Beyond IT: The Changing Role of The School Technology Specialist

With more technology in classrooms than ever before, schools need technology specialists to do a whole lot more than keep the network running. Here's how these educators are collaborating to leverage tight budgets and stay ahead of rapidly changing technology.

It wasn’t long ago that a tech specialist’s role in schools was to fix the white board when it broke. But today, as technology begins to permeate the classroom (think 1:1 programs), tech specialists must not only fix what’s broken, but understand how to smartly integrate tech in the classroom as well. He’s no longer the “tech guy,” in other words, but a Chief Technology Officer (CTO). And that means a much more central role in educators’ lives.

Yet CTOs face significant challenges in today’s classrooms. School systems are notoriously difficult places for technology to gain a foothold. From rewiring antiquated buildings, to making the case for tech dollars in cash-strapped districts, to training teachers both to use the technology and to leverage its potential to transform student learning, the obstacles are high.

And despite the growing role of technology in education, only about half of U.S. school districts have a full-time person dedicated to technology. In 2008, about 17 percent of districts had not designated any single point person to lead educational technology efforts.

In November, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) released two reports based on leadership forums it held for district CTOs in spring 2013. “District leaders face incredible challenges, from insufficient bandwith and underfunding to weak internal communications,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of CoSN. The solution? According to Krueger, CTOs and other district leaders must build “a common agenda on how to best harness technology resources to maximize positive impact.”

Two new reports (available to CoSN members here) go deeper into both the challenges and the opportunities when superintendents bring the CTO fully into their cabinet. “The Undiscussables of Technology Leadership: Engaging in Challenging Conversations” focuses on the leadership challenges facing CTOs, including creating a common, district-wide vision for educational technology. It also discusses the challenge of setting an appropriate pace for implementation, and staying ahead of budget constraints while focusing tech dollars on instructional uses.

[one_third][blockquote style=”large”]“In our district, nothing’s done in isolation. As the technology director, I’m not the sole source of technological ideas.”-Ed McKaveney, Hampton Township School District [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

The report notes opportunities CTOs can seize on as well, such as building more time for collaboration with curriculum leaders. By working together, CTOs and instructional leaders can find ways to use tech to improve the learning experience for students. CTOs can also lead the shift toward digital content in classrooms and the use of formative assessments and other data to guide instruction.

The importance of collaboration and expanded roles crops up again in the second report, “Technology Department Landscape: That Was Then, This Is Now!” Successful CTOs, the report finds, rely heavily on teamwork, both in looping tech leaders into overall district planning and in building stronger collaborations between tech and instructional leaders. CoSN’s blog highlights more key findings.

Despite the challenges, Pittsburgh-area CTOs are introducing innovative solutions and partnerships. Leaders like Hampton Township School District’s Ed McKaveney are implementing initiatives like Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and Google Apps for Education. McKaveney’s work won him CoSN’s 2013 Withrow Chief Technology Officer Award. [/two_third_last]

“In our district, nothing’s done in isolation,” McKaveney said in a video follow-up to the award. “As the technology director, I’m not the sole source of technological ideas. I just help to structure that and make sure it’s going to fit into our environment and work well.” To learn more about how he took his district to new heights of innovative tech use, you can listen to him here.

McKaveney has a lot of resources to draw on for ideas and synergies. Pittsburgh’s concerted effort to collaborate widely, through projects like the Hive Learning Network and the Kids+Creativity Network, create a model of how to collaborate, and offer a connected set of resources that the CoSN report notes is imperative for a successful tech program in schools.

The Center for Creativity, is one of those resources. A unique effort, the Center provides hands-on grants and 21st century professional development to teachers in 42 districts across the Pittsburgh area. The center, says Sarah McCluan, supervisor of communication services for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, was created to serve as a “sandbox” for teachers to tinker with technology, make mistakes, learn, and create. Since February, TransformED—a tech-centric space with all the latest digital tools for teachers—has been hosting professional development for K-12 teachers.

All of these, and many other resources featured on these pages, help CTOs introduce the power of technology to teachers and curriculum specialists, and bolster the limited resources of most school districts. These networks do more than that, though. They also put a city on the map as a hub of education innovation.

Published December 09, 2013