Point Man


A district's IT efforts all revolve around theCIO, whose role and responsibilities havebeen transformed by the digital age.

BOB DYLAN ONCE SANG THAT THE TIMES WERE A-CHANGIN',but the shaggy crooner couldn't have had any idea how the line would oneday resonate with the leaders of K-12 technology.

Point Man

ON THE JOB Forsyth County Schools'
Bailey Mitchell typififies the new breed of
CIO, ready to respond to his district's many
technology needs.

Think back to the days of the first George Bush. Back then, few, if any, schooldistricts even had chief information officers. Instead, IT was handled by computer ortechnology coordinators, many of whom were classroom teachers with passing interestsin computers and associated high-tech gadgets and gizmos.

As districts began embracing CIOs, the earliest administrators on whom the title was conferred bought technology, installed it, and tried to keep it running. Most of these folks were focused on instructional technology; occasionally they bought PCs for the computer lab and maybe for a classroom or two. Software in those days was AppleWorks or the early forms of Microsoft Office, as well as teacher tools like crossword puzzles or word-search programs.

In other words, it was all pretty rudimentary stuff.

Gradually, however, as education technology has become more sophisticated, the role of the people who administer it has too. Nowadays, many K-12 CIOs have responsibility for technology that is mission-critical throughout the school district, including everything from applications software to networks, testing, and reporting systems that transmit results to local government, and student information systems that capture attendance records upon which funding is based

Today's CIOs-sometimes referred to as CTOs, or chief technology officers-are expected to make tactical decisions, always keeping in mind how technology will impact the business operations of their district. Bill Rust, research director at Gartner, a market research firm in Stamford, CT, refers to today's K-12 technology honchos as "educational business leaders," noting that the transformation has been nothing short of radical.

"Earlier administrative and business needs were addressed with the existing, stable technologies, but that's no longer the case," he says. "Instead of satisfying the needs of a few central office and school-based administrators, CIOs now need to recognize a gamut of needs, from technology decisionmaking to technology management, business operations, and strategic thinking."

In this environment, modern-day CIOs are faced with unique challenges-and a new set of secrets to success. A recent workshop from the Consortium for School Networking (see "CTO 2012") singled a few of them out: building consensus among varied constituents; balancing budgets at a time when funding is scarce; hiring and retaining good workers; and perhaps most importantly, making sure technology stays current.

Here's a closer look at each of these challenges, and how the best K-12 IT chiefs stay on the leading edge.

"Instead of satisfying the needs of a few central office and schoolbasedadministrators, CIOs now need to recognize a gamut of needs,from technology decision-making to technology management, businessoperations, and strategic thinking."
-Bill Rust, Gartner

Building Consensus

Naturally, it's important for CIOs to make sure various stakeholders understand what they're trying to accomplish. This demands a two-pronged strategy, revolving around input on specific IT products and a decision-making process that involves other decision-makers in the district.

The first part of this strategy requires aggregating opinions on technology from a range of departments and people, from the superintendent down to the janitorial staff. Bailey Mitchell, chief technology and information officer at Forsyth County Schools (GA), says this aspect of his job takes time, and that it's all about mingling and interpersonal communication.

Mitchell says he spends a good part of every week participating in informal conversation at lunch and stopping by the offices of his colleagues to talk shop. During these visits, Mitchell asks teachers and fellow administrators which specific technology products they think they need in order to get their jobs done. In this sense, he treats them as customers, focusgrouping the constituents to get a sense of what they want.

Mitchell says he uses these casual interactions to litmustest his own ideas about specific IT purchases, to make sure that what he and his department are planning for IT is palatable to everyone.

"Whether you're talking to your superintendent, your principals, the central office, people from the teaching and learning [department], or people from finance and budgeting, it's all about making the time to communicate," he says. "At the end of the day, whether I'm building a new wireless network or investing in PDAs for assessment, it's my job to make them happy."

Once CIOs have collected input from various colleagues, Beverly White, CTO at the Wake County Public School System (NC), says it's important to involve them in whatever purchasing decision is made.

White is one of about a dozen associate superintendents in her district; she regularly presents ideas to her colleagues before formally acting on them. Within her IT department, she has four senior directors, with whom she consults on all decisions.

