Sunday, April 25, 2010

Not Worth The Hassle

Sometimes it seems like getting anything done on our school network is like being forced to make three left turns in order to go right. I understand filters, firewalls, and proxies are pretty much a necessary evil when using a network at school, but they are also key source of frustration for a teacher trying to work with technology in their classroom - right behind the dreaded "I can't print".

At our school we have a "wonderful" (quotes intentional) product called iPrism which serves as our web proxy and Internet filter. Teachers have the ability to override a blocked web site. Students do not. Our IT administration also has the ability to make exceptions for sites that are blocked by the default iPrism filter which updates regularly. This sounds like a fair system and one that should work pretty well. Not always.

The fact is, with many web 2.0 tools, simply allowing or unblocking a site is not always enough. There are issues with firewalls, ports, and other mysterious network authentications and protocols that can take a simple online task and turn it into a complicated process of ridiculous steps and meaningless procedures. Something that should take one click, now takes 3, 4, or 5 clicks and require several proxy authentications just to get it to work. Unfortunately, many teachers give up before they get that far. "It's just not worth the hassle."

This is one of my major stumbling blocks in getting our teachers to embrace and use technology tools with their students. Most genuinely want to, but when they try it doesn't work. I'll come in their room and explain to them, "Well, if you want it do that, you first have to close this, click here, sign-in here, open that, click here and click OK. Then it should work."

"Why do I have to do all that?" They ask, looking at me as if I just told them to turn around three times, pat your head and rub your stomach.

"You just do." I say.

"It's just not worth the hassle."

If I may, let me present just a few of my network frustrations. Maybe you've run into one or more of these problems yourself.

(By the way, If you have any insight into ways to make these work please leave a comment or e-mail me so I can help our IT troubleshoot these issues.)

Automatic Software Updates - Ever get those little messages when you first start up your computer that Flash or Java are ready to be updated? Even if the computer is properly logged into on to our school domain, these updates do not work. To get them to go, you first have to open Internet Explorer (not Firefox) and go to any web page that is outside our network. After that, you close Internet Explorer and the update will work. Even though the computer is properly logged on to our network, there is something that Internet Explorer does (and Firefox does not) that opens up a connection through the iPrism that then allows these updates to connect through the proxy. What does it do? I don't know. Is there a way to open this connection automatically when you log on the network. I haven't found one yet.

Diigo - One morning I discovered that our latest iPrism update had blocked Diigo. I convinced our IT Administrator to make an exception for it so now it works - sort of. I can get to Diigo, look at my library of bookmarked sites, but I cannot create any new bookmarks. When I try, I just get a Diigo Server error.

Discovery Education Streaming - Many of our teachers use Firefox as their default browser, but if they try to watch a streaming clip it won't play. The workaround for this is the same as the one for automatic software updates above. Close Firefox, open Internet Explorer, go to a random site outside our network, and close Internet Explorer. Go back to Firefox, log into Discovery Streaming, and the video will now play just fine. Even though Firefox is configured to work with our iPrism proxy, Internet Explorer must do something else that opens up a connection for streaming media.

Flash Apps that run in a web browser (ed.voicethread, Glogster Edu, etc.) - These Web 2.0 tools are not blocked, but they don't completely work either. You can't always upload images, sounds, video, or other files. It looks like the upload is working but it never finishes. Clearing out the temporary Internet files and cookies will fix this sometimes, but not always. Sometimes uploading only works with Internet Explorer - but not always.

Glogster Edu - has a "Grab" tool that lets you record voice or video directly within the application, but that tool has never worked here at school no matter what browser you're using. You just get an error saying it can't connect.

Are these proxy authentication errors? Is our firewall blocking things that these apps need to connect? Why should I have to use Internet Explorer for some sites and Firefox for others? I don't know. What I do know is if I want our teachers and students to be able to use these tools at school we need to do something to make it easier and more reliable, otherwise I fear using the technology will "not be worth the hassle."


Wendy said...

To be honest with you, I can understand why teachers would say it is "not worth the hassle". While I embrace all that technology has to offer, I am not tech savvy. I would have to have a "cheat sheet" to refer to for every application I would have to jump through hoops for because I would never remember from one time to the next.

On the other hand, I understand your frustration of trying to encourage the staff to move forward, perhaps some frustration at their not understanding after the 15th time you explained how to do something, and especially when they all give up.

I hope you find a solution to your problem.

Dennis Grice said...

Wendy, I agree. It SHOULDN'T have to be such a hassle. My hope is we can identify solutions to these (and other) issues and work together with IT to find some sort of happy medium between network security and hassle-free functionality.

Martha said...

This sounds all too familiar. I talk about teacher's click tolerance. Mine is pretty high and I will keep clicking until I get where I want to be. But most teacher have a much lower "click tolerance". If it doesn't work easily, they feel they don't have the time to make it work. This is especially a fear when you have a short class time and so much to cover.

Wendy said...

Martha: I love the term "click tolerance"/ Mine is also very high - as long as I have my "cheat sheets".

Teach42 said...

Feh. Yet another example of education being sacrificed in the name of 'network security'. Ticks me off. In situations like these, the IT department is creating more problems than they solve.

Unfortunately, I wasn't really able to see that until I'd moved out of IT. But either A) they don't know what they're doing or B) they don't realize that they're doing too much.

You should put a '3G bridge' up on Donors Choose and see if you can get an independent internet connection for your classroom for a year :)