IT Trends

The State of the K–12 CTO: A Roundtable

Five school technology leaders answer our questions on learning with tech, sustainable 1-to-1, ESSA, student data privacy concerns and what they'd give up in their jobs if only they could.

The State of the K–12 CTO: A Roundtable

Should technology be able to prove its value in education? That's a question Melissa Dodd doesn't see much meaning in. After all, she noted, tech has become the new textbook. "And I don't think we used to ask about the value of a textbook for learning." During her tenure as the Chief Technology Officer at California's San Francisco Unified School District, Dodd has become convinced that tech shows impact daily in meeting the needs of her school system's 57,000 students. " We see the value of the use of tech around student agency and voice and the ways in which it can help enable students to make meaning of their learning, access learning and demonstrate how they're learning."

To learn how technology leaders such as Dodd are responding to a number of current challenges in their schools, THE Journal recently spoke to five CTOs from around the country to understand the roles they play in helping their teachers keep up with the use of tech for learning, whether their 1-to-1 efforts are remaining financially sustainable and what impact they have on learning, what they can do as ESSA unfolds in their states, how they're grappling with student data privacy and what they'd give up in their jobs if they could.

The responses have been edited for brevity.

Project Tomorrow recently released its annual Speak Up results regarding digital learning. It found that 78 percent of teachers were "not very comfortable" facilitating student use of digital devices. What role can the IT organization play in addressing that?

Melissa Dodd

Melissa Dodd
San Francisco Unified School District, CA
Students: 57,000
Schools: 133
Size of her organization: 100

Melissa Dodd: On Monday we had about a thousand educators come together for what we call our Digital District Day. It's a day of hands-on engaging learning on building teachers' essential skills so that they can help their students build those skills. We do one-hour workshops and they can put together their schedule based on their interest areas, content areas, grade levels. They personalize their learning for the day. Then we offer additional learning opportunities that are both face to face as well as online throughout the year. The other thing we do is [team] up with our curriculum partners to weave in technologies so teachers are building their comfort level as they're learning content or instructional practices and strategies.

Daniel Smith: The older, more seasoned generation of teachers is retiring out. I spent a decade handholding teachers just on: "Click on the selection on the screen." "Do I left-click or right-click?" "Well, try one and if that doesn't work try the other one. You have a 50-50 chance." Fast forward to yesterday. I did an orientation for new teachers. My normal three-hour spiel was cut down to 40 minutes because I could go straight to the meat-and-potatoes—"Let me give you some great examples of what good teaching and learning looks like with technology integrated as a seamless piece." Our teachers are becoming more digital natives as time goes on.

Pete Just: We started using BrightBytes five years ago. Twice a year, we're doing self-assessments and tracking how teachers feel. It is important to get an idea of what they feel about the adoption of these devices, these tools that we've provided for their students. What we've seen is that it's been slow, but the classroom part of that evaluation has gone up maybe one or two percent every single time we've asked. We have a nice trajectory, and I think that this is going to continue. What we saw this year actually was a bit of an inflection point, where we increased at a greater rate than we ever had before. We're starting to see teachers understand the value that we can bring in terms of efficiency and in terms of access with these opportunities that they hadn't seen before.

We're going into a second and third generation of digital device usage by many schools. Is it proving to be financially sustainable, and is your district able to prove the value of the use of tech in learning?

Ellen Dorr

Ellen Dorr
Renton School District, WA
Students: 15,000
Schools: 25
Size of her organization: 35

Ellen Dorr: We are very fortunate to have a tech levy supported by our community. So that's one way that we're able to [make it sustainable]. We're 1-to-1 with Chromebooks, and the price point on those is pretty fantastic. We're able to make that shift. We still have some specific needs in certain departments. For example, in science we have probeware that doesn't work on Chromebooks, so we have to have some other devices as well, but we are finding that to be sustainable. In terms of proving the value, we are working on collecting evidence for that. Starting this year, we have four big metrics we're going to be looking at:

  • Classroom observations, not just for technology alone, but how technology is being used in instruction and learning;
  • Assessments, progress in student data on external assessments, interim assessments, classroom assessments—indicators that students are learning;
  • Student perception data, how students feel their learning needs are being met all around in general and then specifically with technology; and
  • Monitoring online activity, how much time is spent in different programs and/or tools.