CTO 2012


THE CONSORTIUM FOR SCHOOL NETWORKING adviseseducational technologists on how to apply technology strategically, sothere's no better organization to address the expanding role of the districtCIO. This was the thinking behind CTO 2012, a half-day workshop offered inearly March as part of CoSN's annual K-12 School Networking Conference.

The workshop, slated to revolve around a panel composed of leadingK-12 technology thinkers, was designed to help district technologyleaders understand the critical trends that will change the job of theK-12 CIO over the next three to five years. Discussion topics werescheduled to include:

  • How key trends begun by CIOs in other industries change the role ofthe K-12 technologist
  • How initiatives such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and emerging tools such as Web 2.0impact leadership roles
  • Understanding the growing importance for technology leaders todemonstrate value to the instructional leadership
  • Balancing the emerging roles of key technology strategist, diplomat toother district departments, information steward, integrator, and enterprisedesigner
  • How to communicate successfully with other educational andadministrative leaders to garner support and funding for technology
  • Making the case for how technology can be transformative to learning

Keith Krueger, chief executive of CoSN, adds that another big challengefor present-day K-12 technologists is simply understanding what'spossible-developing a vision for IT and formulating a strategy to implementthe tools and services that can bring that vision to life.

"Too often, we're simply automating things we've been doing for years,which is a process that can be helpful but more often is inefficient," he says."In my opinion, the biggest challenge for a CIO in today's world is standingback and asking, ‘What is it that would really make a big difference and betransformative? How might technology enable that in some new and profoundlybetter way?'"

White gathers with her inner circle once a week. During these meetings, she says it's critical for stakeholders to focus on the goal of doing what's best for the district, engage in a calm and open democratic process, painstakingly discuss each issue, and remember that nobody can be happy with every decision all of the time.

"In many cases, simply knowing we can discuss issues and involve everyone in the decision-making process is good enough," says White, who cites a new book by Keith Sawyer, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (Perseus, 2007), as a source of inspiration in the area of building consensus. "With this approach, there's always room for improvement."

Balancing Budgets

Most K-12 schools implement a standard request-for-proposals process to find the best technology for the best price.

In some cases-particularly in districts that are struggling for funds-schools automatically go with the most affordable option. Other districts that have enough money from the tax base can choose the technology that works best, regardless of price. Such is the case for Mitchell at Forsyth.

Still, wealthier districts do put some deliberation into purchasing decisions. Mitchell applies what he calls the "replicability test," a rigorous total cost of ownership and cost-benefit evaluation. He declined to get into specific numbers and formulas, but the basic premise focuses on the relationships between cost, time, and functionality.

If the test determines that a technology is too expensive at a particular time, Mitchell will look for alternatives or wait for the price to drop, so the district never spends outside its means.

"This isn't rocket science, it's pragmatism," Mitchell says of the strategy that resulted in Forsyth waiting nearly five years for digital projectors, which are now in every district classroom. "We take pieces of our plan and spend the money to implement them only after technology becomes palatable and replicable."

In Chicago Public Schools, an urban district with 435,000 students at more than 600 campuses, technologists have taken a different approach. Sharnell Jackson, the district's chief e-learning officer, says that her teams have had to lobby for funding by demonstrating effectiveness with existing technology, thinking up innovative solutions, redefining job positions to maximize efficiency, and creating partnerships with local foundations.

Jackson has also engineered successful grant-writing campaigns. Chicago Public Schools has received grants from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Intel Foundation and Corporation, and the DAWN (Developing Awareness of World Need) Project Foundation. These grants have lead to the use of DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessments, videoconferencing with students overseas, and a new technology literacy curriculum.

"With declining budgets, the only way we can guarantee leading-edge technology is to…get creative with how we pay for it," she says. "These grants have become an invaluable part of the way we do our jobs."

Jackson acknowledges that one concern about the use of grants as a source of funding is their lack of sustainability, but notes that her district has institutionalized programs and projects that have been grant-funded, so they receive regular district funding on an annual basis after demonstrating effectiveness.

She adds that all grant-funded programs require professional development and a plan for sustainability.

Drive Time


FORD MOTOR COMPANY, IBM, and other Fortune 500 companies arefamous for research and development labs in which technologists toil tocreate the Next Big Things. In most K-12 school districts, however, researchand development usually consists of one or two techie staff members whogeek out over new products, new software, and new service offerings.

