L.A. Unified School District students can take advantage of a new system that allows them to access teachers' content online, says Themy Sparangis, the district's chief technology director.

Apr 17 2008

The Essential Skill Set

While school IT coordinators' job responsibilities continue to expand, the surprise is that some of the most important skills have little to do with hardware or software.

While school IT coordinators’ job responsibilities continue to expand, the surprise is that some of the most important skills have little to do with hardware or software.

Putting the rapid evolution of technology to practical use by staff and faculty in an educational setting has never been more challenging.

School IT coordinators have always had a lot on their plate: managing security, extending electronic access to student progress to parents, centralizing core systems, keeping teachers abreast of new technology and attracting top IT talent. In order to effectively handle these challenges today, IT coordinators must possess a sophisticated mix of technology and business skills.

EdTech has compiled a list of seven must-have tech skills that IT coordinators from across the country, in districts large and small, can tap to excel on their jobs:

1. Business Acumen

It's not a technology skill per se, but K–12 IT leaders say it's important to be able to manage the IT department as a business. That includes raising money for and handling a budget, attracting and retaining talent, and practicing solid customer service.

“You need to be able to listen to what people are wanting, and you need to be able to make them feel comfortable with the technology they are implementing, and to understand why the district is implementing a piece of technology,” says Rita Lyon, executive director of technology for Olathe (Kan.) Unified School District 233. “That's why customer service is so important.”

Having a good tech-side manner is only part of the battle. A much larger piece is raising money to buy and implement that technology by selling the district's tech mission to the public. “The community has to be supportive of what you're doing,” says Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services for the 40,000-student Round Rock (Texas) Independent School District. By shrewdly appealing to a tech-savvy local population, Round Rock has secured more than $45 million in public funding in five years by winning two local bond elections.

Attracting the right people to run that new technology can also be challenging. “Most K–12 districts have a hard time keeping up with market salaries, so the way to keep good people is to foster the right type of work environment,” says Nick Jwayad, CIO of Portland (Ore.) Public Schools, which has a general tech fund of about $11 million per year to support 44,000 students and 65 full-time tech employees.

Jwayad says that to attract and retain solid tech employees in the tech-heavy Portland metro area, he sells the mission of public education and the broad base of skills you can acquire working in a school system as opposed to the private sector. “The mission is pure. If you can reach out to people that way, it makes them feel better about their community.”

2. Web-Enabled Technology

About 1,200 classrooms in Olathe (Kan.) Unified School District 233 have gone digital – meaning each class has a digital projector with a sound system, wireless keyboards and mice, a DVD/VCR player, wireless slates, a networked computer and a document camera.

The Internet is no longer the bastion of the early adopters. It's mainstream, and that means providing solid classroom tools and running an efficient district are no longer possible without being well versed in myriad Web-enabled platforms, such as online learning programs and Voice over Internet Protocol.

The 700,000-student Los Angeles public school system is in the midst of implementing a district­wide online learning program that will allow for more virtualized types of connections, using search-engine technology to create the potential for online collaboration. “Students can meet with a teacher, but then connect with the teacher's content in an online fashion,” says Themy Sparangis, chief technology director.

The Internet also has benefits beyond students accessing Web-enabled learning programs. The 1,000-student Poly Prep Country Day School, which has campuses in the Bay Ridge and Park Slope neighborhoods of Brooklyn, N.Y., recently rolled out a new Cisco Power over Ethernet system and a new VoIP infrastructure to both improve services and save money. Andrew Katz, director of technology and academic operations, says determining the proper timing of a tech rollout, such as the VoIP project, is vital. “A good idea sells itself, and I have found that research is a sure-fire way to gather information about ideas that you think may work for your school.”

3. Remote-Access Repairs

Many schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District use Web-enabled meetings and videoconferencing to deliver instruction. Electronic voting devices are also used by teachers.

Many school districts have dozens of buildings scattered over hundreds of square miles across several communities. Maintaining hardware, such as PCs and notebooks, over such a distance with limited staff means getting cozy with new technology that allows for remote and centralized deployment of new programs, and the ability to perform repairs from external locations.

“You need to have the ability to remotely manage, diagnose and make remote repairs to equipment, if possible. Or you need to hire someone with those skills,” says David Smith, manager of the customer service and support department for the Hillsborough County Public Schools, a 196,000-student regional district in Florida that includes Tampa.

Smith says the district, which has an annual IT budget of about $7 million, has 206 schools, with 60,000 desktop computers and 20,000 notebooks scattered over its large footprint.

As the district has evolved beyond tech platforms that were siloed by school toward a centralized platform, the IT department is training its call center help-desk staff to use technology by taking control of a device remotely for troubleshooting. The district also uses a new software program to remotely install new versions of educational software and other programs to equipment in the field.

4. Network Protection

The more that electronic channels become a mainstay of district operations and education, the more opportunity there is for dangers, such as Web predators, unauthorized internal use and hacking. That means filters, firewalls and other protective measures have never been more important.

