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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 6|February|2000




Network Starvation

©1999, Jamie McKenzie
First published as a column
in November, 1999 eSchool News

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author



Amy looked at the phone in her hand and wished she had the network supervisor — Sam Peters - in the same room with her.

"What do you mean, it can’t be done?" she pressed.

"Trust me," he answered back. "Do you have any idea how long our job list has grown since September 1? These teachers come back from summer vacation and all kinds of problems develop."

As librarian of a large high school in the Midwest, Amy was eager to expand the number of information products available to her students to support their curriculum inquiries. (see last month’s column) She had devoted summer weeks with teachers identifying information resources to purchase that would help the school to address the state curriculum standards and tests.

Now she was being blocked by the one person she needed the most. She had ordered subscriptions and paid for site licenses. Now she needed the products installed on one of the high school’s three file servers. She also needed the clients for each product installed on each of the 375 desktops in her school.

"No way I could get to that before Y2K," Sam continued, evidently interpreting her silence as disbelief. "We have so much compliance work to finish to keep the state off our backs, and the Business Office is really nervous about the integrity of payroll and student records.

Amy had heard most of these complaints before, just about any time she asked for anything out of the ordinary. And she knew that Sam was cruelly understaffed . . . that the district had only two "technicians" to support more than 2000 desktops. So she decided to offer help.

"How about we do it ourselves, then?" she volunteered. I know that Peter Freedman, Joyce Chung and I could do the fileserver installations, and we could also create a team of volunteers to reach out and touch all the desktops.

There was a long silence at Sam’s end of the phone . . . and then a sigh. "I can’t have you doing that, Amy. You know I have a policy forbidding any installations by folks outside my department. It just messes things up and creates havoc."

Network Starvation Defined

While the names have been changed, the above tale is true — a story that probably repeats itself in dozens of districts daily across the land. It is a story repeated frequently in other countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Sweden. When I repeat it to audiences, I am amazed by the large percentage of heads nodding recognition.

The story is an example of Network Starvation — the dramatic failure to provide enough technical staff to support the ongoing use and development of an educational network. It is a serious problem undercutting the success of networks in thousands of districts, but one that goes virtually unnoticed and unmentioned in the press and scholarly work. This understaffing is one of the main reasons we are seeing disappointing reports regarding teachers’ use of networks.

The failure to hire adequate technical staff has the effect of limiting the reliability and the curriculum value of networks. It also restricts the level of services provided and functions made available to both staff and students.

Indicators of Network Starvation

How can you tell if your school and your network are suffering from Network Starvation? Check off whether any of the following indicators are typical of your situation. If you check off more than two or three, chances are you have understaffed your network services department.

Yes or No
  Technicians are responsible for 500+ computers each.
  There are no networked information products available on desktops (such as periodicals or encyclopedias).
  Staff are not provided storage space on the network.
  Students are not allowed storage space on the network.
  Service problems take weeks before they are fixed.
  Staff are not allowed to design storage areas or menus on the network.
  Students are not allowed to have e-mail accounts on the network.
  No none is allowed to install any program except the network staff.
  Most fileserver management, including Web pages and Web serving, is handled centrally by network staff without teachers or librarians being allowed direct access.


Diminished Reliability

As we seek to broaden the percentage of teachers who employ new technologies to support classroom learning on a daily or weekly basis, network reliability is a critically important issue. While early adopters may have a high tolerance for surprise and disappointment, late adopting, skeptical teachers have almost no tolerance for unreliable networks and may use breakdowns as a rationale for holding back. Wanting to feel prepared and highly effective, mindful of enormous pressures to meet curriculum standards, they are (rightly) reluctant to mess around with something that is "hit or miss."

Failure to staff at a full level (one technician for 250-500 desktops) puts a network at risk and contributes to instability. Small problems grow into large ones. Crisis management becomes the main way of operating. The thinly stretched team of technicians goes from fire to fire and crisis to crisis often relying on "work arounds" and Band-Aids rather than long term, sound solutions.

Failure to staff adequately undermines the value of the huge investment made in computers and networking.

Diminished Curriculum Value

A network is only half a product. It is a bit like plumbing. Unless something flows through the network that relates to the curriculum and is organized in ways that will appeal to a broad cross section of teachers, the network will seem irrelevant and frivolous to serious teachers who are quick to criticize the "free" Internet for its lack of reliability, organization and content.

Those districts who offer nothing on the desktop other than software and the Internet will face serious skepticism on the part of teachers. Too few district decision-makers understand how much technical staff is required to "develop" a network. They tend to think primarily of installation. They do not realize that installation is only the first quarter of the ball game.

What follows installation is the serving of a rich information feast along the lines of the resources described in last month’s column.

Diminished Services and Functions

We invest in networks so that students may communicate globally and conduct research with a rich assortment of electronic information resources, but in all too many districts, the failure to hire enough technicians blocks many student and staff uses. It is a bit like buying a Rolls Royce but holding back the money for a set of tires. It may look pretty sitting up on blocks in front of the house, but you should not expect to travel far.

Districts that fail to staff appropriately are buying a limo without gas for the tank, tires for the road or oil for the transmission. They find themselves without storage for students or staff, without student e-mail accounts, without rich information resources and without much hands-on development by educators. Understaffed technical departments are prone to emphasize control and restriction as a survival tactic.

The Competition is Fierce

Even if schools wanted to hire many more technicians, they are in short supply. The business world, while acknowledging the need for much more generous staffing levels (1 technician for every 100 computers), is having a very hard time finding them. The January 1, 1998 Issue of CIO Magazine outlines the "staffing crisis" in some detail in "Desperate Times, Creative Measures." These businesses are often able to offer much more attractive packages than school districts so that skilled technicians are hard to find and unlikely to stay in underpaying school districts long.

It turns out that setting appropriate staffing levels is only the first step in a very difficult process. Finding and holding onto skilled technicians is hard for any employer.

Helpful Resources

One of the most thorough studies outlining district staffing needs is an Arizona Technology in Education Alliance white paper, "Staffing for Technology Support" at

This 1997 white paper by Hank Stabler of the Peoria School District in Glendale, Arizona provides a formula to help calculate the number of F.T.E.s required. For example . . .

1000 workstations, 2,000 users, 30 clusters (e.g. school offices), 25 applications supported, 3 operating systems (OS400, Windows 95 and Mac), and licenses required for 25 different software packages. The staffing would be determined as follows.

HR=1000/500 +2000/1000 +30/15 +25/50 + 25/25 +3/1

HR= 2 + 2 + 2 + .5 + 1 + 3 (for a total of 10.5 FTE)

The formula is based on Arfman, J. and Roden, P. (1992). "Project Athena: Supporting Distributed Computing at MIT." IBM System Journal, v. 31, n. 3, pp. 550-563.

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