System failure – when the network goes down

The start of a sunny Thursday at Lakeside Secondary College. The playgrounds and communal spaces are buzzing as usual. At 8.50am nobody seems to notice that the music fails to kick in as scheduled over the loudspeakers to indicate that people should start thinking about heading to their first classes. Some kids – noses buried in smartphones and social media – saunter around on autopilot, unaware they should be getting themselves sorted. Others just hang around, beginning to sense that something is not quite right. As the minutes drag on, an uneasy vibe develops.

In the main building, for once the Assistant Principal’s office is empty. Next door is the staff room, where teachers and administrators are making the most of their downtime. A table of young female teachers are finishing off breakfast and updating each other on reality TV shows. Another table of middle-aged male teachers banter about sports. A few older teachers are huddled in the kitchen drinking coffee and comparing lesson plan ideas. No disquiet here, even though it is 8.58am with classes starting at 9am.

A few seconds later and an unfamiliar bell rings. Teachers and students look startled but then start to move with purpose along the main corridor, lined with rusting blue lockers, hand drawn posters and classwork tacked onto the wall. It is not long before the Assistant Principal announces through the loud speaker that the school network has “gone down”. This is when what was shaping up to be an ordinary school day turned on its head.

 

It is now obvious why the computerized alarm system had failed to shuffle an MP3 track to play as the daily 8.50am mood music. Although I haven’t been in the school for long, a total network failure sounds like a serious disruption. For a few hours we might have to go back to an ‘old school’ way of doing things … back to when Lakeside did not rely on digital technology to function. Back to a non-digital way of life?

People racing out of the staff-room are clearly treating this as a big deal. Some teachers flap around the staff room, moaning that they don’t know what to do because their lessons had been planned around a particular App or online exercise. A couple of the men drop their footy conversations and make a beeline for the ‘IT boys’ office to find out exactly how serious this network glitch is.

I head toward my own scheduled class. It feels that the mood of the school is quickly shifting. An odd unsettling sense seems to spread gradually amongst teachers, administrators and students. Other teachers are grumbling that they need to trek back to the staff room to check the whiteboard for their daily schedule. There is no ‘real time’ information coming to their mobile devices. As a drama teacher recounted a few weeks later:

Everyone was freaked out – so freaked out. They got freaked out when the bells didn’t ring. They got freaked out when the machines didn’t work. There was a lot of panic and crazy … It’s machines. They’re going to break. Get it together … It just makes me laugh because you’ve got to be able to survive.

 

Amidst this flurry, students with their own mobile phone data plans look a lot less bothered. Many continue to lock their gaze into handheld devices. An inability to check school email or access work through the school management system is clearly not a huge drama. Yet while these students are unfazed, others are not coping as well. Seizing a moment for public humor, one of the more ebullient Year 9 boys raises his arm for attention and shouts at the top of his lungs: ‘The internet is broken … my life is broken!’.

Although the students who were around me generally seemed nonplussed at the time, in later conversations the Principal points out that Year 12 students who had lessons preparing coursework for their final national examinations ‘would have been bleeding’. In contrast, his own Year 8 students had been elated when they were told the classes that had been prepared for them were not happening: ‘They were just, ‘Woo-Hoo!’. They don’t care … they were happy because their phones were okay’.

Certainly, the subsequent two network-less days in Lakeside were full of incident. Later conversations seemed to agree that this was a crisis more for staff than students, largely because of the school’s reliance on digital technologies in the planning and delivery of lessons. As the Principal observed:

There’s probably somewhere between 75 classrooms in this school that are in operation every period. Half of these will be classes mediated through a wireless network and the internet. So you’ve got 35 classrooms that suddenly have to go to Plan B. And if all the planning and resources are sitting somewhere in the Cloud … or anywhere that requires a wireless connection … then they’re screwed.

 

Luckily I was not so troubled. On the contrary, as a university researcher trying to make sense of how digital technologies were being used in the school, this failure was a great opportunity. The network continued to be shut off for two whole days. This was not a temporary digital malfunction. Instead, it was caused by a faulty cable that had been installed a few days earlier by Telstra contractors working in the street outside the school. This was not a glitch that would be solved by turning the system off and then turning it on again. Full service was not restored until the following Monday morning. Until then, the shutdown proved to be a revealing two days in the life of the school. Things carried on, people improvised, but there was an acute sense of what was missing and how integral digital technologies and digital systems had become to even the most mundane school processes and practices.

For example, most of the core processes of the school day were interrupted. At the start of the school day, missing students could not be noted as absent or late. Electronic rolls could not be marked. Parents were not informed via the automated SMS system. During both days, administrative messages were circulated on paper or announced via the PA system. Coursework could not be uploaded by students and marked online by their teachers. The school librarians reported being inundated by students complaining that ‘I can’t find any information.’ Teachers were unable to access e-books. This could have been avoided if staff and students had downloaded PDFs at the beginning of the year, but it turned out that most had not bothered to do this. As the Head Librarian noted on the second day: “I think a lot of things could be avoided; it doesn’t necessarily have to be the nightmare it is”.

 

Of course, school life in Lakeside continued as best it could. Some teachers reverted to not using technology at all. Others continued to use their laptops and office computers, whiteboards and other offline digital practices. Some teachers reveled in falling back on inventive work-arounds, remembering what they did in the days before networks and cloud storage. Some work groups passed around files on USB sticks rather than through Google Drive or email. As the school’s Head of Innovation put it: “We had to go back to remembering USBs … it was almost like a bygone piece of technology”.

Elsewhere, teachers found it difficult to track students from class to class, and the first aid nurse was unable to keep tabs on students’ medical needs. When a fire drill went off later in the first day it became clear that teachers had failed to take accurate attendance records on paper. The exercise was abandoned after 15 minutes as no one could be sure which students were actually meant to be in school. These were all procedures that had taken place in Lakeside during the pre-computer age, yet ways of doing these things without the support of technology had largely fallen out of people’s memories.

These two days were mentioned in conversations and interviews long after the event. The prevailing discourse amongst school leaders and managers was that teachers had struggled to cope. Other people told a different story. As the drama teacher pointed out:

The hierarchy [school management] were the most panicked which of course they would have to be because they are responsible for everyone getting to class on time … they couldn’t get messages to people. That’s when you depend on communication and for communication you need to have a relationship and you can’t build relationships that are really strong, like ‘that’, I don’t think’.

Interestingly, having no access to digital technology wasn’t recalled in wholly negative terms. As the school principal reflected:

You know what was bizarre, after the first half a day, I actually found it really relaxing. Next door, we both commented at the end of day two, ‘How good was that?’ Like we just had this day and a half of no email interruptions … it’s almost like you had license to ignore a bunch of stuff that you wouldn’t normally be able to ignore. I got some quite deep work done in a calm and peaceful way.