Georgia's Forsyth County Schools does things differently. There, BaileyMitchell, chief information and technology officer, has built the Developmentand Research of Interactive and Virtual Experiences (DRIVE) Teaching andLearning Laboratory, a facility dedicated to researching technology trendsand determining their applicability through implementation in the classroomenvironment.

Mitchell says the facility, which opened last winter, helps districttechnologists research and model the best equipment, software, andprocedures for improved connectivity, enhanced use of virtual worlds, andmore user-friendly learning environments. The research also advancescurriculum designed to help students develop geo-awareness, or the toolsand methods of using geospatial data to identify and find solutions toreal-world problems.

"The lab is our attempt to stay on top of the latest and greatest technologies,and how we can use them to enhance the educational process overall,"says Mitchell, whose colleagues gave him the title of "Chief MicroscopeTester" last year when they evaluated new digital microscopes that interfaceto computers through a standard USB connection.

So far, the DRIVE lab is only open to technologists, faculty members, anddistrict staffers. Mitchell says he hopes to get students involved in theresearch and development process by the beginning of next year, butadmits it could be challenging to pull them out of class and transport themto and from the central office facility.

Finding Good People

Hiring and retention present more challenges for K-12 CIOs. In many cases, school districts cannot pay nearly as much as private companies for top IT talent. This means that many K-12 technologists often have to settle for second-tier candidates to fill staffing holes. Once they make their hires, the job becomes retention-making sure the employees are happy enough to stick around. Mastering the two tasks can be tough.

Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services at Blue Valley Schools (KS), tries to sell prospective employees on a lifestyle. He targets IT workers who have been caught in the endless cycle of private-sector downsizing and hire-backs, as well as young workers who are looking for a sense of belonging and want to be part of something big.

"We don't use the pay gap as an excuse to hire bad employees, but we want people who aren't necessarily focused on the highest possible paycheck," Moore says, noting that his department has found many of its newest workers by incentivizing current employees to recruit friends. "We can't often compete dollar for dollar with the private sector, so we have to improvise."

Chicago's Jackson thinks that having a reputation for hiring talented people presents its own challenges. When companies see a local school district as a legitimate recruitment threat, they look to cherry-pick members of the district's IT team as potential candidates to fill resource gaps.

In order for a K-12 IT department to support expanded business roles in a global knowledge economy, Jackson says the CIOs of today and tomorrow must create new ways of sourcing, developing, and keeping top talent. Her solution in Chicago has been teamwork and diversification; instead of pigeonholing employees in one area, everyone works on everything.

"We have moved beyond alignment to convergence," she says, "and all teams jointly recognize the potential of technology-enabled instructional, accountability, and business systems to improve teaching and student learning."

Staying Current

Considering Moore's Law, which posits that technology will outgrow itself every two years, it's no surprise that today's K-12 technologists stay up nights worrying about how to keep their infrastructures current.

Many districts do so reactively-they replace technology only when it breaks. Others, like Wake County, have embarked on proactive refresh cycles. White says that every computer in Wake County is replaced every five years. While White and her team don't centralize these purchases, the department has established minimum standards for all PCs across the district, and publishes sample purchase orders for individual schools and divisions to use as they explore this process on their own.

"Sharing our data, comparing results, asking and answering questions: These processes help clarify many things," White says, adding that data from organizations such as Gartner and the Consortium for School Networking help. "At the end of the day, we recognize that everyone is in this together."

At Forsyth, Mitchell employs two different strategies for keeping his technology up to date. The first is decidedly hightech. He and all of his three department heads spend at least a portion of every day doing research and development, testing new hardware and software platforms in a district facility called the Development and Research of Interactive and Virtual Experiences (DRIVE) Teaching and Learning Laboratory (see "DRIVE Time").

The second strategy is remarkably low-tech: Mitchell and his colleagues regularly visit district classrooms to ask students about the kinds of tools they're excited about, and the kinds of tools they're using at home. "Almost all students nowadays are very well plugged in and have some great ideas about the way technology could be used to make the classroom more engaging," he says.

"You can learn a lot from simply interacting with them. Sometimes the best way to plan for the future is to ask the future itself."

Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in Healdsburg, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.