[Edu-sig] The perfect IT environment in a school

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Sat May 8 21:36:58 CEST 2010

On Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 12:19 AM, Jan Ulrich Hasecke
<juhasecke at googlemail.com> wrote:
> Hi,
> since three years I am guiding a Python voluntary workgroup in a school
> and we are suffering from a badly organized IT environment (a rigidly
> restricted Windows setting).
> Most of all we miss a decent VCS as Mercurial or Bazaar. In the official
> IT classes they never used a VCS so it was never installed.
> While thinking about this I discovered that some other things are
> missing. For eg. we cannot install a web framework due to the strange
> restrictions. They do not have Zotero installed. For students the
> FF-plugin Zotero would be a great tool to make bibliographies.
> Does anyone yet compiled a list of things which may not be missing in a
> perfect IT environment in a school? Perhaps I can lobby some teachers to
> improve their environment.
> juh

Some thoughts:

A perfectly designed IT environment for a school is not modeled
on the commercial private company with a closed shop IT
department responsive to users in the rest of the company.

Rather, given the school is supposed to be teaching IT skills,
the students and faculty together co-manage and plan the school's
IT functions.

There is no sense of us-and-them, although some students
and faculty choose to become more deeply involved than
others, given temperament and predilections.

Perhaps one gets assistance from consultants or district geeks,
volunteers in the private sector, but faculty and students are
still responsible for their own school's internal network at the
end of the day.

There is no separate IT department per se, only a set of positions
that people rotate through, sysop A for awhile, sysop B for another
spell, and so forth, with responsibilities partially overlapping.

Classroom content includes explaining and training for these jobs.

At the hardware level, a decision is whether to have standalone
workstations with local hard drives, perhaps sharing a server,
or dumb terminals, with servers doing a lot of the processing. **

At Free Geek, we would convert some of the former into the
latter species by removing hard drives and installing booting
ethernet cards that would take one directly to the LAN.
Everything was server-based.

In some ways, I think that's a better model for a school, as
local drives tend to over-specialize the workstation in
question.  Best if you get access to all your files and projects
no matter which terminal you choose, be that in your dorm
(presuming dorms) or the library (presuming libraries).

Of course it's not either/or.  Students and faculty may have
personal laptops or netbooks, with the school providing only
terminals, but with USB ports.  Laptops may have VPN
access to server-based personal accounts via wifi or

Letting faculty and students govern the shared infrastructure
does not mean falling away from best practices necessarily,
though the standards should be different where academia is
concerned, as here a premium is placed on openness in the
liberal arts tradition (presuming a school of that character,
not saying all of them are).

Students experience a lot of freedom to download and install,
to experiment with new material.  The shared operating
system needs to be tight enough to permit local
experimentation, without endangering or corrupting the
work in neighboring accounts.

That's what the great multi-user operating systems of this
world are designed to provide:  relatively well insulated
processes and channels, that allow individual users ways
to mount devices, manage a branching file system, with
user-controllable sharing with peers and limited powers
to wreak havoc.

The corporate IT curricula are training sysops to lock
everything down pretty tightly in hopes of frustrating any
cyber attacks.  A problem with this approach is one
starts to treat every employee as a potential threat and
IT becomes both adversarial and prosecutorial regarding
company infrastructure.

In an academic setting, this fortress mentality puts a
damper on scholarship more generally, resulting in a
dumbed down internal culture -- a vicious circle that
may lead to a school's suffering some loss of reputation.

The ideal liberal arts academy or think tank is transparent
enough to not care about proprietary scholarship leaking
out, as the whole point of research is to share it with the

Of course that's a completely idealized view, whereas
in truth many secrets are jealously protected within
academia, where people have the same human impulse
to sometimes keep stuff under wraps.

A 4-way collaboration between local faculty, students,
alumni, and a cloud computing platform, customized
specifically for a given school, is a likely long term
pattern.  Students don't necessarily want to drop
their accounts just because they graduate from the
school.  Alumni include faculty as well.

If the school provides public-facing web pages for
students, faculty and alums, then we're looking at
a pretty serious IT operation.  Finding ways to keep it
manageable would be a constant curriculum challenge.
One could argue that no school should grow beyond
it's ability to manage its own internal IT.  Simply
providing logos for alums to stick in their own Facebook
accounts might be the better way to go.  Why reinvent
the wheel?


** cached local memory on Flash drives might be a
part of this picture.

More information about the Edu-sig mailing list