For school systems that can’t afford to hire their own top-level technology staffs, an innovative new consulting service promises to provide the expertise of some of the best school chief information officers (CIOs) in the country.

The service, called CIO Time Share, connects small school districts with 25 experienced school CIOs.

“Small school systems–if they can’t manage technology well–are going to be second class,” said Eliot Levinson, chief executive officer of the BLE Group, an educational technology consulting firm founded in 1994 that specializes in all facets of technology planning, training, and implementation in schools.

Levinson started the CIO Time Share service as a way to close a rift he says is every bit as real as the digital divide, but doesn’t get enough attention: the gap in technological expertise between large and small school districts.

Small districts rarely can match the high wages offered by the corporate world and therefore have trouble finding technology personnel who can manage a school district’s day-to-day technology and can plan for the future, Levinson said.

Generally, a small school’s technology staff consists of former teachers whose background is in education, not the information technology field. “They don’t really understand enterprise-wide computing systems,” Levinson said.

Instead of hiring their own CIO, these school districts can borrow a CIO working in another district when they need to perform large tasks, such as auditing their hardware and software systems, drafting a technology plan, finding sources of funding, writing requests for proposals, or tackling other management problems they might have.

“The kind of help they need is strategic, not operational,” Levinson said. “We’ll answer any question they have within 24 hours.”

Bruce Bovard, superintendent of the Canon-McMillan School District in Pennsylvania, which has approximately 4,100 students, has been using CIO Time Share on a pilot basis since April 2000, because he says it’s hard to recruit and retain someone both skilled and affordable.

“You don’t really get someone who understands the big picture,” Bovard said. He relies on CIO Time Share to provide high-level strategic planning. “They are the experts we turn to when we can’t handle the question ourselves,” he said.

Through CIO Time Share, districts can get help writing budgets and presenting them to the school board, conduct quarterly reviews to see how well the school district followed its technology plan, or even negotiate deals with vendors.

According to Levinson, sharing services also can produce economies of scale and volume purchasing. “If we are bringing groups of schools together under a vendor, we expect to get better prices than an individual district could get,” he said.

CIO Time Share staff will spend a few days doing a systematic, on-site evaluation to assess how well a district is using its current technology, then create a plan for what the district could do to improve in the future. The service also provides a monthly technology newsletter to keep client districts apprised of recent trends.

Bovard said the time-share service is helping his district identify its needs, obtain grants for staff development, write technology standards for teachers (and a plan for how to achieve them), purchase a student curriculum management system, and develop guidelines for staff members who will be assigned laptops. One thing he appreciates about the service is that it’s vendor-neutral.

Bovard added that CIO Time Share is giving his district a “gentle nudge into the future.” The service is “pushing us,” he said. “It’s not just about helping us get where we want to go. [The consultants] let us know where the rest of the world is going.”

Related links:
BLE Group Inc.
http://www.blegroup.com

Canon-McMillan School District
http://www.canon-mcmillan.org