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tech departments

How today’s tech departments are moving into the future

Despite challenges, tech leaders see opportunities, too

Tech directors are a busy lot these days. With big changes to federal funding models, pressing bandwidth needs (on campus and at home), and the everlasting conversation between IT and instruction departments, there’s a lot on their plates.

Fortunately, districts appear to be meeting these challenges head-on, as evidenced by a recent panel discussion for administrators and tech directors in Dallas, hosted by the IT products vendor PCMG, called “Preparing the Next Generation of Personalized Learners in the Digital Age.”

Moderated by Gabe Soumakian, the former superintendent of Oxnard Union High School District in California, the panelists spoke at length about their challenges, solutions, and the spirit of collaboration. Joining Soumakian were Stuart Burt, chief technology officer for Royse City ISD; Doug Brubaker, an assistant superintendent at Garland ISD; and Tom Murray, a former educator and tech director who now helps coordinate the Future Ready Schools project for the Alliance for Excellent Education. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation.

Gabe Soumakian: With E-rate modernization, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and more taking place at once, what are you looking at in terms of changes to the way you’re funding technology these days?

Stuart Burt: When they changed E-rate a couple years ago, it was a learning curve. I think we are starting now to take pretty good advantage of it. Especially since they’re funding Category Two — well, they say they’re funding it at least. They funded it last year, which was awesome for us because as a small district it was great to get extra bandwidth and equipment. The downside is our finance people are expecting the phone costs to go up now, as they’re not funding that as much.

Doug Brubaker: The (FCC’s) Lifeline program has been expanded through ESSA in order to provide at-home high-speed internet for kids. That’s supposed to come out in December of this year. We’re watching it because we have some concerns about sending devices home with kids who might not be able to use them because they don’t have internet at home. We’re working to develop a registry of local businesses who have a window sticker and are willing to let kids come in and use the internet. Being able to offer a $10/month discount on service for high speed internet is something we’re pretty excited about.

Tom Murray: Lifeline starts Dec 1. A handful of major carriers are expected to be ready to go on that date. The modernization to Lifeline didn’t increase funding overall, but families will have the choice between phone discounts and a credit for broadband at home. Part of the of the difficulty with USAC (Universal Service Administrative Company), when you take a look on their website, vendors have already opted in for Lifeline, but there’s no national mandate. So if you’re in a rural area, it’s possible it’s not going to support you. They did phase out the ability for families to use free and reduced lunch as a qualifier. We’ve pushed back on that because it puts districts in a interesting spot because that’s what we use even though it’s confidential data. Families can go through welfare and SNAP and things like that to get involved with Lifeline.

Another support I would offer is You basically go there as a parent, put your zip code in, whether you’re eligible for free and reduced lunch (say free), and it will give you all the options for discounted internet in your area.

Soumakian: Are you working with open educational resources? What are some of the challenges there?

Brubaker: Back in college, I remember having to pay for those textbooks that were $200-300, and now there are free digital textbooks that are open source. I would really like to see that done at the K-12 level. I remember from teaching, and also from being a student, that some of our best teachers were not necessarily the ones that were tied to one resource, but they used a lot of different things and they mixed and matched and were able to curate things.

Burt: We did FlexBooks at our district as well, and it was a good thing for our students, One of the big issues that we have is once we get the textbooks, it’s hard to get them in the students’ hands. It takes a month for us to get all of our data into their systems, whether it be a manual upload or synced through Clever. I think there needs to be a push for a one method to get our data, whether it be an API or a standard upload format. Whatever it is, a lot of districts out there are dealing with the same things we are. With an upcoming legislative session, one of the things we can do is really push our legislators to say, “Can you support one method for publishers to use?” The OneRoster (standard) is a good one. I don’t know if we’re going to get there, but it would definitely help us get things to students faster.

Murray: I work with the Office of Education Technology and the Department of Education and they’ve pushed the #GoOpen movement. My personal opinion, I think of open education resources as being free like a puppy. To think that we can take these resources, put them out there, and they magically work isn’t realistic. The only way they work is through high quality professional learning opportunities for teachers. That takes time and money.

I don’t want to see #GoOpen become the digital worksheet graveyard. That’s not going to move us anywhere instructionally. I don’t want to see us sacrifice quality for “free” because they are two important, different things. There’s a couple of partners out there we work with: OER Commons, they’ve got all the resources; ISKME, they run OER Commons; another one is Creative Commons; Open Up Resources (rebranded from the K-12 OER Collaborative). The other piece is to check out #GoOpen states. I know they’re trying to move together on this.

Soumakian: How do you keep IT staff current and collaborative with other educators?

Burt: Our curriculum and tech departments are tied together; they’re separate departments, but one hand doesn’t move without the other. My department is pretty much a staff of non-educators and I’ve told them, “You now work in education.” They wanted someone to show them the education side. Teachers would ask us questions we don’t know how to answer. I think it’s just something that needs to be ongoing, such as hosting virtual meetings or doing PD. We have an upcoming session for Google Expeditions, and all the teachers coming to that are going to be learning with my IT staff. It’s about actually training my staff like educators.

Brubaker: We do come from different worlds sometimes. There just has to be a lot of dialogue. In my case, in one of the districts I work for, I thought it was helpful that the instructional technology people and the technical, IT people were within the same department. The instructional technology people were the “why” folks, and if they’re just down the hall, and you can get them together and talk about things that are coming up, it serves to keep that why in front of them as we’re working. Another thing I would like to see is the idea of being able to have certifications and other milestones in educators’ careers as something they automatically get a raise for. So that you continue to keep people on that track and developing their skills.

Murray: I think we’re seeing a shift nationwide. It’s got to be learning driven. I think in a traditional model, you’ve got an IT department and they’ve got a handle on things that are vital: like wireless, security, privacy — that stuff’s vital to the instructional side. A lot of times we see that finger pointing, as in the curricular side doesn’t know what the IT side is doing. That’s where you see a lot of friction and that lock-it-and-block-it mentality of, “No you can’t do that.” Having been in that role, the more we say yes to the more that comes onto our plate, but the more kids can benefit so it’s a balance. And in the best districts, everyone is working hand-in-hand, side-by-side.

My advice to tech directors: Visit a Kindergarten classroom, not just to fix something. Talk to teachers. And on the other side, it’s unfair for us to be condescending to tech directors who don’t have an education background if we’re not giving them the vision of what we want learning to look like.

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