Obligatory New-Year-Self-Help Article… For Tech Departments
Among a host of “new year, new you” articles circulating on the self-help blogs of the internet, consider this one K-12 Tech Pro’s stab at New Year’s resolutions and commiserations of the year in the rearview mirror.
Looking Back at 2022
As we look back at 2022, there are plenty of notable topics from the news, forums, and anecdotal evidence. We’ve done our best to curate a list of the major topics that have plagued technology departments over the past year. 2022 brought many challenges to K-12 tech but also illuminated some bright spots and challenged us to work differently than we had before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal Dollars Administration
Among the challenges were the constant need to spend federal dollars, including ESSR funds, and the opportunity to apply for and receive Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) dollars. While there were many days I hung my head in my hands wondering how I would possibly administer all the new devices and track everything necessary to fulfill federal requirements, here I sit in 2023 with a new fleet of devices and a slew of new opportunities opened up for the students in our district. Included in these opportunities for students in my district are mobile broadband paid for by the ECF for families who otherwise would lack adequate access to connectivity. The administration of mobile broadband in the past two years has added new layers of complexity to my department and K-12 tech departments around the country.
Over the past year there were plenty of opportunities for funding, but supply shortages stymied the delivery of devices from iPads and Chromebooks to access points and switches. What a headache the moving delivery dates were, often making it impossible to complete a project in the expected time frame. For many school districts, this meant delaying device deployments or even pushing infrastructure projects into the next school year. While it seems like many supply chain shortages are starting to ease, the long-term effects of COVID’s change to how companies hold inventory is yet to be seen.
Cybersecurity challenges continued to plague K-12 organizations throughout the United States over the last year. Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest in the country, experienced significant disruptions due to a ransomware attack; and the Albuquerque, New Mexico, school district experienced a two-day shutdown due to ransomware. Meanwhile, students around the country experienced the breach of their data through the Battelle for Kids breach. Notably, over 500,000 students in the Chicago district had their data disclosed as part of this. SeeSaw, a popular communication platform in schools, experienced the distribution of an obscene image to end users through credential stuffing attacks on individual user accounts within the system. There’s no doubt that the year ahead will hold more of these challenges.
Physical Security Challenges
In 2022 it became clear that technology systems were going to continue to play an even bigger role in securing schools. In the tragedy of the Uvalde shooting, fingers were pointed at poor wireless internet as a reason teachers did not receive emergency notifications. This tragedy also revived a focus on the importance of door access control systems that can detect unlocked or propped doors. There are myriad technology solutions available to schools to shore up physical security, and schools are turning more and more to their technology departments to innovate in the area of security. Visitor management systems, IP cameras, door access controls, and security alarms are all landing squarely in the supervision of our offices, and our responsibilities in those areas will only continue to grow.
As we’ve mentioned before, there’s no real authoritative source of news dedicated directly to K-12 school technology departments, so the information in this section is purely anecdotal. Many of the technology departments I have visited within the past year and talked to on forums have faced significant staffing challenges. From retirements to leaving the profession for jobs in the private sector, K-12 technology departments have felt the squeeze over the past year. Hiring top talent to fill cybersecurity, programming, and network administrator roles is becoming increasingly difficult. I know this will push all of us into different mindsets in the future, constantly weighing the options for contracting, remote work, and better pay and benefits for our staff.
While it has been a tenuous year, there have been plenty of lessons learned as an edtech community at large. I’ll attempt to summarize some of the lessons I have gathered from my colleagues both near and far:
- Cybersecurity: We can’t bury our heads in the sand about cybersecurity any longer. Cyber insurance premiums are skyrocketing, and insurers are finally dropping the hammer on required controls. This comes as a breath of fresh air for many K-12 technology departments that have been begging for these requirements to make their way down the pike and force the hand of K-12 institutions. Schools are going to continue to be targets of cyber attacks, as we are understaffed and underfunded while having access to critical records that are worth a pretty penny.
- Mobile Broadband: Providing internet to underserved communities is here to stay as a part of our daily activities. Many schools made the shift to online learning in response to COVID. This has fundamentally changed the way students access information and has necessitated the use of digital devices and a reliable internet connection at home and at school. Personally, I’ve learned and streamlined many of my approaches to how we administer internet services to ensure that students remain safe online and have reliable and adequate access.
- Creative Staffing: Staffing a department effectively has been one of my most valuable lessons over the past year. We’re being asked to do more with less, and finding the proper expertise to secure data and maintain integrity and availability has been a real challenge. A few solutions include contracting, remote work, and reassignment of duties. Whenever there’s a task that can’t be fulfilled in an adequate amount of time by full-time staff, I look for ways to use contractors. Device repair has been one of those things we’ve outsourced this year, and the time saved has been immense. This supports the idea that we have to focus on value rather than traditionally held ways of doing things. Apart from contracting, I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that we may need to seek remote work for roles such as security and network administration. Hiring abroad for these types of roles opens a whole new world of possibilities.
New Year, New Resolutions
This obligatory self-help article isn’t complete without a few New Year’s resolutions. I’ve surveyed a few of my colleagues around Missouri to see what they are working on over the next year. Hopefully our resolutions won’t go the way of the gym membership come February.
Top 10 (Common) Resolutions From K-12 Technology Directors:
- Be more in person and present to staff and students in buildings. Due to the pandemic, many of us have gotten into the habit of leaving the office only when we have to. This has reduced the visibility of our friendly faces in buildings. We all agreed that building relationships with teachers and students has aided us in carrying out successful programs.
- Become more involved in information security information sharing communities such as MS-ISAC by contributing to message boards and diligently following threat analysis.
- Sign up for free vulnerability scanning and other cyber hygiene services through CISA.
- Implement security controls, whether CIS controls, NIST, or simply controls recommended by your cyber insurance company.
- Implement print management (Papercut) — saving the Earth from the needless destruction of trees by Teachers Pay Teachers worksheets.
- Implement better physical security controls including burglar alarms, cameras, door access controls, and background checks as visitors enter.
- GET RID OF POTS LINES. For fax, fire alarms, etc., and implement new cellular modems and IP systems to take their place. Hopefully this will cut down on the overall cost of phone systems, and it will definitely be a project that takes some time and care.
- Upgrade networks. It’s time to move to 10Gb between switches and upgrade switching for many of us. Hey, and there’s still a little bit of time to apply for ERATE.
- Make sure all phone systems are compliant with Kari’s Law. This one is important, and you may not have checked it. Be sure to reference the article on K12techpro regarding this topic.
- And the top resolution: Clean out that IT closet! Throw away those VGA cables; we’re done with them. And those old monitors and CAT3 patch cables, throw them out while you’re at it. We’re on CAT6, 7, 8??? Now! Look through your board and school policies on equipment disposal and work to surplus anything you can.
- BONUS: Not in the top 10, but it should be! Read and participate in K12techpro and listen to K12 Tech Talk — and encourage your entire department to do it as well! We’re trying our best to build a community that serves you and helps you become better at your job.
Do our New Year’s resolutions line up with yours? How are you feeling about the year ahead? Drop us a line in the forum.
I’m definitely excited for the year ahead. I know there are still many challenges to overcome, but ultimately I feel like the past year has made me a better professional and the pressures from society at large have done great things to move the needle on projects I’ve wanted to complete for a long time. So here’s to a fruitful and productive 2023! Cheers🍻