School IT support: Overworked…and understaffed

The figures pulled from his district’s help-desk logs tell Charlie Reisiger that his technology team spends about 70 percent of its time fixing faulty machines or grappling with software questions from teachers and administrators.

That doesn’t leave much time for other activities, such as planning new projects or helping teachers weave technology into their instruction.

"Waving a magic wand would let me flip that ratio, so my team is spending 70 percent or more [of its] time on classroom [integration]," said Reisiger, director of technology for the Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania.

Reisiger’s plight is common to many schools, where research suggests overworked and understaffed IT departments are spending too much time reacting to technology problems–and not enough time on training and integration.

One year after a landmark survey first revealed the extent of the problem, IT staffing shortages continue to plague schools, according to the latest version of the survey. What’s more, these shortages are keeping many schools from realizing technology’s full potential as a learning tool.

Conducted by eSchool News and Inc. in partnership with the Consortium for School Networking, our 2nd annual School IT Survey polled more than 600 school district leaders and technology administrators in November and December 2008.

The results were similar to findings from our first such survey in 2007, but added new insights.

Only 31 percent of respondents said their districts have enough IT staff to satisfy their needs; that’s up only marginally from 27 percent in last year’s survey. And 55 percent of those polled–the same percentage as last year–said they spend more than half their time reacting to technical problems, instead of working proactively on long-range planning and projects.

School IT departments "still have more work to do than they have staff," said Carolyn Stone, an independent analyst who helped with the research.

Stone’s observation was supported by yet another finding from the survey: 68 percent of respondents said the number of technology devices in their schools has increased in the last year, but only 2 percent said they’ve added a commensurate number of IT staff to keep pace with these changes.

The burdens placed on school IT departments are taking a heavy toll on innovation, our survey suggests.

"Our IT staff members … need more training, and we need more time to explore new technologies. We spend all our time fixing the old [equipment]," said one respondent. "I want to get out on the cutting edge of educational technology and impact student learning and train students and staff. Instead, I’m troubleshooting network, hardware, and software problems."

Wearing many hats

This year, for the first time, we asked participants how many full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members they employ for various IT positions–and how many more staff members they thought they needed to meet their objectives.

The answers to these questions revealed a great deal about the challenges that school districts face in supporting technology.

Ninety percent of respondents said their districts have at least one full-time technology leader, such as a chief information officer or IT director, and 76 percent said they have at least one full-time technician. But only 60 percent said they have at least one full-time instructional technology specialist, 40 percent said they have a full-time network engineer, and just 35 percent have a full-time help desk manager.

It’s clear from these responses that many school IT personnel are forced to fill several roles simultaneously, especially in smaller school districts.

Take the experience of Gary Kohl, technology coordinator for the 989-student Ladysmith-Hawkins School District in Wisconsin.

"I wear the hats of technology coordinator, network engineer, long-range planner, hardware repair, software support, electrician, phone systems [support], fire alarm [support], … et cetera," said Kohl, who–like Reisiger–agreed to be part of a virtual focus group we convened to discuss the challenges of school IT support in greater detail.

"This is a typical arrangement in the smaller K-12 districts," Kohl added. "We have over 700 computers with 19 servers in three remote buildings. I have to stay very creative and work long days to keep our equipment in a usable state."

Download the report as it appeared in eSchool News as s PDF.

Some respondents cited fractional numbers when asked how many FTE staff members they employ in various positions, but others indicated "zero" for many positions.

The job titles with the highest percentage of respondents saying their districts had zero FTE staff members filling these roles were help-desk manager (59 percent) and network engineer (52 percent).

"It’s not like we’re talking about positions that a district can live without," said Nick Mirisis, marketing manager for "These are mission-critical [areas] for schools."

Classroom integration

According to our survey, the average ratio of students to district IT staff members is 491 to 1. When limited just to technicians and tech-support staff–the people responsible for fixing machines and keeping them running–the ratio is even higher: 1,021 students for every one technician. That’s a far cry from the private-industry standard of no more than 150 to 1 recommended by Gartner and other IT research firms.

