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Multi-skilled.. Which hat to wear today?

28th September 2016 - Educational IT, a unique environment.
Multi-skilled.. Which hat to wear today?

With the world of IT changing at an ever increasing rate, more and more is being expected of an IT manager within education.  Gone are the days that you can simply limit yourself to sitting in an office, and working on improving your server configuration, or spend time monitoring the network to ensure best performance.  In the modern world of ever more connected devices you are expected to know everything about everything.  For some people this may be a struggle, or even a burden, for me it is a challenge that I look forward to and embrace as I find myself learning more and more about a wider range of devices and systems.

I will break this post down into the various points that I look after on a daily basis and consider to be a part of my working day.


serversServers

As we all know our physical on site servers are the controlling factor on any network, or at least they are at the time of writing this site.  There are many network managers who are obsessed with the specification of their hyper-v cluster, or the connecting fabric switch. They are less concerned about the impact of teaching and learning that they can have with the immense power of the server empire that they are building in the small, cold, humming server room.

In my view you should not implement or design any part of your network without considering the impact (positive or negative) that this could have on teaching and learning.

Some Examples of this can be seen in the following.

Password policies. How many of us have a password policy, of more than 7 characters, with at least one capital letter, and a number?  Whist this is a simple requirement for the majority of the tech savvy adults around, this can pose a real barrier to learning if you have students who struggle to spell their own name.  Whilst I am a firm believer that students should be fully prepared for the real world, and be able to function unaided within the world of work, sometimes just remembering a complex password can be a real barrier.

Disk Space Limits. Whilst in large organisations I fully understand the reason for disk space limits, we need to be flexible in our approach, and also build in enough redundancy and space to grow when a teacher suddenly springs a video editing project on you which is going to require the editing of a super large HD video.  Yes… that 250Mb disk quota for year 7 no longer looks sufficient..  You need to have sufficient space and room to grow with the changing requirements that the educational world places upon us.

Basically, the moral here is to be flexible, and keep a focus on educational material that is being posted online, in education magazines, and in the press, it might just give you a glimpse into the future, as to what your servers will be expected to do next.


lenovo-laptop-thinkpad-11e-front-3Computers, PC’s, Laptops

How many network managers, and technicians are obsessed with the specification of their latest IT suite?  Who isn’t thrilled by the thought of having a suite full of shiny new i7 systems with the fastest SSD’s?  My question is who needs that specification?  Maybe the technical team at the school, as they are often multitasking and have to keep multiple programs open at one time, but students editing a word document??

Unless your school runs a course where they are going to be pushing the specification of a more affordable system, why spend the dramatically increased prices for the latest generation processor?  There are some great deals to be had out there, where the specification uses the last generation processor, who can really tell the difference?

As modern processors are more than capable of running all of the modern applications, your pc’s and even some laptops can live a lot longer than the old lifeline of 5 years for a pc, & 3 for a laptop, simply by spending some time servicing the systems.  Perhaps a new hard drive, a quick clean of the CPU and re-compound the heat sync could get another few years out of it.  Especially as the processing power has not changed to the point where basic classroom modern applications such as Windows 10, and Office 2016 will no longer run.  Maybe something to think about the next time you are replacing your Core i5 desktops, with Core i5 desktops…


cameraimageCCTV

As systems become IP connected you will find that it suddenly becomes added to your remit. After all, you probably did start asking one too many questions when they started to talk about plugging things into your network…

Modern CCTV systems can be of such high quality that the impact upon network traffic should be a consideration when allowing people to simply plug in another camera…

Network Storage should be seriously considdered as a separate item that you add with your purchase of the IP system, do not simply add it to your current SAN setup as you may find that you are rapidly running out of space, and the added impact of the cctv system on data transfer requirements for the writing of all that data may be felt in larger environments that are already running near their limits.

Axis CCTV provide a good calculation for working out the required amount of storage which is shown below.

MPEG-4 calculation

Approx. bit rate / 8(bits in a byte) x 3600s = KB per hour / 1000 = MB per hour
MB per hour x hours of operation per day / 1000 = GB per day
GB per day x requested period of storage = Storage need
Note: The formula does not take into account the amount of motion, which is an important factor that can influence the size of storage required.

Motion JPEG calculation

Image size x frames per second x 3600s = Kilobyte (KB) per hour/1000 = Megabyte (MB) per hour
MB per hour x hours of operation per day / 1000 = Gigabyte (GB) per day
GB per day x requested period of storage = Storage need

CREDIT: ( http://www.axis.com/gb/en/learning/web-articles/technical-guide-to-network-video/bandwidth-considerations )


Door Access Control

Depending on the size and age of your establishment, you may find that the school has a access control system, there are two main players in this field, Paxton, and TDSi.  You may not directly have to manage these systems, but you will need to understand how they work, and the processes behind them.

Both systems can work on an IP setup, and a site with any more than 5 doors secured in this way will almost certainly be setup using a central server, and IP configuration on the controllers.

These systems can be fun to play with, but can also cause major headaches when they don’t work as expected.  If you are not familiar with these systems it can be a great exercise in process problem solving, but would recommend consulting a specialist within this field.  If you do not have confidence in the company that has been selected to manage the system, voice this concern early, as the headache will only grow if they keep fumbling in the dark for a solution.


Teaching.

Many network managers have a wealth of experience in their chosen career, and would make an excellent specialist teacher.  If there are topics that teachers are struggling with sometimes you may end up assisting writing a lesson plan, or simply explaining a subject to a teacher.  I have in the past tried to explain a new topic to a non-specialist teacher, when they did not get what I was trying to explain, I offered to teach the classes myself so that they could watch the lesson and take note from the method of delivery and the level of detail that was required for the age group.

Just make sure that when you offer to teach the subject that the teaching staff know that this is also a training session for them, and they will be expected to take this lesson in the future or you might just find yourself being a non-official teaching assistant…


Training

If you want your staff to stop asking “stupid questions” you need to educate them.  Now I know that you probably have not had any training since your last college, or university session, but remember you work in IT therefore “you know how it all works”

We are in the fortunate position in Education that we have the time to learn through self discovery, and therefore we also release products to the staff when we are ready to. This will often be when we have spent some time already learning the product and are comfortable with the way in which these systems work.

Just remember who your audience are, and why they are asking for help with.  The majority of the time, if you say to teachers that they need to learn something, they will respond with I don’t have time to learn this… So if you have to provide training for teachers, my advice…  Keep it short, keep it on point, and keep it relevant.  Try to group your teachers into subjects, this way you can demonstrate features that are useful to that particular subject.


Confidant

In my experience the IT office is seen as a place of sanctuary by some teachers, if you keep your approach with staff friendly, and always willing to assist where possible, they will return this kindness with biscuits..  No seriously, the majority of teaching staff will quite happily confide in the IT department when they are struggling, and if you are the one that they feel happy to have a chat with, listen, and try to help.  Quite often their frustrations are technology based, or could be solved with a little IT know how.


Friend

Whilst I have always tried to distance the world of work and my personal life, I have grown to learn that you can indeed have friends at work, and without them you can find the workplace to be a lonely place.  I personally do not tend to socialize too much with colleagues outside of the workplace as I find in my position within the school I may be called upon to investigate my colleagues for a number of reasons.  This would place me in a position that I would not want to find myself in, and therefore I find it helps to in deed have friends in the workplace, but do not let them blend with your social life.