Diffusing the Tension Between Tech and Instructional Leaders

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One might expect bandwidth, data privacy and device rollouts to dominate discussions at this year’s Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN) conference, where over 900 chief technology officers (CTO) and other administrators gathered.

But the opening message was quite the opposite. Keynote speaker Michael Fullan, Canadian education writer and researcher shared one simple message: "It’s time to shift focus from the digital to the pedagogical."

Attendees hung on Fullan’s every word as he outlined a new purpose for their work: deeper learning. “Digital is the wrong driver,” Fullan says, “At a certain point, you have to switch to the pedagogical horse.”

For Fullan, student agency, as well as deeper connection and independence between families, teachers and students are at the heart of deeper learning. Still, there’s a role for technology to come in. New learning solutions should be “irresistibly engaging, elegant and easy to use, ubiquitous 24/7 and steeped in real life problem solving,” he says.

A House Divided

Still, CTOs expressed plenty of concerns around data privacy and their districts’ insatiable demand for broadband access.

Sessions such as “What CTOs Need to Know About Education” uncovered the tension between instructors and technical officers. Some CTOs expressed frustration at being left out of conversations about instructional needs that ultimately affect their work. One attendee explained, “Instructional staff goes out and just picks new things to use without including IT in the discussion, but we are responsible for implementing it. I need to be preparing things such as infrastructure, servers, platforms. I need to know what’s coming.”

According to Pete Just, Chief Technology Officer at MSD Wayne Township in Indiana, “CTOs need to have the equivalent level of cabinet positions. I have to be shoulder to shoulder with the people who are making the education decisions in order to have the impact around the details,” he states. “We are at a crossroads right now.”

Keeping It Private

There were also the usual suspects on people’s minds: data privacy and bandwidth. The conference hosted several sessions on data privacy, highlighting both legal and ethical issues.

So why the recent obsession with data privacy? Candidly, Vincent Scheivert, Chief Innovation Officer from Albemarle County Public Schools and the Withrow CTO Award Winner shares that school districts weren’t monitoring the tools being used by teachers as closely and the collection of student data wasn’t as prevalent in the past. “For a while people pretended these policies didn’t exist. We protected student data, we just didn’t do it right,” he explains. “We were either following COPPA and not FERPA, or the other way around.”

Now his district, along with hundreds across the country, are narrowing down what their data policy means for teachers. In Albemarle, if a teacher wishes to use a tool, they simply notify the tech department. The tech team reads through the terms of service and shares back the requirements with the teacher, along with any paperwork they will need to share with parents.

Broadband Realities

The bandwidth crunch is a reality that no CTO can escape. As technology leaders become more involved in the instructional side of the house, meeting the relentless demand for broadband access is still at the top of the CTO’s list. According to CoSN leaders, the demand for broadband access in districts, in terms of the number of megabytes per student, doubles every 18 months. The question is, who will foot the bill and how will CTOs do more with less?

School technology leaders face a seemingly impossible job, juggling demands to maximize resources, set district policies and systems for keeping data safe, insert themselves into instructional conversations, and help usher in a pedagogical revolution. But one thing is clear: They’ll only succeed if they work closely with instructional leaders.

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