Thursday, August 20, 2009
In schools, technology exists to support learning, first and foremost.
Which frustrates me when I visit two schools in one day where it takes over 20 minutes for a laptop to login. That's 20 minutes of lost instruction time. How can this happen?
The culprit in both cases was the authentication process, where the computer goes out over the network and checks with the server if the user has the rights to log in to the computer. In some schools, this is compounded by roaming accounts, where the server stores the files of the user as well as the permissions (which applications that user can access on the computer).
Now first, the IT perspective on the issue. Controlling authentication, permissions, and user files centrally is much easier for IT to manage. They can change permissions en masse at one time, and can back up files automatically. Doing this makes a lot of sense for schools.
Problem is, what logically makes sense doesn't always actually work. The worst decision I ever made as a technology coordinator was to allow a local business in our community set up a thin-client network based on the logic above. Our $10,000 server set up to run this setup continuously froze (and then took 15 minutes to re-boot) on the basis of all the services it was running. It also allowed no flexibility for new programs a teacher wanted to try (even the Adobe suite couldn't run over a thin-client setup). Meanwhile, our Macs with their local authentication took mere seconds to login.
Macs aren't immune however. You can set up Macs with an Open Directory, where they too can authenticate, handout permissions, and host files from a server instead of the client's computer. At one school I recently witnessed, a user went to a professional development session on iPhoto, and opened up her library on the lab computers. When she went back to her room, she couldn't open up her iPhoto library on her computer anymore, because it had been automatically updated for the newer version of iPhoto in the lab. She will now have to walk down to the computer lab to use iPhoto until her own computer's version is updated, which could be never (and at the least will be a couple of months).
Here's the bottom line for administrators. Yes, network authentication and even directory hosting are good things, and yes, I've seen many districts where it works very smoothly. And, generally, I'd trust the IT staff on their recommendations of the best system.
However, there should be a concrete expectation. A lab of laptops will never take more than 2 minutes to login. If it typically does, a new system must be found. More than 2 minutes to login is unacceptable loss of instruction time.