CCSD technology director talks about changes over the years

Published 8:00 am Friday, October 20, 2023

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VALLEY — At this week’s meeting of the Valley Lions Club, Michael Sanders talked about the many changes he’s seen over the 14 years he has been the technology director for the Chambers County School District.

There are some very good things and some concerning things about this.

When Sanders became technology director in 2009, there was more than 4,000 students in the school district but less than 1,000 computers they had access to. Some economic setbacks that same year caused local unemployment to spike at 22 percent. It’s much better now, but many families moved away from Chambers County in search new jobs. Local school enrollment has declined to less than 3,000 since then.

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In 2009, each classroom teacher had access to a computer, but the students had to share them in computer labs.

“We have done a complete turnaround since then,” Sanders said. “The computer labs are gone, and each student has two chrome books, one at school and one at home.”

The school system now has more than 8,000 chrome books.

A chromebook is portable computer running Chrome OS. They tend to have lower-powered processors, less RAM and less local storage than their laptop counterparts. Even so, they are excellent learning tools for today’s student.

Computers don’t last forever. They tend to be obsolete in just a few years, and kids can be rough on them, especially at the middle school years. “Something always seems to be broken,” Sanders said. “The screens can get broken, chargers and batteries get lost and keys disappear.”

Sanders has an excellent staff to work with. “We have four techs who are in the schools every day,” he said. “We also have a network administrator who is in the office every school day.”

The county system operates mostly with Windows units. “We had a lot of I Pads at one time, but they are pretty much useless now,” Sanders said. “I guess we could use them as boat anchors.”

The school district uses Aristotle and Palo Alto for content filtering. Teachers filter what their students are accessing and block them from certain websites. “Students are constantly trying to figure out how to get around the filters,” Sanders said. “Proxy sites are constantly popping up every day, and unblocked game sites are new every day. The staff is phished almost every day.”

Phishing is a fraudulent practice of sending emails or other messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to persuade the receiver to reveal personal information such as passwords and credit card numbers.

Staff members have undergone training to guard against this, but those who are into phishing can be very clever in how they operate.

Sanders talked about one incident when a staff member received an email that looked to be from the superintendent directing them to purchase $300 worth of iTunes cards and to follow it up with another $300 purchase. They felt honored that the superintendent had chosen them to do this. The problem here is that it wasn’t the superintendent making the request, and the money ended up being stolen.

“Ransomware is a huge concern right now,” Sanders said. “Education is the low-hanging fruit and is usually not as secure as it is in business.”

Many city and county governments along with school systems have been victimized by ransomware attacks. This is where hackers come in, shut down your system and ask you to pay them to unlock what they have done. It’s a quick way to pick up big payoffs for those who successfully pull this off. Those who try it and get caught usually spend time in prison.

“These crooks think they are honest people because they give you your system back,” Sanders said. “But you may have to pay them thousands of dollars to get it back.”

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is a coming thing that offers great promise while being mighty scary. “With Artificial Intelligence students can get a first-class, expertly done term paper in just seconds,” Sanders said.

In the old school that was known as cheating.

Advantages of artificial intelligence include streamlining business tasks, saving time, eliminating biases and automating repetitive tasks. The disadvantages involved costly implementation, potential human job loss and lack of emotion and creativity.

Artificial intelligence can come up with complete game plans for football coaches. “They can tell you what you need to be doing on any given day,” Sanders said.

Teachers who don’t have a thorough understanding of it may be missing out on how some students are cheating big time.

Sanders is a Chambers County native. He has degrees from Southern Union, Auburn and Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas. While living in Texas, he was a supervisor for Wells Fargo Bank and was in tech support and project management. He returned home to east Alabama to be a project manager for InterCall before being hired by the county school system.