Balancing Technology Change with School Change

I’ve spent a great deal of time over my past 10 years as a Technology Director implementing new technologies that automate data systems (multiple student information systems, admissions, development, and business office systems), allow easier communication (e-mail), and help teachers teach and students learn (blogs, wikis, moodle and other communications tools).

We use FirstClass as our e-mail server and over the past couple of years, we have had some big gripes with FirstClass.  They have released server updates with big bugs and their support leaves much to be desired.  So earlier on this year we began to evaluate different communications platforms.  We started by defining criteria that we would use to evaluate each platforms.  Then we installed or tested Google Apps for Schools, Microsoft Live, Novell GroupWise and Microsoft Exchange 2007 .  We’re a Microsoft school and the only system that fit a majority of the criterion was Microsoft Exchange 2007.

So we went to user testing.  Most users who tested Exchange and Outlook gave us very positive feedback.  I’ve spoken to multiple Network Admins and Directors of Technology who give good reviews to Outlook.  I have evaluated it myself and really prefer its user interface to that of FirstClass.

But, with all of those positives, I still ask: What are the benefits of changing systems?  What are the benefits to asking 200 faculty and staff and 400 students to learn a new system that pretty much does the same thing they were doing on FirstClass?  The send and receive e-mail.  That’s what most people use e-mail for, right?

Yes, there will be a many administrators and staff who will have a system that makes their lives more convenient.  There may be some teachers who use the document sharing and collaboration tools built into Exchange 2007.  The Microsoft Office integration is much tighter and our Student Information System had an e-mail class roster link that will actually work correctly.  Web site links from e-mail will work correctly and we won’t have to be deleting and reconfiguring FirstClass folders that have become corrupted.  There is easier support for administrator, faculty and student handheld devices.

But does this list tip the scale?

What about the time it’s going to take to train all of the faculty, staff and students to use this new system?

It this technology for technology sake, even with the improvements we will see?

I wonder this about many of the changes that are coming down the pike such as Windows Vista and Office 2007.

I see all of the great things that I could be doing with faculty next fall to integrate technology into the curriculum at our school and then realize that changing to Exchange might delay them.  Or it might make thing easier.  Is it worth it?

I know you can’t answer this question, but it’s the one won’t get out of my head right now.

I yearn to think more about teaching and learning with technology and find myself hung up on seemingly surface level decisions about our e-mail system.  I’m definitely feeling a bit frustrated.

Thanks for listening.  I’ll update you once we make a decision.

Photo from: http://flickr.com/photos/priddy/3507724/

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6 thoughts on “Balancing Technology Change with School Change

  1. We use firstclass too and are in the same position you are. I think the deciding factor for me would be what tool will let us grow with the emerging technologies that we are seeing – web2.o, cell phones…
    I find firstclass to require me to find work arounds with calendars and email (I forward to gmail to send to my iphone)…would outlook be better?
    I think the faculty who will lead the charge are the ones you think about… and I’m thinking outlook gives you (and us) more growth/integration opportunities. Training the less tech savy user means teaching send, reply and attach.
    Keep us informed on what you decide!

  2. My comment got eaten! In short, I said that we need to add strong usability as a requirement for tools we choose.

    Good Web 2.0 tools will walk you through the sign-up and your first use of the tool, and you never need to look for a “how-to” document. If the tools that were targeted at schools were like that, switching to the best product wouldn’t carry the burden of figuring out how to train a thousand teachers.

  3. We are a FirstClass school also. With the realeases that they have given us over the last few years, I do see a desire for them to make their product better, and do things in a similar way that Outlook does. Now… Google has this free email, collaboration, calendaring, etc. system for schools. Have you seen the competition from Msft? Since we are already are invested in FirstClass, I don’t see that it will save us a whole lot of money to change to these.

    And, as you say, is the saved cost worth the disruption in our users’ lives? Seems as though that the people screaming the loudest about FC are a few administrative types. The teachers are fine with it… as are the students. So… since I focus on these two groups primarily, why change? Yes, technical administration may be easier with a web-based version or Outlook, but should we change b/c of that??? I don’t think it is my job to make my job easier – my job is to make communicaiton, integration, collaboration, project-creation, etc. something the kids and teachers want to do – and can do – with ease and regularity. They can do that with First Class currently.

    I posted a Forum just the other day asking our entire school to submit their overall problems with FC… I have a grand total of 6 submitted (after 5 days)… and 2/3 are user problems that are easily fixed. The other two come from admin. – and I can find a work around for them. As Warlick says, “My $.02”. Stewart

  4. Stewart — Thanks so much for the comment. I appreciate your thoughtful response. We’re attending a user forum with FirstClass on Thursday and I’m looking forward to asking them lots of questions. For now, we have not yet made a decision. We’re looking at the end of the month to make a recommendation. I’ll be sure to report back.

    – Alex

  5. Hi Alex, (recognize the name???),
    Have you ever give any thoughts to the not free, but really good stuff from that tiny, under-played little company called IBM.
    I wonder if you’ve ever looked at Notes 8 or anything like Quickr or Connections – the “newish” stuff coming out of IBM. If you’d ever like to chat about it, let me know.
    -Joe

  6. Alex,
    What a great blog you have here. I wish I had stumbled onto it earlier.
    I am about to change over to Exchange 2007 from a much older version – but also have been test driving Google Mail.
    The questions you raise about if it is worth it seem to be par for the course at each technology turn.
    When I first came to our school only 5% of the faculty and staff even checked their email. I am up to 90% now after four (4) years.
    I believe that it is our job to set the standard and the bar – and also deal with all the curves in the road that are put ahead of us as we try to deal with simply making teaching easier and more effective for teachers while sometimes being forcefed upgrades (*VISTA*). I have too much to say about all this – but I’m so glad to have found this blog. I have been trying to start a consortium of Tech Directors in the NY area (maybe you’ve already done that here). Getting back on topic.. as far as First Class goes, the NYC Archdiocese uses it – (one account per school principal) but from my little experience with it – it is buggy.. and when I spoke to the people from First Class at last year’s ISTE conference – they even admitted that it was never really originally meant to do what it has been doing. I like exchange for some practical reasons – the same reasons why most of Microsoft’s stuff stays popular (it’s what people are comfortable with, and used to) – and because it integrates pretty well with its own brother and sister products.

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