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Superintendents Talk About the Tech Issues That Keep Them Up at Night

Washington

For tech-savvy school superintendents, the list of complex tasks, growing costs, constant complaints, and unintended consequences to worry about each night is very long.

There are the big challenges, such as ensuring equitable access to digital learning opportunities, managing the increasingly complex worlds of ed-tech procurement and student-data privacy, and winning support for technology initiatives from skeptical teachers, local education advocates, and school board members.

But sometimes the little things, such as parents unexpectedly opting their children out of 1-to-1 computing initiatives, can cause major headaches too, said Cynthia Ellsbury, the superintendent of the 39,000-student Horry County Schools in South Carolina.

"We didn't anticipate that [1-to-1 computing] would be an issue," Ellsbury said. "You've got to have a plan for [everything.]"

Ellsbury and Matt Akin, the superintendent of Alabama's 1,200-student Piedmont City School District, were speaking as part of a panel here organized by the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, as part of the nonprofit's annual conference for district technology leaders.

The gathering is an opportunity for those on the front lines of how technology is being used in schools to swap stories and strategies on the full range of challenges districts are facing.

Data privacy, for example, continues to be a hot-button issue affecting nearly every district in the country. During an opening-night forum, Bob Wise, formerly the governor of West Virginia and now the chairman of the Washington-based advocacy organization Alliance for Excellent Education, expressed concern that policies and legislation on the issue are being shaped too heavily by parental fears, a trend he said could "set back the promise of technology for all students." 

Like many advocates for data-enhanced teaching and learning, Wise called for better communication with parents and the public about the use of educational data to help teachers quickly assess and respond to individual students' strengths and weaknesses.

CoSN will release a new data-privacy "toolkit" for districts Friday morning.

But what makes CoSN's gathering in Washington this week most interesting are the perspectives about the constant technological challenges school districts are facing. During a Wednesday pre-conference workshop, for example, a group of about 30 district chief technology officers hashed through the challenges of building networks that are robust and flexible enough to adapt to unexpected demands—such as the influx of new digital devices that make their way into schools each January, after students receive their Christmas gifts.

During the Thursday panel, Ellsbury, the Horry County superintendent, said dealing effectively with such concerns—and with adopting digital textbooks, explaining unexpectedly high breakage rates among new digital devices, budgeting for software licenses over the long-term, and more—can often be "overwhelming," especially for districts seeking to maintain a coherent  technology strategy.

"What keeps me up at night is [trying to] build a shared vision of technology and personalized learning," she said. "How can we keep alive in everyone's mind that there's a purpose to what we're doing?"

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

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