The Battle for Desktop Control

There has long been a power struggle between techies and teachers over classroom computer desktops. IT personnel tend to believe allowing "inept" educators to have unfettered access to their computer's hard drive is an open invitation for trouble. Conversely, teachers often perceive tech support to be "uncaring" adversaries standing in the way of educational innovation. Who's right?

The IT Perspective

From a technical standpoint, there are many dangers to unrestricted desktop access. Shareware or freeware downloaded by teachers can slow computer performance or cause programs to not work at all. Unauthorized installation of streaming media programs and peer-to-peer file sharing software can hog valuable network space. E-mail worms also pose an ongoing threat, and even seasoned teachers may foolishly open an attachment that starts a malicious chain of damaging activity. Granted, these dilemmas are sometimes caused by students who get access to the teacher's computer. Nonetheless, they leave IT staff wishing for more desktop control and less freedom for all users.

It comes as no surprise, then, that IT staffers believe the best solution is to lock down teacher desktops. In the past, this was achieved through special security software, but now with advanced operating systems like Windows XP and Macintosh OS X, user account settings can be defined so teachers and students are protected from tinkering with the hard drives and networks they work on — for instance, installing bandwidth-taxing software or making configuration changes.

The Teacher View

For less tech-savvy teachers who stay within the comfortable bounds of known computer applications such as e-mail and word processing, desktop control is a non-issue. But when more advanced teachers are restricted from installing programs, they may literally begin pulling their hair out. These power users, who often purchase software for legitimate, educational classroom use, or experiment with promising freeware or shareware applications from the Internet, get impatient waiting for a support person to come to their classroom every time they want to install something new.

In districts that narrow usage to approved lists of licensed software titles supported on classroom computers, the situation can be equally frustrating. While license compliance is necessary and laudable, hard-and-fast rules about approved software can hamper instructional flexibility. What about the teacher who comes back from a technology workshop with an innovative program they want to test out?

Flexibility and Compromise Needed

Like with any group of people, all teachers are not the same when it comes to technology expertise and needs. In recognition of the different users they serve, IT departments should consider giving their technologically progressive educators administrative rights to their classroom computers. This would permit them greater flexibility and power over their instruction, while still protecting the network. The decision about who gets more (or less) desktop control should be made on a case-by-case basis not just by the IT people, but by district administrators who fully understand teachers' instructional requirements.

At the same time, educators need to view IT support staff as partners in the educational enterprise, not enemies to teaching and learning. After all, the bottom line for district employees, whether classroom teachers or IT support staff, should be identical — to maximize learning opportunities for students.

Wesley Fryer,'s IT Guy columnist, is director of distance learning of the college of education at Texas Tech University.