What they want, what they need

The lone Education IT guy faces a daunting task. He (or she) must not only understand what his educators and administrators want, he needs to help them understand what they need. In many ways, he (or she) must be a jack of all trades.
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

Education IT has come a long way since the first personal computers appeared on the scene.  People forget that the IBM PC wasn't the first personal computer available to the general public -- not even close!  The Apple II pre-dated the IBM PC by four years and was just one of several available in 1977.  Arguably the Osborne I (1981) was the first personal productivity computer, and the first portable computer, but the name recognition and marketing prowess of IBM quickly put the IBM PC (also introduced in 1981) out in front of everyone. 

It's been nearly thirty years since the Apple II was introduced, and twenty-two since the Apple Macintosh was first introduced into the educational market, and yet so many of our educational institutions are still behind the curve in making use of information technology.  Funding is a big part of the reason -- and society's continued failure to address this remains a mystery to me.  That's another blog though ...

My colleague, Chris Dawson, recently wrote about the horrors of selecting an SIS system (see Student information systems, revisited) and I realized that his piece points to a much larger problem.  Helping our constituents (mostly faculty and administrators) understand how to leverage the technology to their advantage is an important part of our job yet, thanks to unfunded mandates and life-cycle funding which is all but non-existent, it is very difficult for Ed Tech personnel to put much of a priority into figuring out what technology is best suited to meet the needs of faculty, staff, and students. 

In many environments, the local Ed Tech guy spends all of his 'free time' (and then some) 'putting out fires' just to keep his antiquated computing environment up and running.  Even in district's that are relatively well-funded, Ed Tech often finds itself spending scarce dollars on gadgets their administrators saw somewhere and decided they had to have on their desk (or to put on their faculty desks) without regard as to how this technology can benefit their faculty or their students -- or even how those dollars could be better spent to the benefit their faculty and students.  To be fair, faculty unfamiliar with Information technology are also often mislead into accepting the latest hype about this product or that. 

So where does that leave our Education IT Specialist? 

To make a dent in the struggle between wants and needs, especially when funds are tight,  education technology budgets (such as they are) need to be broken down into discreet areas based upon needs and wants.  No matter how little money is available, budgets should be built with goals in mind.  Unfunded line items, placed strategically in an IT budget and prioritized based upon need may be critical to bringing to the attention of your district's administration the severity of the need for funding those projects. 

As we all know, any IT budget also needs to have discretionary funds available for unanticipated hardware failures and for new software initiatives but here is where discretion becomes the better part of valor.  Just because the funds are there doesn't mean that IT should have to make an unrealistic purchase to satisfy the whims of faculty or administrators.  Education IT must be prepared to defend its budget and to advocate for more suitable alternatives. 

Understanding your audience.  When requests come in to spend discretionary IT dollars, the Ed Tech professional needs to understand the requester's need and to be able to articulate how that need can be met effectively.  If the need can be met by the solution offered up by the requester (and the budget can absorb the expense), then fine.  If not, Ed Tech needs to be prepared to explore alternatives with the requester -- whether those alternatives reflect a different solution or a plan to introduce the request into a future budget is dependent upon many factors. 

In the end, Ed Tech needs to be viewed by administrators and faculty alike as a partner in the acquisition of IT services (whether hardware, software, or infrastructure.)  To be viewed in this light, Ed Tech must take a leadership role in the process.

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