Now more than ever, the school CIO is a critical part of district success during remote and hybrid learning

The new role of the school CIO

Now more than ever, the school CIO is a critical part of district success during remote and hybrid learning

This year’s return to school stands in stark contrast to every school year that’s come before. The usual excitement that marks a new fall semester and the typical scenes of students gathered together in schoolyards, hallways and classrooms was mostly absent as 55 million students took to their seats from home.

With no precedent in modern history to guide administrators, schools and parents scrambled to adapt to teaching and learning within this new environment and adjustments continue.

Online learning presents many new obstacles. From a technology perspective, schools must develop ways to distribute devices to students, service those devices, educate families on how to use remote learning technologies, and adapt the in-person learning experience to a new online medium.

Related content: What district IT teams can learn from the corporate world

To help schools meet these new requirements and make the best of a challenging situation, the school CIO’s role in education is rapidly evolving.

From working in a functional capacity in the ‘90s as schools really started to integrate technology into their organizations, to taking on a more advisory role in the early 2000s, today’s school CIO is now viewed as mission critical. This year, school CIOs will prove instrumental in laying the groundwork for the future of education, transforming the way students learn, teachers educate, and how administrators operate.

Here are several ways the role of the school CIO is becoming more important, and here’s where school CIOs need to focus their efforts to ensure everyone–administrators, teachers, parents, and students–succeed in the new distance learning model.

Partnering with administrators

For schools to function effectively online, school CIOs must work closely with administrators to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place, the learning management platforms are easy to use and secure, and that students have some form of access to wi-fi and other essential tools. Equally important, they must consider the tools that are needed to prevent any breakdowns in communication.

Before the pandemic, things like contact centers and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities were low on the list of priorities for technology deployment. As the CIO steps into the spotlight, the case becomes stronger for leveraging these technologies to create a sort of “front office center” to power administration offices and facilitate “behind the screen” interactions among teachers, students, and parents.

In the new reality, school CIOs are collaborating with administrators to repurpose solutions. For example, the front office center capability, which many CIOs are beginning to implement into their districts, uses a contact center application and an AI-powered virtual agent to help manage the flow of phone calls into the district. Calls get directed to the right person, connecting becomes faster and easier, and operations run more efficiently.

Teaming up with educators

In the spring of 2020, while many districts were concerned with getting everyone online and focused on deploying solutions for enabling that, the need for finding ways to support ongoing communications between parents and teachers was commonly overlooked.

With the traditional parent-teacher night on hold and many parents taking a hands-on-approach as students are taught beyond the traditional classroom walls, parents and teachers need new channels for connecting. To address this, schools are adopting more flexible office hours with expanded availability. Yet here again, the school CIO is called upon to assist, creating a privacy layer within that to protect and mask teachers’ personal phone numbers.

The school CIO must also address the risks associated with shadow IT, when staff members look to solve technology needs on their own using off-the-web applications and tools not vetted or approved by the school’s IT team. As education systems become more technology forward, the school CIO has to communicate closely with educators to understand what they need, provide any necessary training on how to use a particular tool, and maintain awareness of the overall role of IT within the organization. Failure to do so will result in staff creating their own workarounds, which can lead to communications disconnects and exposure to security risks.

Providing student support

Along with supporting administrators and teachers across the current remote and hybrid learning environments, CIOs are also responsible for maintaining a strong and secure infrastructure on both the front and back-end. Infrastructures that support today’s distance learning requirements must adhere to regulatory policies, such as HIPAA and the Children’s Online Privacy Act. Every technology they evaluate and every solution they put in place should be critically assessed for compliance, encryption capabilities and other essential security-related aspects.

The school CIO now must also think about how they’re enabling the student-teacher connection as classrooms become more asynchronous, combining part-time video interaction and solo lesson work. The classroom dynamic has changed from a group setting to a more individualized experience as each student learns from home. Outside of designated class meetings, students are expected to work independently. CIOs will have to be strategic, as well as creative, in how they are transforming their schools to ensure students are successful.

Recreating school online

The biggest challenge the school CIO faces as the role evolves in the new remote world is balancing everyone’s needs to develop a cohesive and easy-to-navigate online school space that’s secure and automated. As CIOs devise strategy and work to implement long-term distance learning technologies and policies, they must rethink how they prioritize the IT team’s focus, balance budgets, and align their technology goals with those of the educational program.

The online shift caused by the pandemic has made it evident that the education system has been stagnant when it comes to implementing more robust technology solutions, leaving schools unprepared. For all the uncertainty COVID-19 has wrought, it has made clear that greater emphasis is warranted around the school technology journey. This brings new opportunities for school CIOs to serve as navigators, charting a course to move through the current headwinds and lead the way in creating the foundation for future learning.

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