Cultivating Self-Sufficiency

It is difficult to maintain a healthy balance between providing service and encouraging self-sufficiency in independent schools. Well-endowed, such schools often find it easier to buy more staff or products to meet an expressed or implied service need. We find ourselves now wanting to hold tuition increases in check as the country’s economic downturn exerts pressure on our tuition-paying families. This forces us to consider other options to keep technology costs increasing at a reasonable rate while, at the same time, our clients want to take advantage of new, exciting technologies that no doubt would help support teaching and learning at school and home.

A key example is our annual laptop preparation work. This year, it took nine people all week, working day and night, to complete a checklist of 15 or so items for 270 student computers and approximately 100 employee laptops. This simply isn’t sustainable any longer. How could we encourage students and employees to perform more annual maintenance tasks for their computers? At least two components exist to this question: knowledge and motivation. The knowledge part is relatively easy. Experienced both at providing documentation and teaching others, we should be able to equip our users with the necessary knowledge and skills to complete most of the maintenance tasks themselves: software updates, application installations, control panel configurations, drive mappings, and so on. Motivation is a trickier question. What if we provided a list for students and employees to complete, and then most didn’t complete it? What motivation could persuade individuals to complete the items in list?

One idea is to offer a refund on our annual laptop fee. That would motivate the parents. However, it’s a bit of a misplaced motivation, since the laptop fee doesn’t pay for the maintenance work, it pays for the students’ share of licensed security software. What if we got the computers back to these individuals the most quickly? In fact, if a student or employee successfully completed all of the items in the list, he/she could get their machine back right away. Given the attachment that users have to their computers, this could be powerful motivation, indeed. But would it be enough? What about an iPod raffle? That might get their attention!

A long-term strategy should be more subtle. In order to slowly change a strongly-held cultural norm in the school, we will need to gradually provide training, instructions, and a subtle push so that users gradually take more ownership over the routine maintenance of their computers over time. Strengthening the shared vision within the tech team, consistently communicating our expectations of users during daily interactions, providing high-quality training materials and support, tapping into a schoolwide effort to contain program costs, we should be able to increase user self-sufficiency over time.

Tech staff from resource-poor schools may laugh reading this post. Certainly, we are very fortunate to experience a problem caused by having enough resources to provide enterprise-level services to this school. I know, having been there in the past in two former institutions. Teachers and students working in schools with 0-1 tech staff and a $17,000 annual operating budget build self-sufficiency out of necessity. The occasional grant can provide room for enhancement and growth, yet systems are perhaps more likely to fall into disrepair and disuse. The creative application of open-source technologies, free, hosted services, and E-Rate funding can help, and we may read of success stories at institutions that have managed to keep their tech operations afloat. Nevertheless, this is a challenge that we face at our institution — valid and authentic in its own context.

Your thoughts are welcome here …

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