It’s no surprise, then, that 84 percent of respondents said they need more technicians in their schools.

Given that most school IT departments already are working in reactive mode most of the time, "that’s a recipe for disaster," said Betsy Graham, K-12 IT marketing manager for SchoolDude.

But "technician" wasn’t even the most popular response when we asked where school leaders could use more IT help.

Topping the list was instructional technologist, which was cited by 85 percent of respondents. And that speaks to a key area where IT staffing shortfalls really hurt schools: If keeping technology systems up and running is a challenge, helping teachers use the technology to improve their instruction is an even taller hurdle.

Only 28 percent of respondents said they have enough IT staff to integrate technology into their classrooms effectively.

"Most of my staff’s time is spent on end-user [or] workstation support. I would [like to] reprioritize my staff’s time to be used for training and working with [teachers] on projects using technology," said Jan Hartmann, technology director for Montana’s Colstrip Public Schools and another focus-group participant.

"Until districts become serious about conducting proper professional development, they simply can’t expect reform initiatives … to succeed," said Reisiger.

Funding–and other challenges

As in last year’s survey, school leaders indicated that funding is the No. 1 challenge facing their IT departments–and the source of many of their staffing problems, too.

The unpredictability of school funding makes it hard to plan and budget for technology needs, respondents said.

Funding "is a moving target in Wisconsin, because the budgets have to be set many months before the state tells us how much funding we will get," explained Kohl. "Even a small negative adjustment places a huge damper on future planning."

And though grants are useful for helping schools obtain equipment, they can actually cause problems down the road.

"Our district was granted about $600,000 for laptops. The award is both a blessing and a curse," said Reisiger. "On one hand, we have received a huge infusion of equipment. On the other hand, our board is now faced with a $600,000 replacement/upgrade every few years to sustain the project after the grant money has dried up. Add to that the current freeze on new spending … and we have the makings of a significant long-range equipment replacement problem."

Funding is an obvious problem, but our survey indicated that another key challenge to school IT departments is emerging: Rapidly growing bandwidth needs, driven by the rise of video applications, are placing a huge strain on school network infrastructures.

"Video streaming, YouTube, [and] TeacherTube … are killing our networks," one respondent said. "In order for us to use these tools, we need bandwidth–and lots of it."

SaaS … and other solutions

Even with tight budgets that put a real squeeze on their IT departments, school districts are still managing to achieve some impressive ed-tech goals.

Two-thirds of respondents said their districts have a faculty intranet in place or are working toward this goal; 78 percent now offer secure remote network access, or soon will; 81 percent have implemented a web-content management system, or are in the process of implementing one; and 84 percent have a student, parent, and teacher web portal or soon will.

In addition, slightly more than half (51 percent) of respondents say their districts have implemented a software-based help desk, and another 8 percent are pursuing this goal. But there is a big disparity between public and private schools in this area: While 59 percent of public school districts reportedly have implemented a help-desk solution, only 23 percent of private schools have.

School district IT departments are taking creative steps to overcome their challenges.

These strategies include teaming up with neighboring districts and pooling IT staff time and resources; identifying secondary support personnel (teachers) who know how to solve technology-related problems and offering them rewards and stipends for their contributions; and recruiting community-based IT experts to volunteer their services in local schools.

To make software easier to deploy, freeing up valuable IT staff time for other tasks, 47 percent of respondents said they’ve implemented at least some of their software using a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, in which applications are hosted by the service provider and delivered to users over the internet.

But concerns about the security of information delivered through this software model seem to have exploded in the last year, our survey suggests. Last year, 40 percent of respondents said they had some data-security concerns about SaaS applications; this year, the number was 72 percent.

Security concerns aside, many district leaders credited SaaS with saving time and improving their IT efficiency.

Focus-group participant David Palme, technology director for Michigan’s Portland Public Schools, said his district uses a provider of SaaS for its reading, gradebook, and financial software.

"System uptime is higher, allowing staff to trust the technology more–[which means they] use it more," Palme said. "We believe these applications help the staff save time that can be devoted to more instruction."


2008-09 School IT Survey (full results)

Focus group summary