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During a lunch-hour "CTO Boot Camp" panel at last week's ISTE conference in San Antonio, a group of K-12 tech administrators moderated by Jeremy Shorr of the Teaching Institute for Excellence discussed issues around managing deployment, tracking inventory, maintaining devices, and coping with the position's changing expectations. Panelists included the U.S. Department of Education's Susan Bearden, Anchorage School District's Andrew Chlup, Owensboro Public Schools' Matthew Constant, and Pickerington Local School District's Brian Seymour.
Education Dive was on-hand for the session, gathering four key takeaways around expecting the unexpected, developing comprehensive tech plans, addressing cybersecurity threats, and staffing a school or district-level IT department.
Be open to unexpected events and surprises
As a number of K-12 principals and higher ed CIOs have previously told us, the first days on the job in an administrative role can come with their fair share of surprises and missteps. Asked about rookie mistakes, Constant shared a story about a time he took the jump from being high school principal to being a director of technology in charge of 21 campuses with 12,000 students total. "I wanted to do a great job and wanted everybody to like me, right?" he said.
After taking over, he received an email from a school administrator telling him that his predecessor had approved her school to receive new computers for a lab under a specific fund. He gave it the OK, the computers got ordered, and he received a similar request from another school two days later before the finance officer said, "You know you don't really have money in that account, right?"
Ultimately, he learned to check those things out before following through.
While those sorts of unexpected surprises are typical "rolling with the punches of being a rookie" fare, Shorr also drew attention to unexpected opportunities when addressing Chlup — specifically when it comes to developing a technology plan.
Referencing the paraphrased Benjamin Franklin quote about how failing to plan equates to planning to fail, Chlup said that when his previous district in Vail, AZ, started its blended learning program, they really didn't quite know what they were doing yet.
"We kind of visited a couple different schools," Chlup said. "We visited four different virtual charter schools that were out there, talked to like every vendor under the sun that was offering personalized learning at that time. Ed Elements was just getting started. They came out and visited us."
They got the program running, and out of nowhere, they had a phone call from a parent with a student on the autism spectrum. She was in tears and excited because her son had gotten in trouble in class for talking with his friends. They found that the blended format had the unintended consequence of changing the student's frustration level and helped him build relationships.
Experimenting with scaling it out to more students in similar places on the spectrum in other schools at the district, they found that the program had the unintended benefit of producing significantly better outcomes for those students.
"You've gotta be opened to those unexpected events and unexpected surprises," Chlup said. "And sometimes, that means that [after] all that planning you did for the last 18 months, you've gotta pivot because your opportunity is right there."
Where do you start planning, and what tools and resources should you be using?
On the planning note, developing a comprehensive technology strategy can be a daunting task for any IT department. Bearden, however, noted that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology offers several resources to make that process more manageable.
For one, the department's K-12 tech infrastructure guide, initially released in 2014, was recently updated. The guide covers the steps of planning basic ed tech infrastructure — from acquiring broadband and getting broadband in schools to choosing devices and addressing privacy concerns. It's also written in plain English so it can be understood by non-technical school leaders.
"Our hope is that this will serve as a bridge, because my experience as a technology director is that translating geekspeek to non-technical people is often really hard," Bearden said, noting that it can also help those non-technical school leaders be better aware of the questions they should be asking.
The department has also recently issued its 2017 National Ed Tech Plan, which covers the steps in implementing meaningful ed tech initiatives. It also distinguishes between active tech use, which requires students to collaborate and create, and consumptive tech use, such as simply watching a video.
Each also offers best practices, and Bearden said they include lots of information about cybersecurity, as well.
Chlup chimed in, joking that plans have to be called "roadmaps" now or nobody will take you seriously.
So what about that malware, anyway?
Unless you've been living under a rock, you're probably well aware about the plethora of cyberthreats schools are susceptible to. One in particular that has raised concerns lately is ransomware, which allows a hacker to take control of an organization's systems until a ransom is paid. The systems involved often involve crucial and/or sensitive data.
Constant discussed his Kentucky district's approach, saying the state has taken a pretty proactive and organized approach with its 173 districts working together on cybersecurity issues. He said measures have been pushed out from the state level, including a filtering alternative.
"I feel like, in Kentucky, we're pretty well at least informed," Constant said. “The end user does not like us sometimes because of what we have to do as a result of these things, but it’s a necessary evil.”
The response is an important reminder that while firewalls, filtering and other measures are important in preventing schools and districts from being victimized by malware, the end user ultimately remains the weakest link in an organization's cyber defense. That means additional education for students and staff — and with the importance of digital citizenship lessons becoming a greater focus nationwide, it's probably worthwhile for CTOs to consider the role their departments can play in that for the benefit of the school or district and for students' future bases of knowledge.
IT is people, too
If the above is any indication, CTOs have a ton on their plates. This becomes important on a personnel level when empowering colleagues to share the load and maximize effectiveness.
Chlup noted that updating and revamping enterprise applications, via an application portfolio management process, really allowed his department in Anchorage to dig in and identify the key factors for what makes a difference for end users. It's essentially, he said, what the business world has been doing for years in examining the ROI on a given application, but framing it in terms of the educational return instead.
"No matter how you cut it, especially those of you who deal with budgets and stuff a lot, that money's coming from the student," Chlup said. "You get your allocation from the state per student, or however your state does it. Some percentage of that money is paying for your ERP, for your time clock system, for all of the stuff that's not sexy and glamorous. Where does that all stack up? How good of a job is it doing? Is it making employees happy and more effective? Is it all connected or is it 18 disparate systems that all require a different login?"
But on a deeper personnel level, Seymour added that he comes at it from the level of being a former high school science teacher, instructional coach and curriculum coordinator. His district has 10,500 students and 12,000 staff members. For him, he felt the important thing was to show the IT staff's relevance and their impact on teaching and learning among demand for more tech implementation.
Doing this became a matter of adding some more technicians to the department, picking up some people who had worked at Apple and empowering them to work with teachers on professional development, and hiring a technology coordinator who handles job-embedded professional development throughout the district. When the district's 1:1 tech plan was launched this year, the board toured buildings throughout the district and saw IT's relevance demonstrated firsthand as a result of these efforts. They're now adding an additional three technology coordinators.