for everybody, and I’d say a lot of students don’t have that opportunity at their disposal. Even when they have a computer, they don’t have the resources to take full advantage of it.”
One of the problems with being underfunded and short-handed, says Brinkman, the network security administrator in Oregon, is that the scope of your duties starts to cover way too many things.
“The disinvestment in higher education is very concerning,” she says. “We can maintain that structure as long as everything’s working well, but if you’re facing a big problem, everything else goes undone. It can be pretty dicey. Fortunately, it’s not like that all the time, but we’re undertrained, and we’re understaffed. You can’t ask us for the moon and only give us funding for a parking lot.”
Gary Potts, a computer technician at Pasadena City College in California and a member of the Pasadena Council of Classified Employees, takes that idea a little further. He asserts that computing is becoming almost as important a public resource as roads, and that like roads, computer networks get no attention until there’s a pothole. “Roads and infrastructure should be maintained so that we don’t have failures,” he says, “but we don’t do that. If it’s working, it’s ignored.”
The comparison between tech support and public service is apt, says Julio Huerta, who, like Potts, is a computer technician at Pasadena City College. He describes their jobs “clearing incidents” as not all that different from those of police officers walking a beat or firefighters responding to an alarm. Just as you’d find in a real neighborhood, the college community of about 30,000 students and 6,000 computers is tight-knit, says Huerta, who also is president of the Pasadena local. That’s why he is troubled by what he calls the “corporatization” of higher education: more interest in money and less interest in teaching and learning. “It seems like the college used to have more of a heart,” he says.
With that in mind, members of the Pasadena Council, formerly the Instructional Support Services Union, voted to affiliate with the California Federation of Teachers and the AFT about a year ago.
“We wanted a little more strength, a little more protection,” Huerta says.
Engel, the support specialist in nearby Long Beach, was attracted to technology in higher education after being laid off from a private firm when the tech bubble burst in 2001. “I was drawn to the aspect of a union job with stability and benefits,” she says, and she’s active in her union, the Long Beach Council of Classified Employees.
Yet, her college has imposed harmful layoffs, especially on adjunct faculty but also on classified workers, and has discontinued programs in the trades, which goes against the best interests of students. What’s more, the classified employees haven’t had a cost-of-living increase in years. Meanwhile, the ranks of managers and administrators seem to be growing and their pay seems to be increasing.
“It’s still hard times, in a way,” Engel says. “There’s a whole lot of classified workers who work two or three jobs, … and they keep cutting our hours and wages.”
In response, her union has joined the faculty in forming a coalition that has endorsed two candidates to run for the college’s board of trustees. The candidates understand workers’ issues: One is a police officer who has taught public safety, the other a medical technician who has taught imaging technology. Engel is counting on fellow union members to “take a stand and get a bigger voice.”
Saving the day
Even with all its trouble and troubleshooting, IT work in education is immensely rewarding to the staff who provide it.
Huerta has wanted a career in technology since he was in seventh grade. “I thought computers were the future, and I wasn’t wrong,” he says. “Honestly, I have one of the greatest jobs you could imagine, and I only see it getting stronger.”
Davis-Harrington’s favorite part is “seeing kids who are struggling, then watching that gratification when they achieve what seemed to them like an impossible goal.” For instance, she brought an iPad to a child with autism. “He took it and took over,” she says, avidly learning so he could amass points, meet goals and win awards. “This child was just so engaged and excited,” she says, “compared to a different setting in which he may not have received the lesson so well.”
Connolly says the pleasure of working with students and staff is what has kept him from seeking higher pay elsewhere. When he started out working for the Pittsburgh schools 15 years ago, and a lesson requiring PowerPoint would fail, “I was Johnny-on-the-spot, which was a comfort to teachers. The lesson wasn’t blown—they had backup.”
He notes that tech support workers are teachers, too. They help everyone learn. They also help school employees stay in the workforce even when technology outpaces them. He remembers a teacher telling him, “If it weren’t for you, Tom, I would have had to retire 10 years earlier.”
“You get to save the day a lot,” says Engel, describing the “trouble tickets” she handles at Long Beach City College when email stops working and hard drives run out of space. She gets to solve problems and be the hero.
“I like that,” she says. “I like helping the people who are stressed out. They are happy to see you come. They give you a chair and let you stay as long as you like.”