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During ISTE 2016, a panel of CTOs and educators examined how changes in today’s schools and technologies are impacting the role of the traditional CTO

Chief technology officers (CTOs) in school districts juggle any number of demands relating to IT support, technology integration into classroom instruction, and future district technology plans. But as technology changes, and as the needs of students and teachers change, so does the role of the CTO.

A panel of CTOs, ed-tech specialists, and educators at ISTE 2016 in Denver, moderated by Jeremy Shorr, the director of innovation and education technology in Ohio’s Mentor Public Schools, explored some of the challenges that come along with those changes and shared their best practices for ensuring that technology continues to meet the needs of teaching and learning throughout those changes.

Blended learning

Blended learning has enjoyed time as one of ed-tech’s big buzz phrases. But is it still relevant today, and if so, why? When and where does blended learning make sense, and how do CTOs support that transition? The blended learning umbrella is very, very big. Is that broad umbrella an asset or a detriment?

“Blended learning means flexible learning that caters to learning styles of students,” said Kevin Honeycutt, a technology integration specialist at ESSDACK. “Schools that try to do right by all students, instead of teaching one way, have never left this game. If you’re willing to be flexible to the point of contortionism on behalf of what students need, you’re in that game.”

The broad umbrella “can contribute to blended learning being a buzzword, and not necessarily something that is working to make learning better for kids,” said Susan Bearden, director of IT at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Florida.

Next page: Four more challenges to the traditional CTO role

Open educational resources

How do we support teachers in using OER? How should we share this content?

“The biggest challenge is that too many people still define curriculum by their texts – they buy a curriculum,” said Andrew Chlup, director of application programming and support in Alaska’s Anchorage School District. “Every one of those is a closed ecosystem by default. You’re not allowed to modify or share. Either a district itself starts to promote the Creative Commons, or you start tapping into the amazing resources out there, and it gives people the opportunity to grab it and let you personalize it.”

“I don’t think you should force people to do things,” said Alice Keeler, a Google Certified Teacher and the author of the book 50 Things You Can Do With Google Classroom. “We should be concerned about quality. It’s great that [OER] are out there and free, but do we ask that the teachers wade through things that are not high-quality? There has to be an effective way to rate that, and crowdsourcing is not necessarily an effective way to do things. How do we have administrators and teacher teams look at the resources in a way that they’re not wasting their time?”

“I think there has to be a balance,” Chlup said. “Are you expecting people to go into it blindly and recreate things from scratch?”

A slow approach to OER integration is one option, Honeycutt said, suggesting that teachers take their least-favorite lesson to teach and make it more exciting by integrating OER, and build their OER repository lesson by lesson. “Take it one at a time, and more organically replace lessons with more effective models.”

IT management and instructional leadership

What’s the best model for managing IT? How should IT look in a school district? How can CTOs become instructional leaders?

“It really depends on how big your district is and what you’re trying to accomplish,” said Brad Waid, an educator and educational futurist. “Do you need a liaison between IT and teachers? What are your goals? Don’t create jobs just to create them.”

“It’s very difficult to be the expert in everything,” Bearden said. “I made friends and found mentors, and I learned from them. For CTOs, find that person in the district who is willing to bring you up to speed in the areas where you’re not strong. That struggle between traditional IT operations and the needs of the school–there’s always a tension there. Sometimes you go against traditional IT best practices to help teachers and students. The role of IT has changed tremendously and we need to be cognizant of that.”

Identifying what IT actions or initiatives will best support the district’s educational mission is a good start, too.

“Focus on what’s really important, and give feedback,” Keeler said. “What really gets down to the heart of the business of education? What’s really going to make some of those big differences?”

Transitioning from “fixing things” to focusing on instructional goals

Taking small IT items off a to-do list, or outsourcing those, can help free up IT staff to focus on larger or broader tech initiatives that support educational goals, Honeycutt said.

“Stop doing Level 1 tech support,” he said. “No more learned helplessness. Empower people to [troubleshoot their own IT problems] and take some small stuff off your plate.”

Hiring can make all the difference, too. “It’s important as IT leaders that we recognize what our strengths are, go out and hire people who are good at things we aren’t, and that we’re not intimidated by that,” Bearden said. “It makes your job easier.”

Makerspaces, fab labs, virtual reality, and 3D technologies: Are these things important in helping students learn, and should CTOs be helping teachers with these technologies?

“Yes, it’s important, but the tools will always change,” Waid said, noting that focusing on supporting teachers is more important than focusing on the actual technologies. “Kids in classrooms today will in the future have jobs we don’t even understand right now. Tools will continue to change, so what are the important things in learning? Being flexible, collaboration–the teachers will be the ones to make the difference, because they can make the connection between the tool and the student.”

“I don’t think you have to be experts,” Bearden said. “If you have people you can delegate being an expert to, I think of my role as being supportive of these initiatives. I’m not necessarily driving a particular initiative.”

What is needed from an IT director?

Communication and cooperation seemed to be the unanimous need, according to panelists.

“I need support from administrators saying it’s OK to fail,” Keeler said. “Teachers should give IT staff room to fail. I need a little more teamwork and understanding, and the room for both parties to try something and fail.”

“I don’t think the CTO has to have all the answers,” said David Malone, executive director of technology and innovation for the San Francisco Unified School District. “If you make this model where IT has all the answers, you won’t move forward. Let’s decide together, instead of one person trying to steer the ship.”

“I want a partnership,” Honeycutt said.

“You don’t have to have all the answers, but if I have buy-in, I’ll follow you. I’m always looking for good vision and leadership,” Waid said.

“Communication between the academic and the technology sides of the house is so critical,” Bearden said. “Anything we can do to improve communication and break down silos needs to be a really important focus for both sides.”

“I encourage everybody in partnership and building bridges,” Chlup said. “There is no ‘you’ and ‘I,’ it’s the ‘we’ that matters.”

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