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Bringing Together Education and User Groups

On a quiet October afternoon in Arlington, Virginia, Dr. Rhonda Clevenson sits her sixth-grade Exemplary Project students down in front of the several iMacs scattered about her classroom to teach them how to edit video in iMovie. The children take to it quickly, mixing in sounds, film clips, and graphics of the things they know and love (professional wrestling stars, Pokemon, and pop culture references from a thousand different sources.) With the exception of casual conversation and Rhonda leaning down to help every so often, things go smoothly for the next 40 minutes until the class bell rings and the kids are turned loose into the hallway. The next class arrives with the same energetic abandon; the technology present in several iMacs is the linchpin for the entire class and its curriculum.

This is the new American public school system, something that has wrapped itself around computer technology and its ever-increasing potential within the classroom. From word processing to digital media to Internet research, public schools are spending more and more on computers and software. The belief behind this is logical: exposure to technology will both prepare the students for an increasingly technical world and enable new ways of teaching that can accommodate the needs of almost any student.

Until recently, when I returned to graduate school full-time, I spent 16 months working as a wandering systems analyst for the Arlington public school system – not a bad first job right out of college and definitely something that paid the rent and put food on my bachelor’s table. The basic job was both to repair and prevent problems that might arise with the school district’s computer systems by whatever means necessary. As you might expect, this is where things got interesting.

One for All — Within each school throughout the Arlington public school system, a single Instructional Technology Coordinator (ITC) runs each school’s technical curriculum. This person, often hired with a background in education, technology, and/or group training, has the assignment of keeping the school’s computers running smoothly. This task includes answering every potential question and repairing almost every piece of equipment within the building that can’t be fixed by the custodians: computers, televisions, monitors, keyboards, mice, and networks, to name a few. In addition, the ITC must devise a curriculum to teach students and faculty enough about technology each year so they can pass the state’s rigorous testing.

Virginia law demands that the teachers pass their TSIP (Technology Standard for Instructional Personnel) tests every five years. At the same time, simple logic dictates that students shouldn’t be staring at Microsoft Word with no idea what to do next. If the ITC fails to do his or her job, the teachers could potentially lose their jobs while the students lag further behind what the real world might expect of them. Thus, armed with little more than a set of clone disks, no real training for the position, and a "fare thee well" from the school, the ITC’s job begins.

Fortunately, the ITC can call on other computer experts in the school system for help. When the computers begin to indicate they’d rather do something other than what the teachers intend, a group of field technicians can be called in to fix the problems. If the network itself begins to act like HAL from 2001, the ITC can always call their network analyst assigned to the school (that’s me) to sort things out. Unfortunately, the turnaround may not be immediate since the technicians and analysts are often occupied with other problems. In short, an ITC might spend days trying to get help, since the people supporting them might be tied up with problems of their own.

So why would anyone choose to become an ITC in the first place? Reasons vary, but the most common backgrounds indicate a proclivity towards technology, training, better pay than a teacher’s salary, or a desire to climb the administrative ladder (which undoubtedly leads to some superb parking). In my time with the school department, a few ITCs were able to use the position to advance to Assistant Principal or start training for a full Principal position. Despite the fact that the job’s basic demand is to be the ever-present, infallible guru that people rely upon to handle the school’s technology, it can be a stepping stone on the path of career advancement.

All for One — Step for a moment outside of the public school system. On the other side of the spectrum from the lone ITC supporting an entire school are user groups, people who gather in their spare time to discuss technology and have become incredible sources of technical information from their years of experience with computers.

The first time I walked into a meeting of the Rhode Island Macintosh User Group (RIMUG) in 1993, I had no idea what to think. Here were people who shared a serious interest in the Mac gathering en masse, discussing software fixes, hardware upgrades, and what they could theoretically do with the technology available to them. Many had brought their own computers and were cracking open the cases with wild abandon, installing components, and then sealing them up to test the changes. The entire scene flowed with geeky, orgiastic knowledge emanating from those in the know, and fueled by a shared location to express that knowledge.

