Confessions of a Technology Director

Perspective from someone who has known the trends up close in edtech.

GUEST COLUMN | by Nathan Mielke

In the relatively short time I’ve worked in schools, much has changed in educational technology.

In 2003, when I arrived fresh out of college, desktops existed in most classrooms.

There was a much fawned over computer lab that, in reality, only a few teachers use.

Roaming profiles made logins take 20 minutes.

Networking Macs with Active Directory was a tenuous task.

It was a primitive world

Comparatively speaking, it was a primitive world—but everyone was doing the best they could as the ground was starting to shift for K-12.

The technology mindset in the ‘00s was lock it down—in hopes that it would all keep running along.

To the best of my memory, the “lock it down” came not from the fear of North Korean hackers—but of kids meddling with the inner workings of the network.

As one former colleague who grew up in the same district he now works said, “I’ve had control over the network since my junior year of high school.”

In my mind, the “lock it down” mantra came from, what I remember, being a total lack of confidence that the network would just work.

Those first 5-7 years of my career, access to the internet, a functioning network was an on-again / off-again proposition.

None of this was for a lack of knowledge or skills on the part of staff; it was just technology that needed more attention.

And you can’t give it that attention when you’re constantly putting out fires and teaching staff how to use a mouse.

It was all about command and control in the best interest of keeping business operations up and running.

At that point in time, based on my career, networks were a mysterious thing to me.

Then the iPads came

Then the iPads came in 2010.

The game started changing. The pendulum began to swing toward openness and access to the network because teachers wanted wireless in their classroom now, not just one access point in the library.

About the same time, Google Docs showed up—and became the (at the time) killer app for collaboration.

Many technology coaches, like myself, moved into foolhardy rush to get these technologies into the hands of teachers and students.

This drum beat helped push the envelope to help swing the conversation in districts from “only wired connections,” to “how many Cisco APs can we afford?”

In this rush, I never asked why or what we wanted to do.

Can’t help falling in love

I saw the administrators I answered to fall in love with these shiny objects and they pushed to help make it happen.

But we barely stopped in our haste to ask, what problems we were trying to solve, what learning outcomes were we looking for, what did we want students to do with the technology to change what was happening in the classroom?

We all simply used innovation as the rallying cry.

And in this rush, I helped run right over the people whom I work with side by side in technology departments.

User agreements?

Our IDFs are still connected to the MDF using copper?

30 Mbps for a district with thousands of kids?

Whatever—this kid needs to create a Google Site!—get out of the way!

What’s the problem?

The rush lead to instabilities and incongruency.

Instability came in the networks that were built on a budget that weren’t ready to support 1-to-1. The worst thing you can do with an initiative is roll it out and not have everything ready to go.

This happened more than anyone is willing to admit in schools.

Devices for hundreds or thousands of kids are expensive.

Corners were cut on networks, and the warnings of those in tech departments weren’t heeded.

I personally walked into a situation where the building was going 1-to-1 that year, with a horrid infrastructure in place.

It was nuts.

There was a lot of work that needed to be done to right the ship.

At a time when I thought I’d be helping to lead the “Mooresville, NC of Wisconsin”, what I found out was that I had to get this all back to the basics of switching, routing and building up a network that could handle 1-to-1.

Alright, a quick recap

To recap:

We were locked down.

Then we were opened up wide.

Then back peddling to get an infrastructure in place.

And so

Where are we now?

Hopefully, moving toward sanity.

In our Fake News / Facebook testifying in front of Congress world, data privacy, user agreements, etc. are all front and center.

These are good things, driven by law and compliance—and for very good reason.

Innovation is important.

Change is necessary.

It all has to be done with clarity and standards.

We can’t just hand our stuff over to any old edtech startup who proselytizes their tool helps to personalize learning.

There are rules that protect our students, and for good reason.

There are people out there who would love to get their hands on our student’s data to sell it for Medicare fraud, or to try and sell the student (or their parents) something.

Trends come and go

I’m glad we’re in this place. I believe it’s the right place to be.

But we all know trends come and go.

And the pendulum swings back.

Nathan Mielke is an experienced edtech leader, cyber security speaker, and systems auditor. He was Director of Technology Services for Hartford (Wisc.) Union High School, was Data Coordinator and Instruction Technology Integrator in Germantown (Wisc.) School District, and has served as the Chair of the Cybersecurity Advisory Panel for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). Follow @ndmielke  and contact Nathan through LinkedIn.


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