Bad Wizard

by Jean Tower

Do you recall that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the wizard as a man working the controls?

wizard-of-oz behind the curtain

The dialog that ensues includes this exchange:

Dorothy: Oh, you’re a very bad man!
Wizard: Oh, no, my dear, I – I’m, a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.

As I hear teachers and EduBloggers complain about the evil “very bad people” who lock down their networks and block sites they want to get to, I am surprised at the level of resentment directed at Network Administrators over blocking, filtering and network security policies. It is also surprising that there is a general acceptance that indeed, the situation is their (Network Administrators) fault. It seems that the widely held belief is that, “if they were only better people, they’d understand and do what we want.”

I’ve heard teachers call their Network Administrator draconian, the Network Nazi, disconnected, and unaware. I believe we need to counter this mindset whenever we hear it and we need to educate users to participate in the decisions that impact the use of technology in our schools.

Many figures who are respected and full of wisdom about technology and education seem to fall into this disgruntled camp. Alan November, a thought leader and activist in the education and technology arena is someone who I respect and whose conference, BLC, is something I look forward to every year. But I have heard him, on a number of occasions, tell large audiences of educators, that their network administrator is what is wrong with their school network.

I disagree. What we really have are well-intentioned people who happen not to be good wizards.

  • It would take a wizard to create policies that please all the users on a network.
  • It would take a super wizard to manage this task all alone toiling in some dark network closet in your school or district.
  • It would take a wizard to be able to explain every network security and filtering issue to every user (at that user’s technical level).
  • It would take a wizard to balance all the competing needs and come out with the “right” answer every time.

And instead of wizards we have regular, nice, normal, good people doing the best they can with (usually) not enough input from stakeholders. So the problem ISN’T that we have mean Network Nazis. The problem IS THAT too many schools and districts actually allow their network administrator to make these decisions in a vacuum. Do NOT hand that kind of control over to anyone – not a techie, not a teacher, not a parent – make these decisions as a community.

By way of example, let me recount a recent event in my school district. When we noticed that 30% of our network traffic at the high school in my district (yesterday afternoon) was Netflix traffic, the network administrator asked if he should block Netflix. We chatted a bit, and decided that instead we would bring the issue to the administrative group in the district. I assume we’ll need to do a little bit of education about copyright laws, showing these movies to classrooms, what 30% of our bandwidth means, and what that bandwidth costs. But then I will expect a rich and lively discussion that reflects the complexities of the issues and I think the group will decide how to handle Netflix.

The Technology Directory/CTO/CIO and the tech team really need to bring stakeholders together over these network issues and reach decisions by consensus. Decisions that are reached through processes like these tend to be better respected, endure longer, and represent the communities they serve. We need to replace the illusion of a wizard working behind the curtain taking care of all of these issues for us, to a reality where real people collaborate together to make the best decisions they can.

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