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Information Technology | Spotlight

IT Directions: 'Change is the Only Thing We Can Count On'

Working with limited budgets and a seemingly endless pipeline of new technology tools, applications and equipment to test out and possibly implement, today's K-12 IT directors have a lot on their plates right now. Add Common Core State Standards and growth of mobile devices on campus to the equation and the task of balancing student and teacher needs with available resources becomes that much more daunting.

"Nothing is static around here when it comes to IT; everything is changing all the time," said Steve Young, CTO at the Judson Independent School District in San Antonio, TX. "Half of the tools and applications we're talking about today didn't even exist a few years ago. At this point, change is the only thing we can count on."

Young said the CCSS and the related testing requirements are two of the biggest issues his department is grappling with right now. Figuring out whether mandated testing will work on specific mobile devices, for example, has become a major hassle for school districts like Judson ISD.

Determining whether the devices and Internet bandwidth are in place to accommodate students during high-volume testing periods is another hurdle, he said. Currently in the midst of a complete refresh of the district's computer assets, the IT team also has to worry about whether the new equipment will be compatible with the testing. "If it's not compatible we can't do it," said Young, noting that the district is switching over to a low-cost, thin client model that supports Pearson testing.

Change Is in the Air
Change is also in the air at St. Matthew's Lutheran School in Oconomowoc, WI, where George Zaferos is focused on honing a current BYOD program and supporting the initiative with upgraded cable WiFi capabilities. As the 150-student school's business administrator, Zaferos has also been tasked with running the institution's newly implemented, cloud-based VoIP 8X8 telephone system — a successful rollout that's now pushing the school to explore more cloud-based computing options, such as a software suite from ACS Technologies.

Zaferos said the school is particularly enthused by the fact that many cloud-based options are platform-agnostic. This helps smooth out issues that can arise when the school's Windows-loving administrative team has to share information and resources with the Mac enthusiasts that round out its instructional team.

"We like the results we've seen from moving our software into the cloud," said Zaferos, "and we'll be looking to do more of that in the coming year."

Renita Heideman, technology director for the Hamilton County Educational Service (HCESC) in Cincinnati, said she also sees more potential for cloud computing in K-12 educational circles for 2014. HCESC, which serves dozens of school districts throughout southwestern Ohio, is also helping its constituents better manage their campus BYOD programs using tools like JAMF's Casper Suite and infuse more blended learning (when a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction) techniques into their coursework. "There's a lot going on with IT in the K-12 space right now," said Heideman, "and we're all basically trying to assess it and harness it in ways that enhance both the learning and teaching experience."

There's an App or Tool for That
As a technology integration specialist at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, MA, one of Yolanda Gonzalez's primary tasks is to demonstrate a new technology tool to teachers every month. Out of those interactions, Gonzalez said, she hopes that at least two to three of those resources are actually put to use by instructors — all of whom are provided ongoing professional development on technology usage. A few of the tools Gonzalez brought to the table this year were an online whiteboard where students and teachers post their images and thoughts, a Web-based video platform where pupils interact with their instructors on several different levels and a Kindle-based foreign language text translator that allows for more advanced, non-English reading.

"A student taking high school French can go in and set his or her Kindle to default in the foreign language," said Gonzalez, "instead of stopping every five seconds to open up the dictionary and search for terms. They can just click, get the definitions and continue reading."

Right now, Gonzalez is working with several teachers to implement Web-based voice recording systems and mind-mapping tools, the latter of which allows students to use arrows, text bubbles and other functions to "map" out their understanding of a specific topic. In 2014, she said, one of her top priorities is to introduce a program that allows students to more effectively present themselves and the material they've learned via a digital format. The effort goes hand-in-hand with a school media literacy campaign designed to "make sure faculty and students truly understand images — and the use and manipulation of those images — and how to convey messages."

An additional classroom management tool that Gonzalez and her team plan to roll out in 2014 is Google Chromecast. She predicted that the USB device, which allows students to cast their laptop screens onto the classroom projector or TV, will help teachers create even more collaborative, interactive classroom environments. "Everyone is really excited about Chromecast and its capabilities," said Gonzalez, who is already using the device in her own classroom right now. "This is something we'd definitely like to be using school-wide in the near future."

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