Throughout my career, I’ve been told that technology needs to be “controlled”.

It should be locked down so tight that it is virtually impossible to break or manipulate. The technology is there to “serve a specific purpose” and should not be tampered with.

This is great for IT Managers and their support staff. If you can’t change it, you can’t break it. Give them a device with a web browser and word processor, lock it down and ship it out. If it breaks, wipe and start again. The whole IT team is back playing World or Warcraft in no time.

IT Manager is happy. Figures look good, downtime is minimal and the machine just keeps turning.

The risk is minimal.

This is great for corporate workhouse where people are charged with performing the same task over and over again, and aren’t required to think. Hey, it even worked when I was at school. Unfortunately, that was back in the 90s and word processing was the height of technology at the time.

Fast forward to the current day and technology is entrenched in everything we do. We are ultra-connected. We simultaneously create and consume information at a staggering rate. The struggle is over. If we want to know something, we just “look it up”.

We share and collaborate without thinking. We create for, and consume from, people that we’ve never met. The instant availability of resources is astounding, and it’s evolving, literally by the second. Our staff, the educators, the people who are responsible for preparing our children for their most important journey, have the collective knowledge of the world at their fingertips!

Yet, we give them a device with a web browser, some word processing software and absolutely no ability to do anything different.

Why do we do this?

Simple. It’s easy. It’s structured. It’s predictable. It’s low risk.
(cue the long winded excuses from IT Managers and System Administrators around the globe)

Bottom line is, it just doesn’t work in the modern landscape. By the nature of our technology, we are increasingly becoming technically creative people.  We want to explore. We want to experiment. We want to discover.

As IT professionals, it’s our job to keep people safe and protect assets but it’s also our job to ensure our educators have the best possible tools so that they can provide the best possible education to our children. This isn’t just having good WiFi or fancy equipment. It’s removing the barriers and giving staff the confidence to explore technology. When presented with an idea or a piece of technology, think of ways to make it work instead of finding reasons why it can’t.

This doesn’t mean that you should open up everything and create a big free-for-all. Controls and restrictions still have an important role to play, they just shouldn’t be our only focus.

If over half of the devices provided to staff are sitting in draws not being used, then you’ve probably got a problem.

Here at SMGS, we’ve started to roll out an open technology program. This not only gives our staff some flexibility around choice of device, but also gives them a level of control and ownership of their device.

Users are provided with some high level guidelines but have the freedom to customise their device and explore technologies. If a device becomes misconfigured, as will happen from time to time, it is reset and given back to the user.  The use of cloud based platforms such as OneDrive for Business, makes this a relatively painless process.

Now the focus of IT support can move towards educating and supporting users rather than locking them out.

One of the positive aspects of this approach is the sense of ownership that users develop for their devices. As users connect with their device, they begin to protect it like their own. The questions quickly become “how can I do this” rather than “this doesn’t work”.

Now the technology is driving our staff, not blocking them.

Why don’t we all do this?

It’s not easy. It’s not structured. It requires IT staff and administrators to step out of their comfort zone to engage with staff, educate them and support them on their journey.

Relinquishing control is not easy but do it right and you’ll be giving your students the head start they need for the digital age that lay ahead.

My top 5 tips for implementing open technology

There are many factors to consider when implementing an open technology strategy but here are my top 5 tips:

5 – Understand what needs to be secured

It shouldn’t be a free-for-all. It’s still your job to keep everyone secure and there are a few things that shouldn’t be overlooked:

  • Network Security: Removing restrictions on devices does increase the risk of malware or similar nasties, and your network security will be one of your strongest lines of defence. It doesn’t mean you need to go overboard but make sure you have measures in place to help prevent individual devices from affecting other devices or key infrastructure. Ensuring that on-premise infrastructure and business systems are separated by firewall from devices is a good start.
  • Anti-Virus: A good enterprise grade anti-virus software will become your best friend. There are a number of cloud based options available these days, such as the Sophos Suite, that provide excellent client protection and system management capability. Make sure your solution provides anti-tamper capabilities.

Every environment is different so make sure you evaluate the risks to your environment. If you aren’t sure, reach out to someone who has gone through the process and talk through their experience.

4 – Set clear guidelines and boundaries

Come up with a simple set of guidelines for users and set clear boundaries. If it’s longer than a page it’s too long. If users constantly need a copy for reference, it’s too long. These should be simple, easy to remember points that each user should remember when using or experimenting with technology. Examples could be things like:

  • Don’t install pirated, cracked or illegal software.
  • Use our device for personal use but not for external business use (e.g. check your email, sync your photos but don’t run your partners lawn mowing business from the device).
  • Don’t modify or remove a specific set of software or configuration.
  • Search for examples of other people using software before installing on your own device.

Make sure you are clear with users about the support you will offer. You won’t be able to fix every little issue resulting from software being installed or configuration being changed. A good compromise is offer a “clean slate” service. If an issue with a device, caused by user action, cannot be resolved in reasonable time, the device can be reset back to it’s original state.

Be clear that it’s the users responsibility to ensure that all their data is continuously backed up using a cloud-based storage platform such as OneDrive for Business, Dropbox, etc. It’s the price of freedom!

3 – Practice what you preach

Become a technology leader and show your users the way. Demonstrate technology to your users. Give them ideas. Show them how to explore technology. Users will follow your lead. If you promote open technology to users then sit back in your office, users will do the same.

2 – Support ALL users

Don’t forget your less technically savvy or less confident users. These users are quite happy sitting behind the barrier, and will be reluctant to move forth into the scary world of open technology. Left alone, they will continue doing what they’ve always done and you’ll end up with huge division between the users embracing technology and those not embracing it.

This can have a hugely negative impact in a school environment with some students experiencing the benefits while others are not. Make sure you identify these users and engage them closely to ensure they make the most of the program. Generally, it’s not that they don’t want to get involved (even though they may say they don’t), they generally don’t know where to start, and either don’t know how to ask, or are afraid to ask for help.

Be patient and supporting. It can be a big step for these users but given the right support they can become some of your biggest “technologists”.

Don’t underestimate your power users. They will explore technology, with our without you. Support them, and they will support others.

1 – Educate your users

Education is key! Help your users understand security and device management. Help them understand how to evaluate software. Help them understand when they can make the call themselves and when they need to seek assistance. Help them protect themselves and others.

It doesn’t take much. Short and simple advise on a regular basis and be open to their queries. Remember, they don’t have the experience that we do so encourage “stupid” questions. Don’t criticise mistakes. Show them where they went wrong and advise them of a better approach in the future.

An educated user is your best line of defence!