Then we're going to be looking for correlations between those four metrics to indicate how technology is supporting learning.

Nancy Battaglia: We are staggering our device purchases so I can make it a sustainable budget line. We are starting our fourth year of 1-to-1 iPads, first through eighth grade. I've re-allocated tech funds by reducing purchases in other areas. For example, we no longer have computer labs. I no longer have that as a budget item to refresh. I've taken those funds and moved them into my device refresh. Then I also sell back my devices at the end of our lifecycle of using them [to a third-party company], which now gives me almost a third of the cost of the replacement units. That provides another area of funding. What's helped as well is that Apple has come out with more competitive pricing over the last couple of years, which has reduced our overall costs as well. We're looking at the perspective that we're providing our students with the skills that will prepare them for college and careers by using technology and fostering those skills that students need in the workplace such as communication, collaboration, problem solving and creativity.

Pete Just: In terms of being financially sustainable, the answer is yes, because we planned for it to be. Anyone that got into this with a grant and thought, "Well, we'll see how it goes; we're not allocating dollars," then it's not financially sustainable. We're a Google Chrome district, and what we've found is that the cost of devices has come down from our budgeted amount substantially. What we've been able to do is reduce the total cost all as we've moved through the process of rolling them out. It's very financially sustainable to us, especially when you consider the heavy value. We've seen the teachers that have done the deepest adoptions have the deepest testimonies of value. Even as a second-grade teacher, if you do reading in class and you want everyone to reflect and share what they thought about the reading, then you want them to respond to other students' responses, if you do that live in class it's a wonderful thing, but it's going to take an hour. If you do it virtually, it's going to take 15 minutes. There's a huge efficacy in that. If you're trying to personalize instruction and trying to get student agency, you have to have options for that. Devices provide options.

As states and districts grapple to implement accountability systems as part of ESSA, is the district CTO in a position to guide their thought process or decision-making?

Pete Just

Pete Just
Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, IN
Students: 16,303
Schools: 19
Size of his organization: 54

Pete Just: When you look at ESSA, there certainly is an opportunity for chief technology officers to be a part of that conversation. I actually went to the hill this year to meet with our [Congressional] representatives about this. We're getting a rare opportunity right now to create what [ESSA] will be. A lot of that does lie in the hands of our departments of education at the state level. But in the state of Indiana they're asking us. They're looking for input. They're hoping to understand what our needs are. Certainly, some additional allocations we've seen in Title IV are going to be very positive for technology. So I do think that although it is very much at the state level, there are opportunities for CTOs to be able to help with some of that thought process. The problem is that many times people don't think of us as a good resource for those types of things. They're looking just to the academic side of the house. There needs to an increased awareness of the contributions the CTO can make.

Ellen Dorr: There are ways we can help school teams look at their data and figure out how to act on it and then look back on the data to see if those actions have had impact.

Daniel Smith: In North Carolina we have Session Law 2013-11 House Bill 23, a mandate that says districts need to do a better job of making sure their teachers are digitally competent. They've introduced a metric to measure digital competency in teachers. That's going to be a challenge. Even if I've got some type of test or some type of course I can take you through to help you be a digitally competent person, how do I continue to show that over time? I can appreciate that someone in a government agency is asking school districts to make some effort and show some documentation that people are growing around this particular area, but it's hard. It's like a floating dartboard. The darts don't change but my targets are changing.

Does the growth of Google, Microsoft and Amazon in education and all of their free tools that collect tons of student data concern you?

Nancy Battaglia

Nancy Battaglia
Skokie School District 68, IL
Students: 1,800
Schools: 5
Size of her organization: 4

Nancy Battaglia: Yes. Student privacy and protecting student data is a topic that's on most tech directors' minds these days. Protecting our students—especially our students under 13, which is the requirement under COPPA—we need to look at that. Not only is it Google, Microsoft and Amazon, but it's really any service that requires us to keep an account with identifiable information—with the student's full name or their email address. The biggest thing that we're working on is educating our teachers about what services they can use, looking at the privacy policies around those services, and then educating our families. Right now, we're reviewing the Education Framework, [which helps with online student data privacy management]. We're also looking at it from the larger perspective—what education technology organizations can do at the state and national levels to protect our students' data and privacy through involvement in policy-making.

