District Technology, Academic Leaders Learning to Work Together
To get it right on ed-tech purchasing, district policy, and dealing with vendors, school districts' chief academic officers and chief technology officers must have strong working relationships, according to school technology leaders speaking here at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking.
"You better like, or at least respect, each other," said Marlo Gaddis, the senior director of instructional technology and library services for the 151,000-student Wake County, N.C., public schools. "If you're not automatically having two-way conversations, you're set up to fail."
The discussion came as part of a panel on "critical conversations" between academic and technology leaders inside K-12 systems.
That subject is the focus of a new special report from Education Week, which looked at how effective collaboration is key from everything to leveraging the power of educational data to implementing 1-to-1 computing initiatives to adopting new approaches to personalized learning.
Technology leaders' roles have changed dramatically in recent years, said Scott Smith, the chief technology officer for North Carolina's 6,200-student Mooresville school district, which has been widely hailed for their "digital conversion" work.
"There's not a piece of the school district now that we don't touch," Smith said, citing the technology department's involvement in everything from curriculum to facilities to food services to student transportation.
"You need to make sure it doesn't come off as a power trip. We have to be able to work with other folks in mutually beneficial relationships," he said.
A starting point is making sure that technology and academic chiefs are both part of a leadership team that meet and talk regularly. But the panelists generally agreed that much more is needed. Gaddis of Wake County, for example, described her role as that of a "translator," working to making sure that her district's technology services and academic departments understand each other and "play nice at the same table."
That kind of cross-departmental collaboration is particularly important when unexpected challenges arise, such as when Wake County teachers recently began complaining that the uber-popular-among-teens "disappearing message" app Snapchat had become a major source of classroom distraction and disruption.
Ideally, Gaddis said, when such issues bubble up, it should be an ingrained practice among district leaders in academics and technology (as well as communications and other relevant departments) to consult with each other before making a policy decision and determining how it will be communicated, both internally and externally.
Wake County's decision to block Snapchat inside its school buildings didn't happen quite so neatly, contributing to some backlash from students and outside observers who felt the district was being unnecessarily restrictive and might have put itself on a slippery slope.
But it was a learning experience that has led to some improved processes, Gaddis said, and the important thing was that all parties agreed with the eventual outcome.
"We're good now," she laughed.
Having CAOs and CTOs on the same page is also critical when it comes to dealing with external vendors, the panelists said.
Michael Flood, the vice president of strategy for Kajeet, which provides off-campus wireless broadband for school districts and mobile phones and related services for youth, relayed an experience in which the IT and academic departments in one of his company's district clients were working at cross purposes, initiating competing bidding processes for the same services, but with different specifications.
"It was very challenging to try to get them to talk to each other," Flood said.
It's not just a problem for vendors, said Smith of Mooresville schools.
Too often, he said, K-12 academic officials find a great piece of software, decide they want to put it in all of their schools, and think they're doing their districts a favor by moving to purchase the product out of their own departmental budgets.
If they don't talk to technology leaders first, Smith said, they risk compatibility problems, potential data privacy and security violations, and all manner of student log-in and sign-on headaches.
"The conversation [across departments] has to happen, and it has to be forced sometimes," he said. "You all have to be singing from the same sheet of music."
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