“It's just the simple fact that we're dealing with kids that are under 18 that makes security so important,” says Lawrence Bergie, CIO of the 29,000-student Pittsburgh School District.

In Pittsburgh, USB ports are deactivated for normal classroom use, and the district has installed Web filters, which eliminate the vast majority of social- networking sites. “Because we tie down the ports, the kids can't install things,” he says.

And because all of the district's systems are inside its firewall, they aren't readily accessible from the outside. “The bigger issue is stopping internal hacks,” Bergie says. “We have to make sure students don't go where they aren't supposed to.”

5. Data Management

In today's Web 2.0 times, Pittsburgh School District CIO Lawrence Bergie says the majority of security breaches are made by students inside the network, not by outside hackers.

Databases and data mining are the future for everything, from taking attendance to managing school records. That means it's important to get a handle on how to use database management and analysis tools.

“Our job is becoming more of a position where people need to be able to have database skills, because so much of what we do is integrated,” says Rochester (N.Y.) School District's Cliby.

The 37,000-student district has rolled out a new student benchmark system for math and English language arts. The district has also just launched a new student-management system, special-education system and a district portal.

The challenge, Cliby says, is to create real-time reports that inform instruction and thread student biographical data into one neat account that is always up-to-date.

“Part of what we're working toward is to get a single snapshot of every student. We are looking for opportunities to make formative assessments part of the classroom practice. To accomplish this, we must have systems that are integrated and updated regularly,” he says.

6. Electronic Progress

Old-school report cards aren't necessarily becoming dinosaurs, but student progress is increasingly being chronicled electronically. That means understanding applications that monitor student progress and deliver grades and other reports to parents electronically.

At St. Mary's County Public Schools in Leonardtown, Md., an information management system offers parent and teacher access to grade books. The Web-enabled system allows teachers to take attendance, and parents are able to access those records in real time to see if their children are in school.

Teachers can also post assignments and grades from anywhere there's Internet access.

“It's a complete form, from the students to the teacher to the administrator to the parents – everybody has full access to information instantly,” says Bill Caplins, director of technology for the 17,000-student district.

7. Wireless Technology

It might seem like only yesterday that predictions of a paperless future were everywhere, and that's probably because it pretty much was only yesterday. Now it's time to get comfortable with the coming of classrooms that are not only electronic, but wireless as well.

About a month ago, the Philadelphia School District rolled out wireless connectivity to more than 16,000 classrooms. The project cost about $40 million, but it's working to bring a high level of Web functionality in a much more efficient manner than “traditional” Web hookups, which creates much greater flexibility. Olathe's Lyon says her district is also in the midst of deploying wireless technology in its classrooms.

For school systems that need to fully embrace the Web on a limited budget, wireless is the future. “You can walk into any classroom and have Internet access,” says Melanie Harris, senior vice president of technology and CIO for the 166,500-student Philadelphia School District.

Learning From Success

A “big hit” for an IT department can illustrate and perhaps even define an essential tech skill in action.

For David Smith, manager of the customer service and support department for the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, knowledge of systems integration came in handy when deploying Microsoft servers to standardize the district's IT system, which replaced siloed platforms among different schools. “This standardization has been our biggest success, along with the creation of the network itself,” says Smith, adding that the deployment allowed the district to seamlessly use educational platforms districtwide.

Keeping teachers abreast was also frequently cited as a “must have” skill. In the Rochester (N.Y.) School District, a year-old program known as the “instructional technology infusion initiative” has been successfully training teachers to integrate new technology with the curriculum.

Over three years, teachers take courses matching their skill level to introduce them to and get them up to speed on the wide array of educational software and hardware products that are fast becoming classroom mainstays.

“The goal is to make teachers tech savvy in relation to what's being rolled out in the classroom,” says Tim Cliby, Rochester's coordinating director for instructional technology. “We had teachers [who] are all over the map in terms of tech skills.”

Lessons Learned

On the flip side, sometimes nothing is a better teacher than failure.

David Smith's only regret on an otherwise successful standardization project in the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools was with the project's speed. The project would have required more resources than Hillsborough's $7 million annual IT budget would allow, says Smith, manager of the customer service and support department for the 196,000-student district. “It took us three years to get electronic access to the entire district,” Smith says. “During that time we were still supporting multiple software vendors and multiple protocols.”

Training teachers to fully use their digital classrooms revealed the benefits of staff development, and Rita Lyon, executive director of technology for Olathe (Kan.) Unified School District 233, says she wishes there was opportunity for more. “It's not that we're doing anything wrong in staff development, it's just that teachers are so busy and have to spend a lot of time on other things. I would like to provide staff more time to learn technology and to process the skills that they've learned.”

And in Los Angeles, Themy Sparangis, chief technology director, says a recent supplemental reading program could have been more successful with a better understanding of how a new piece of software impacts classroom practice.

“It's not the case of an application or the intention not being good,” Sparangis says. “It's about connecting with the teacher.”