It began in the 90’s; schools and libraries getting grants to install computers to use in various ways. Administrators happily purchased and installed computers. There were a number of different levels of use in the beginning; some schools thought themselves lucky to have a computer at the back of the room; some had well-developed local area networks or even wide area networks if the system was large enough.
Some schools were fortunate enough to have well-trained, talented staff who managed and maintained the computers and supporting infrastructure. Others struggled to find staff with sufficient knowledge of computers and technology in general.
In the spring of 2000, I applied for and was accepted to a position as school librarian. Attached to this position was a little side-note called “technology coordinator”. I needed a job; I needed a change. “How hard could this be?” I thought. I wasn’t extremely skilled with a computer, but I knew enough to be able to plug one in and do some basic trouble shooting.
Little did I realize what I was letting myself in for! The school had some decent computers–a little old, and in need of basic maintenance. The central server was a Linux box, and internet service was provided by Morenet (as is most internet for schools in Missouri). I quickly learned that having niddled around a tiny bit with Basic on an old Commodore was an inadequate introduction to interpreting the arcane language known as Linux. I bought manuals, I read, I tried to understand what I was seeing, but I didn’t dare tinker with the server unit very much. It ran the whole WAN for the district, and if I made a mistake in how I was using it I could cause a real disaster!
Fortunately, the first year went by without any problems beyond an occasional hiccup from the server–nothing that couldn’t be cured by turning it off and rebooting. I was very busy that year because I had also begun graduate school, in the hope of obtaining my MA in Library Science. I learned very quickly that while the Information Science course of study provided many useful skills that I could immediately bring back to my school, it did not cover computer maintenance or very much in the way of computer skills at all; even though “technology coordinator” was frequently attached to “librarian”.
In the spring of 2002, disaster struck. The school computers contracted a virus that started munching on the Linux server. Usually viruses were geared toward the windows computers, rather than the Linux server. Linux was considered to be more secure than most Microsoft products; maybe because the learning curve was a little steeper on learning to use it. We had by this time hired a local technician who was fairly good with Microsoft Windows computers, but who knew absolutely nothing about Linux, and let it be known he wasn’t planning to learn!
I finally found a young man who was a member of a Linux club, and who was recommended by a mutual friend. The young fellow was between jobs, so was willing to spend Thanksgiving weekend resusitating the ailing Linux box. I made arrangements with the school to ensure that he would be paid, and made arrangements for sleeping accommodations. When he arrived, it turned out that he was a vegetarian, so I also had the challenge of feeding him adequately from a small-town supermarket that had never heard of “humous”.
It was, in many ways, a terrifying weekend. The virus had made severe inroads into the Linux programming, and he had to work fast to preserve the data before it could all be corrupted. Then there came the matter of rebuilding the machine, and getting the WAN up and running again. Late Sunday evening, the machine was up and running.
On Monday, the teachers returned. Of course, even though we had made every effort to preserve the integrity of the program and data, some things had been lost. After a Thanksgiving weekend spent cooking meals using the microwave in the teacher’s lounge, scrounging through spare computers to find parts to salvage the server, and having maintained polite interest through muttered comments like, “Why did he set that up like that?” or “What was that supposed to do?” while others visited with family and enjoyed turkey dinners, I was not hailed as a hero; rather, I was reviled for having lost key bits of data or pet functions.
At my next school, I was relieved to find that there was a very capable technician who came in at night to repair the machines and maintain the infrastructure.
The lesson I learned from this experience was that it is not possible to become a computer technician by taking a series of short workshops or reading a book. It is necessary to have a little native apptitude, good math abilities and alot of patience and time and opportunity for practice, and participate in an appropriate training program. Schools that attempt to side-step having a well-trained technology person on staff by designating someone who is marginally “good with computers”, in the long run short-change themselves and develop a disgruntled and frustrated employ. They also run the risk of being unable to maintain the technology that is rapidly becoming an integral part of the educational system.