Pete Just: The first thing is that we have to demystify what we're talking about when we talk about data. There's some data that is really marketing kind of data, some data that's personally identifiable information, learning data and so on. I think it's very concerning if we're talking about any type of PII that might be released. That's something we had deep discussions about early on with Google, and it's important to read those privacy statements that companies make and try to understand what they mean. Whenever we go into a relationship with a company, we've got some checkboxes we have to get checked before we'll do business with them: What's happening to that personally identifiable information? How is it protected? It is a concern. I don't know that I'm worried in terms of Google's use of data, because I think most of the things they're trying to figure out is what's going to make the experience better. But what are the other things that people are looking at and interested in? There's [also] continuously an effort to help teachers understand what it means when you do click-share agreements.

Melissa Dodd: We have our own data privacy agreement that we require for all of our contracts that we have with ed tech vendors that they need to sign off on. We negotiate that with them, but we have some core principles that are must-haves. We also work with our teachers and our principals in terms of building their knowledge and understanding around data privacy. In addition to the biggies, there are the smaller ed tech vendors where it's so easy for somebody to click, "Sure, I accept," and not really understand what they're clicking on. This is definitely something that all districts are focused on and trying to work through. California, similar to other states like Massachusetts, has started a data privacy alliance group and is looking at having a state-wide privacy agreement so that we're coming together to advocate and ensure data privacy for our students.

Ellen Dorr: Teachers are incredibly resourceful, which we all appreciate because it's necessary for that role. It's hard work. So we ask teachers to use an approval process for any new tool they'd like to use. Part of our submission form for this process asks people to answer different questions, such as, "Has the vendor signed the Student Privacy Policy?" I think your average teacher may not know about that, but having them fill out that form helps inform them: "Oh, this is something I should be looking for." Then we look at the legal aspects and what the product or vendor is doing in terms of protecting student data. There are a couple of [products] recently where we've said no, that the privacy policy doesn't work for us and we can't use that. But for us it's really nice if the vendor has signed the Student Privacy Pledge and has that readily available on their website and can show us those things.

Are there any parts of your job you wish you could give up to somebody else?

Daniel Smith

Daniel Smith
Washington County Schools, Plymouth, NC
Students: 1,500
Schools: 6
Size of his organization: 3

Daniel Smith: Yesterday, I split my pants from loading devices up into a van. I commonly have to keep an extra pair of shoes at the office because I'm crawling underneath desks and those pointy-toed shoes just really don't cut it. My team worked with our finance department on configuring a paper-folding machine. I remind people every chance I get, it's not all roses and Twinkies over here. I wouldn't give up those parts for anything. Even when people call my department to do things that aren't even remotely close to any job description, that wouldn't even fit into that item, "other duties as assigned," what's happening is we are building a relationship. Me going into a classroom, crawling under a desk to help a teacher get something plugged in, that helps keep my ear to the street. I can see how the decisions I'm making are affecting the teachers in the classroom.

Nancy Battaglia: Short answer, no. There are always new technologies on the horizon to investigate, problems to solve and people to help. I believe in service leadership. Nothing makes me happier than when I'm in a school building and somebody asks me for help and I'm able to solve their problem—even if it means crawling under their desk to plug in or check connections. If I can help somebody out, that makes my day.

Ellen Dorr: I think there's always more opportunity for us to hear from students: "How is this working for you? What else could we do or how could we make this better together?" I like that idea, especially because sometimes so many of our students are more flexible thinkers than adults are.

Melissa Dodd: Being in technology and having it be accessible, 24/7 in the multiple ways in which people can reach me—whether it's through social media or a text or a hangout or an email—sometimes it's like [I wish I could] put it all on silence for a few minutes. But I wouldn't give that up because I think that's also so critical. Technology supports everything that happens in the district, so we have to always be accessible to partner and support our community.

Pete Just: There's a paperwork aspect, and maybe I'd hand that over. Looking over contracts—that can get old. But, really, I like every part of what I do. This is a magical time—a golden age in some regards—for education because of ed tech. I'm in a very high free-and-reduced-price-lunch school district. We have a lot of poverty here. There is an opportunity that we have before us right now to level some playing fields, to give our students opportunities they've never had before. Part of that is access, but also in regard to the options that are there for personalization—we've never been able to personalize in the way we have the opportunity to do today. And that's a wonderful thing.