How the IT Department Can Help Make Schools Early Adopters

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Online testing is driving a lot of press, but for most districts, it neither challenged the network nor demonstrated how technology can change education. The required bandwidth for the tests created and delivered by SBAC and PARCC earlier this year was only 20Kbps per student, 1/50th of the bandwidth target set by the Obama administration’s ConnectED initiative.

However, this media attention forced “technology infrastructure” into the national conversation on education. And it has created an opening for school technology leaders to participate as strategic partners and explain how they can help their districts fully realize on the promise of the Internet.

Welcome innovations that push the envelope

Most of the excitement in the edtech media has been generated by new instructional tools that enable teachers to modify their classroom practices to improve student learning. But IT departments can create environments that also encourage the adoption of many new technologies that improve business efficiency, reduce operating costs, make schools safer, and help teachers develop new skills.

Operations in most school districts are still very manual and paper intensive. But, to relieve budgetary pressures and in some situations, help stem family flight to charter schools, districts must automate their processes to improve customer service without increasing central office headcount.

To maximize the value of these new tools, IT departments should ease restrictions on how the network is used, even at the risk of increasing the chance that something will go wrong. Rather than trying to hold back the inevitable, they must manage the complexity of BYOD (bring your own device) policies, be prepared for the surprises lurking in social media, and expand their pipes to allow streaming video.

Make the conversation more than about bandwidth

Nearly every superintendent understands they must invest to build and maintain adequate Internet bandwidth. Data gathered by the EducationSuperHighway indicate that 63% of US schools do not meet the current ConnectED target of 100Kbps per student; this target increases ten-fold to 1 Mbps by 2018. But technology leaders must stress that providing adequate bandwidth is only one piece of the puzzle.

Build the data backbone before users ask, “How do I get on the WiFi?”

As instructional technology shifts from computer labs to mobile student devices, IT departments must meet the expectations that have accompanied the evolution of wireless Internet connectivity from a nice amenity to a necessary utility. Increasingly, users are demanding strong wireless access to the Internet everywhere all the time.

But superintendents may not realize that just adding wireless routers is not enough. Wireless routers must be connected to the “data backbone" of the building, consisting of cables within the walls and switches in the data closets. In some schools, the data backbone may already be working at maximum capacity or may not reach areas not currently served by wireless. The district may need to plan for substantial costs and time to upgrade and expand the data backbone before adding more wireless routers.

Make “the network is down” a thing of the past

To give the school community the confidence to modify their routines and migrate more of their teaching and learning, business, operations and communications to the Internet, IT departments must provide the level of service users have come to take for granted in their personal lives.

But this is very difficult. Few IT departments are staffed to monitor the health of the network 24x7, conduct routine maintenance late at night, or troubleshoot problems immediately whenever they occur. And most districts cannot afford to build resiliency into their infrastructure to maintain service in the face of challenges to normal operations. If the network is perceived as unreliable, many users will be reluctant to change their routines and try new tools, and the benefits to student learning and business efficiency will be slow to materialize.

Given the challenges (for many organizations, not just for school districts) to building and maintaining a high performing and reliable network environment, the IT industry has created outsourcing solutions for many “back office" functions that can be more economical and better for districts than continuing to provide these services themselves.

Seek the right mix of outsourcing and insourcing

The highly-publicized concerns about technology infrastructure provide a rationale for CTOs to seek greater freedom to outsource. Many school staff are reluctant technology followers and need face-to-face training and assistance that are best provided by in-house resources. But CTOs should be allowed to migrate other services to outside vendors and realign the mix of skills and responsibilities in their departments. They should increase the number of staff, such as on-site technology coordinators, who can help users get the most out of the new tools, and project managers who can shepherd projects through the district bureaucracy.

Prepare schools for technologies not yet invented

School district CTOs cannot predict the future, but they can give their districts a running start to successfully adopt the next amazing technology. In his presentation “Beyond 1-to-1 and BYOD” at CETPA 2014 in Sacramento, Calif., Robert Gravina, CIO and CTO of Poway Unified School District fascinated the audience with a TED Talk video, “Meet the SixthSense Interaction,” that demonstrated technology being prototyped by the MIT Media Lab that redefines how humans and computers can interact with each other and with their surroundings. IT departments can help make this happen in their schools.

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