If I were to drop a discarded Macintosh SE/30 into a RIMUG gathering, the members would figure out how to make it clip a Labrador retriever’s toenails within minutes and launch the space shuttle within the hour. Ask for a current RAM price and it will be correctly answered within seconds. Wonder out loud about a fix for an extension conflict and odds are someone’s already gone through the problem and can offer a solution. To put it simply, you can’t stop these people from helping you with your computer; it’s something they’d do anyway. There is knowledge in abundance here. There are numerous user groups roughly like this; unfortunately, few conduits exist for them to share their knowledge with the rest of the world. Worse, the avenues of communication opened up by the Internet have taken over one of the primary purposes of user groups, and many have struggled to maintain membership and find appropriate outlets for their knowledge.

All for All — Good administrators make use of the tools available to bring a chaotic situation under control. Great administrators find new tools outside the norm that prevent a chaotic situation from emerging in the first place. It’s naive at best – and cataclysmic at worst – for the ITC community to expect immediate and continual help from their existing support networks. Also keep in mind that these people are constantly inundated with new ideas of what they could do with the technology available to them, sometimes leading to almost too much distraction to think, much less do the job at hand.

When local Macintosh user groups offer assistance to local school systems, they can form mutually beneficial relationships. ITCs can leverage the user groups’ knowledge, available to them online (via email, message boards, and chat rooms) and in person, with answers to any problems that may arise. The user groups also have something to gain from this relationship, since school systems are perfect places to dispense their technical knowledge and gain new members; they can help the ITC on the side, or directly contribute by resolving ongoing problems or making suggestions to the ITC’s lesson plan. Schools can also offer great, Internet-connected spaces for user groups having trouble finding meeting venues. Sure, most user groups may not possess the sleek appeal of the perky Apple representatives with their logo-emblazoned polo shirts, but they can provide the experience and solutions to problems that may continually plague the ITC.

In my experience, an outside voice, especially one that resonates with experience, can make all the difference. ITCs are called upon to deal with an endless barrage of problems every day of their professional lives. They deal with it all: forgotten passwords, Office formatting questions, concerns about radiation from several iMacs in a classroom, even partially masticated Swedish fish candy destroying a floppy drive. In one absolute worst-case scenario, an ITC assisted a teacher who had crushed the frame of her blue and white G3 tower by using it as a footstool. The ITC simply held his head in his hands, alternately groaning and laughing as he gradually discovered exactly why the CD-ROM drive wasn’t ejecting properly, how the machine had been destroyed, and what needed to be done to get it working again.

Simply put, there are times when an ITC needs an outside source of advice, even if just to share tech support war stories like the ones above. User groups, with their walking volumes of technical knowledge, are the solution.

Making the Connection — Apple keeps an updated database of user groups online, while other groups can be located through the User Group Connection Web site or Hershey Apple Core’s Ultimate Macintosh User Group List. For more of a human touch, you can post a query to the Association of Apple Computer User Groups (AACUG) Find a User Group form; a user group volunteer will contact you within a couple of days with suggestions. Don’t forget to contact your local Apple Store or Mac dealer, who probably has a list of area groups, too.



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Actually locate and attend a user group meeting – you’ll find a hive of people offering their assistance, compassion, and experience, and receiving only the satisfaction of knowing they can help someone out of a jam. User groups and public school educators have more in common than they may realize. However, there are some who have already made the connection, as shown by a grant program offered by the User Group Academy. The program has awarded thousands of dollars since 1999 to public schools and user groups to support projects ranging from networking several iBooks for teacher use to creating a literary arts publication.


I’d also encourage the reverse situation – for those in user groups, introduce yourself and your group to the ITC at your local school. He or she may welcome assistance at a variety of different levels, but be too overwhelmed to seek it out. The role of user groups has been forced to change over the years, but helping improve public education is one thing that will never go out of fashion.

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