How Much Tech Support Is Enough

I wish there was a simple answer to Robert’s questions, but unfortunately, estimating the proper level of IT staff in K-12 education is more dark arts than solid science. I will try to share my thinking on the matter, having experience with evaluating and building out IT support organizations in both private sector and California K-12 districts.

Let’s start to answer Robert’s question by looking at staffing levels. Device to tech staffing ratios vary widely across districts. I have seen anywhere from 500:1 to 1000:1 and even higher. What straight up device to tech ratios miss are factors such as the distance between schools, number of computer labs per school, number of mobile devices vs. fixed desktops vs. virtual desktops vs. iPads, device age, dispatch or site based support models, tech skill levels and many more.

For an end user support staff recommendation, rather than calculate a ratio of device to tech, I prefer to use a school based calculation (with the major assumption being we are moving towards a one device per student environment and will all get there eventually). Up until recently, those staffing level recommendations looked like this:

  • 1 Site Tech per High School
  • 1 Site Tech per 2 Middle Schools
  • 1 Site Tech per 3-4 Elementary Schools

By Site Tech, I am talking basic break/fix troubleshooting, printer add/move/change, phone connectivity and desktop application support. Server and network support is a different staffing discussion entirely. This is purely end user, site based (in the classroom or office) technical support. Unfortunately, the above numbers always represented a significant increase in most district’s technical support staffing levels and sadly more telling, in my opinion even these levels really aren’t sufficient to properly support a Future Ready, 21st Century Learning Organization (also known as schools in the year 2015).

If we are going to ask teachers to integrate technology into their everyday learning activities, if we are going to ask them to relay on technology for their core workflows, if we are going to ensure students have the skills to leverage the access to information made possible by technology, then what I have come to realize is that we have to provide support for the technology when and where it is being used (or where we want it to be used). And that would be in the classroom, at the school site.

The problem with the above recommendations then is the 2, 3 or 4 schools per technician. Sharing tech support isn’t realistic in a technology rich environment. Technology failures, if not addressed in a timely manner (minutes, not hours, hours and not days) will crush any large scale technology adoption. If the tech doesn’t work even just one time, the hurdle to getting that teacher to try it again is immense but instant (or near-instant) support can help mitigate that reaction. In my district, we recently addressed the onsite support issue by re-defining and expanding the Library Media Tech role to include site tech support responsibilities. We now have a site tech per school.

This gets us site based support for “just in time” triage but it still leaves open gaps in coverage due to illness, vacation and limited skill sets. To fill in these gaps, we’ve taken a”defense in depth” approach by maintaining existing levels of support. We left in place our district level Site Techs who had been supporting all users across the district. Instead of being the first responders to triage support issues, they now provide escalation, coverage and on the job training to the school site techs on a more proactive basis. Our end user tech support layers now look like this:

  • 1 6 hour, 10 Month Library/Media Site Tech per Elementary School
  • 1 8 hour, 10 Month Site Tech per Middle School
  • 3 8 hour, 12 Month District Site Techs (1 per 2 Middle Schools+ the District Office and 1 per 3 Elementary Schools)

What does this level of staffing mean for us? It means we have responsive support for every teacher (regardless of number or type of device) at every school site, in every classroom. It means we can be proactive in making sure teachers and students technology is working. It means teachers are not waiting on their schools “site tech day” to have their support issue looked at. It means technology can become seamless because teachers know that if something does go wrong, someone will be there when they need them to help them get through it.

To Robert’s second part regarding staffing for GAFE vs. Microsoft, I’m not going to get into how choosing one platform over another can reduce the need for tech support, primarily because those arguments are generally used to justify not having enough tech support to support teachers when and where they need it in the first place.

Yes iPads are deployment beasts, and yes Chromebooks are easy (and easy to swap out when they don’t work, and when you have 5,000, some don’t work) but the differences between supporting different platforms these days is less about numbers and more about skill set and environmental (network, server and directory) complexity. Lower skill sets and higher complexity = slower responses, less adaptability and more support resources required. Higher skill sets and less complexity = faster responses, more adaptability and fewer support resources required (or an opportunity to re-direct resources to support classroom learning)

Going chromebooks over ipads or ipads over windows laptops isn’t going to reduce the number of printer tickets (it might actually increase them) or cut down on the number of projector support calls (again, if more people are using tech, the “ancillary” support calls are going to increase).

Providing appropriate levels of support for school technology really comes down to customer service, not device to technician ratios. If Teachers feel like their support needs are being met in a timely and satisfactory way for them to be comfortable integrating technology on a regular basis, then you have enough support. If they feel like nothing ever works, or gets fixed in a timely manner or using technology is just “frustrating”, then you don’t.

Are staffing levels like these realistic for every district? Like the affordability of 1:1 learning, the answer comes down to priorities. If building future ready learning environments is important, then merely providing devices isn’t enough. The support structures need to be in place for teachers to be successful.

Don’t even get me started on how much edTech PD is enough…