How IT can help shape their district’s technology vision

CTOs and their teams can give students the digital toolsets and support that they need to succeed now and in the future

IT-visionWhen he thinks back to 2010-2011, Pete Just, chief technology officer at the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana remembers how hard K-12 schools were pushing to integrate iPads into their classrooms. The race was on to put the devices into the hands of every student, regardless of the fact that the tablets were largely untested in the K-12 environment. “They said iPads were going to transform education,” recalls Just, “and I just didn’t think that was going to happen.”

A former teacher who taught high school science and media for 13 years, Just compares the iPad to the film projector—an innovation that at one point was touted as revolutionary for the classroom. In reality, he says the projector didn’t change or transform anything. “All it did was let students sit and watch something,” said Just. “It was a great tool to add to the classroom, but it didn’t do any transforming at all.”

Handing out iPads

Flash to 2015 and Just says uncertainty over the role that mobile devices and other tech tools actually play in the learning experience largely remains unknown. “We basically backed up a truck to the school, unloaded a bunch of skids, and handed out devices to students; but the devices themselves didn’t do anything,” said Just. “Along the way, we found out that successfully embedding digital learning is really about the instruction itself and it centers on the teacher.”

Next page: The evolving role of the CTO

Just also recalled his transition from teacher to CTO in 2009. It was an eye opener for Just, who was handed the keys to closets that were literally “crammed with technology and equipment” that teachers refused to use. “They didn’t want anything to do with it because it wasn’t helping them do their jobs,” he said. “It didn’t help instruct students.”

As tech coordinator, Just says he was charged with inventorying those and other technology tools and making sure they were put to good use. Today, he sits on the superintendent’s cabinet and informs the board, the superintendent, and principals about relevant digital trends and how those trends impact education. “It’s a whole different job than it was just five or six years ago,” Just said. “We talk about how we can adjust our approaches to help student learn more easily, and give them new opportunities for success.”

Unfortunately, there’s no single class or educational track that an aspiring K-12 CTO can take to learn how to fill that evolving role. “The job has morphed dramatically in the last 10 years,” he explained, “to where the leader of a digital integration really needs to be someone who can make partnerships and who can watch the trends and pull in the important pieces of new technology opportunities and see directly how they can fit into a classroom. That’s a very different definition of what we do.”

And with the proliferation of new educational and consumer technology tools not letting up anytime soon, Just expects the K-12 IT department’s role to change even more over the coming years. “We’re at a pivotal point right now as many schools are midway into or just beginning the digital leap.”

Taking tech out of the equation

When those skids of iPads were being doled out to students in hopes that the devices would individually enable learning years ago, Just quickly picked up on the fact that the technology itself should not be the focal point of such implementations. Instead, he says CTOs and their technology teams must know how to leverage educational tech and tools into learning opportunities for students (and, equally as important, into something that teachers can actually leverage and use effectively).

The good news, Just said, is that there are strategies that K-12 IT departments can use to make that happen. In most cases, it starts at the grassroots teacher level. “We have the tendency to start talking about IT implementations with our peers, principals, and district-level leaders,” said Just, “when in reality those discussions need to start with the teachers.” The MSD of Wayne Township, for example, has a group of 40 instructors who meet regularly to review new ideas and discuss opportunities with the district’s IT department.

Enlisting “early adopter” teachers to serve as role models for other instructors is another good strategy that Just’s district uses. Calling these early adopters “fertile soil,” he says those teachers have a knack for knowing what will and won’t work in the classroom setting. “Before we buy anything we show it to these early adopters,” he said, “knowing that they’ll give us candid feedback on whether the tools will work, whether they will enable greater interaction among students, and other valuable feedback.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.

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