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How to build human capacity for a digital leap

Today’s school technology leaders must move forward to leverage tech

digital-leadersStrengthening the human technology capacity in our school systems is imperative if we are to enhance the digital learning environment and prepare students for success in college, career, and life.

The above statement sounds simple, but in fact, it is a “wicked problem” facing education systems today.

There are many challenges surrounding the effective use of technology in the classroom: lack of devices, slow networks, inadequate technical support, too little professional development, insufficient budgets, and much more. But, in the words of the old Pogo cartoon, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

In January, CoSN joined AASA, the Superintendents Association, and the National School Boards Association in an invitational roundtable with philanthropic leaders to explore how we can build the capacity of school system leaders to move from old education models to enabling individualized learning with technology. At the core of this challenge is building and growing leaders who know how to transform the learning environment with technology and make a “digital leap.”

(Next page: What do today’s digital leaders need to know?)

CoSN has been thinking long and hard about how we might address this challenge. Clearly, superintendents and principals have a key role to play in setting their visions for making this “digital leap.” Teachers must be willing to grow and change in their technology use, and school boards need to support the policies and budgets that enable this transformation.

But I am going to focus on the new roles of school district staff in charge of technology, generically called Chief Technology Officers (CTOs).

Today’s CTO

According to Price Waterhouse Coopers, in 1990 about 80 percent of the technology leader’s role was technical. Today, managing the technical aspects of the job is less than 20 percent. Yet districts mostly advertise and recruit these district education technology positions on the basis of technical skills.

According to CoSN’s 2014 IT Leadership Survey, the largest number of CTOs come from an education background (nearly 50 percent), closely followed by technology/technical background (nearly 40 percent); a small number come from business management (less than 7 percent). Regardless of their professional background, the job of the school district CTO is now a hybrid position requiring a range of skills.

What does a high-performing district technology leader need to know today?

CoSN-digitalTo answer that question, CoSN created our Framework of Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO. The Framework’s body of knowledge was built and updated by expert CTOs, and validated with support from the National Science Foundation. It defines 10 essential skills that can be grouped into three buckets: Managing Technology (the traditional role of CTOs), Understanding the Education Environment; and Leadership & Vision.

Two years ago, using the Framework body of knowledge, CoSN launched the Certified Education Technology Leader (CETL)TM program. This is the first-ever aspirational certification for education technology leaders. More than 100 education technology leaders have passed this rigorous two-part exam, with several more in the pipeline.

Why is this important?

Technology leaders can no longer be “in charge” of all technology–some refer this as the “consumerization” of technology. Likewise, technology can no longer be a silo if it is to be effective. We need CTOs that see their job as using technology to enable the 21st century leaning enterprise, not simply installing, maintaining and locking down the network. By becoming a CETLTM, you are demonstrating your commitment to that vision and demonstrating you have the skills to be an indispensible leader.

What do superintendents want from technology leaders?

Superintendents increasingly say they need their district technology leader to help them understand what is possible with technology to improve learning. Yet in too many districts, the person in the technology role does not have the sort of well-rounded leadership skills to be part of the leadership team/cabinet.

Compounding this challenge is the new data from CoSN’s 2014 IT Leadership Survey, which found that 2 percent of all district technology leaders will be retiring within the next 5 years, and 50 percent over the next decade. This forthcoming exodus of senior education technology leadership from the field creates a compelling need to scale professional development for those aspiring to be CTOs.

To help superintendents and heads of HR develop sample CTO job descriptions, questions for interviews, and more tools surrounding what district technology leaders should demonstrate, check out

The time is now to focus on building the human technology capacity of school system technology leaders.

Keith Krueger is the CEO of CoSN.

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