After five years as a middle school teacher and two in education technology startups, I made a career change earlier this year—moving into business development for a tech company newly focused on K-12 and higher-ed institutions. I decided to take my own advice and learn how IT leaders at educational institutions are thinking about technology today.
Perhaps no role has changed as much as the chief technology officer—or whatever the position may be called at your local district or university. In fact, the variety of positions and titles underscores the critical and evolving role they play in making a tech-infused campus successful.
Much of their work involves breaking down organizational silos with technology. Consistently, IT leaders’ feedback to me returns to a single point: they want easier, more secure ways for faculty, staff, and students to work together. Three underlying trends come up over and over as we discuss how they get their institution in sync:
The Chief Information Officer Is Now Top Brass
IT leaders haven’t historically been at the top of school leadership. They were focused on day-to-day upkeep—mostly debugging problematic computers, updating software and running break-and-fix-shops. Now nearly every issue has become an IT issue, with technology integrated almost everywhere from the classroom to the cafeteria. Schools are bringing chief information officers (CIOs) into senior leadership discussions—and most importantly, allowing them to make all software purchasing decisions and recommend technology that will help drive key academic initiatives forward.
CIOs now oversee the full lifecycle of technology in a school, from purchase to classroom adoption. They’re often even encouraged to hire interdisciplinary teams of their own—called “instructional technology staff.” I am fortunate to know this role well: I’m a former technology integrator myself, meaning I helped teachers figure out how to use tech in their classrooms.
Entrepreneurs and edtech sales teams need to understand how to talk to both technical and instructional concerns when meeting with a CIO and his or her staff. The larger role for IT means many CIOs responsibilities are expanding; they have to be experts in instructional and operational issues as well. Not only do they need to know how to image machines, maintain a robust network, and ensure security, but they must understand how these tools support curriculum and the learning goals of their schools.
The Edtech Stack Is Getting Unbundled
IT leaders today are willing to spend on new services that can help everyone in the school get work done more easily—even if these tools may not have been originally designed to be used in schools. And, to be frank, their users are demanding it. Consumer tools are brought into schools because they work well in people’s personal lives. This means a diversity of applications, file types, platforms, and devices—and the desire to work on them from anywhere, at any time. Every piece of software used in a school no longer comes from a single publisher or technology partner. Faculty members want the easiest-to-use tools to get work done, whether it's rewarding positive student behavior to grading and sharing files. In aggregate, that’s been a very good thing for productivity in schools.
But this means schools need tech that “plays well together.” Technologies must fit easily into a broader ecosystem. Solutions must have Active Directory and student information system integrations—this way IT doesn’t need to manage one more set of accounts, and users don’t need one more password to remember. Data-collection tools need to be able to export their data without requiring you to log into a new app or forcing some other behavior that wastes your time. SSO (single sign-on) seems to be standard among big school districts and universities, and is slowly catching on in smaller ones. For already-stretched IT leaders, these integrations relieve the pain of supporting dozens of different tools.
IT and End Users Are Now on the Same Team
The IT department traditionally focuses on making sure that new apps and integrations pass a host of security and control tests. Design, ease-of-use, and likelihood of adoption haven’t made evaluation checklists. But today, beyond the requisite certifications and admin control check boxes, there’s another key question IT leaders regularly test for: “is this product easy to use?”
If a new app is confusing or hard to use, faculty and staff will default back to the apps they already have on their phones or personal laptops. And that's a headache for the IT team, which loses control over information. The trick for edtech companies is to build simple products people will be happy to use, while ensuring IT leaders have the security and control they need. Without broad user adoption, there is no security; security features only matter if users are actually using that tool.
On the whole, I’ve learned that IT leaders’ jobs are incredibly hard. Balancing the wants of faculty and students with tight budgets and complex security needs is no simple task. But on the bright side, more and more technology companies are focusing on making life easier for educators while meeting organizational security needs.
Ben Stern is an Account Executive for Dropbox for Education. Prior to joining Dropbox, Ben worked at TeachBoost, an edtech startup focused on instructional leadership, and Ponder, a critical reading tool, and for five years as a teacher and edtech coordinator in Texas and NYC, where he’s now based.