Weaving Technology Through the Fabric of Learning

How technology intersects with the tech-savvy 21st century school district

09/03/2009  |  ANN FLYNN, ED.D.
district technology

If you can imagine an intricately designed piece of fabric with a metallic thread running across the complex pattern, then you should be able to visualize how modern technology has become an essential part of school district operations. Today, technology has literally become that essential thread woven throughout all aspects of a district’s operations. Most district activities can be placed into one of three broad categories – teaching and learning; administrative; and communications. While there are certainly overlapping tasks among these areas, it is a useful way to think about the various places technology intersects with the functional areas of a tech-savvy, 21st century school district.

Administration, Learning
& Communications

The oldest and most well established area of technology use in schools rests in the administrative side of the organization. Often, the first computers found in districts were in the central office for basic business and accounting operations and eventually, at school sites on the secretary’s desk. Today‘s forward thinking districts are using technology to streamline virtually all aspects of their administrative applications to find cost-savings in this tight economy. For instance, they use fully online systems for application and hiring processes as well as the management of employees’ HR benefits; they have enabled business practices that allow their web sites to support e-commerce functions with parents and vendors; their new construction and renovations projects are supported by the latest software management tools; their procedures from purchasing and inventory control to the management of HVAC systems have been automated; and the best computer models are employed to help design school boundaries and bus routing. In addition, these systems also provide critical data points to help school leaders make decisions about how to align resources that will support student achievement and provide feedback for continual improvement processes.

As schools struggle to educate all children, classroom technologies have become an increasingly important part of that goal. They allow teachers to offer differentiated experiences based on each child’s individual learning needs or expose students to experts and world cultures through distance learning opportunities. Web 2.0 tools allow students to create and collaborate while specialized assistive devices address vision or limited mobility concerns.  Educators’ own skills can be enhanced through online professional development opportunities and tracked through district-wide systems linked to goals or compensation. Students can access district resources 24/7 through a portal to extend their learning beyond the traditional school day or use mobile devices to practice skills, like language acquisition, anytime or place. Teacher-friendly data systems, online grading and attendance systems, and repositories of standard-aligned curricular resources are among the many learning systems that can support teachers while centralized library automation systems can save valuable instructional dollars.

Easily finding information on the web with a click of a mouse has become an expectation for much of the public. Tech-savvy district leaders recognize that fact and have embraced the latest technology tools to meet those expectations. From classroom web pages to systems that allow parents to view homework assignments and monitor grades and attendance in real-time, districts are using these tools to engage parents in their children’s education. Many school newsletters have moved out of backpacks and into cyberspace to be more interactive and to save money while emergency notification systems can be programmed to immediately communicate with parents on their preferred device. School boards are increasingly moving their policies and meetings to “paperless” environments to make them more accessible, to become more transparent to the public, and to save their districts money.  Administrators and teachers are using social networking tools like blogs and podcasts to more effectively communicate with the public and provide their students with an opportunity to create content that will be seen by a real-world audience.

These electronic tools provide a unique window into district operations that can be valuable the next time a school funding measure is on the local ballot. A good question to consider is how a district’s web presence represents the quality of taking place within the system. Especially for voters without children in the system, it’s important to let the public know how their tax dollars are being invested. The district site can also be a valuable resource for the local press and serve as the official source of information to dispel rumors at times of crisis.

The Role of the Chief
Technology Officer

In today’s world, technology networks, devices, and software applications are critical to the success of a business. Just like FedEx’s strives to quickly deliver packages and Wal-Mart’s is driven to offer economically priced goods, both organizations owe much of their success to highly placed technology leaders who understand their company’s business objective and how to apply technology solutions that will advance those goals. Schools exist for one primary purpose business objective – to successfully educate students.

While “turf wars” and silos exist between IT experts and curriculum leaders and litter the organization charts of both large and small districts, the ones that have overcome those challenges are reaping the benefits. The National School Boards Association’s Technology Leadership Network (TLN) has showcased K-12 innovations for more than 20 years through its district site visit program and at its annual technology and learning conference for school leadership teams, T+L. Two districts, the Madison City Schools (AL) and the Calcasieu Parish Schools in Lake Charles (LA) were both featured as 2009 TLN Site Visits and share a common characteristic that contribute to their success. Both Madison and Calcasieu have recognized that technology decisions touch every aspect of their districts’ business and have placed their top technology person in the superintendent’s cabinet. In both instances, the chief technology staffer is over traditional IT network infrastructure as well as the staff responsible for technology’s use in instruction.

Unlike much of corporate America, schools not only have computers to maintain, but projectors, scientific probes, interactive white boards, digital video equipment, electronic music labs, iPods, and other mobile devices, videoconferencing systems, and a well-filtered network to comply with federal guidelines designed to protect students. Yet, many districts have failed to keep pace with the organizational structure or human infrastructure that is essential to ensure these investments are maximized. A 2003 survey by ITAA found that, across all industry types, the average IT staff member supports 27 employees. School districts, with their ever-growing number of student users as well as their actual employees don’t come close to approaching that ratio in spite of working with a far more potentially challenging user base. Unfortunately, without sufficient input from a district’s CTO, ill-informed leaders have sometimes targeted these critical support personnel as “expendable” during the recent economic downturn

Kathy Raines, as the Technology Director in the 8,400 student Madison City Schools, and Dr. Sheryl Abshire, who serves as the CTO in Calcasieu with 40,000 students and staff exemplify the traits that should be at the heart of any district’s search to identify an individual who can be the visionary IT leader that helps advance their business through the appropriate use of innovative technologies. Both Raines and Abshire are educators by training, naturally curious life-long learners who are anxious to understand how new tools can help teachers and students, streamline operations and more effectively engage parents. Their superintendents and school boards recognize that their expertise in understanding education issues is paramount in helping them identify appropriate technology strategies. Both Raines and Ashire rely on their support teams to keep things humming and to provide additional technical advice, but their critical role is to bridge the needs of students with the technology solutions that exist and be able to communicate those needs in lay terms to other district leaders and school board members who are responsible for setting district priorities, building budgets, and aligning resources to meet district goals. These two tech directors routinely look for opportunities to leverage technology so that it can serve the “customer” – their students, parents, and teachers.

Individuals, like Raines and Abshire, who serve in this critical role must have strong collaboration skills, be able to solve problems, and have strong communication skills. It’s essential that the district’s top tech leader be able to understand and articulate how IT contributes to the “business” of the district. Most importantly, they must truly understand what their business is about; not creating the “best” or most efficient network operation, but supporting teachers to produce successful graduates.  The solutions they elect to put in place must be tied back to that ultimate goal.

Superintendents and schools board members, who fail to place the top tech position among the ranks of the district’s most senior leadership, fail to understand how the technology thread connects and supports the fabric of learning in the 21st century.

Ann Lee Flynn, Ed.D.is Director, Education Technology for the National School Boards Association. For more information, visit www.nsba.org.
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