Twenty or 30 years ago, the role of an IT director centered on maintaining devices and networks — a facilities role. But today, particularly in K–12 education, IT leaders play a much more integral part in maintaining technology used in school and districts, as well as supporting overall academic goals.
For example, when a superintendent is asked about district cybersecurity, “The answer can no longer be, ‘Go ask my IT guy,’” consultant Ann McMullan said at the 2020 Future of Education Technology Conference in Miami. “The superintendent has to be able to talk that talk convincingly and know what he’s talking about or what she’s talking about.”
It’s critical for the CTO to be at the table, she said.
Superintendents can make or break educational technology initiatives, said McMullan, who is also the project director of CoSN’s Empowered Superintendent initiative. At a Wednesday session, she and CoSN CIO Susan Bearden presented tips for breaking down silos and improving communication between IT leaders and district administrators. They also shared resources the organization produces to empower superintendents and other leaders to better handle the challenges of digital transformation.
The organization offers professional certification, webinars, one-page explainers and more that can help school leaders better understand educational technology and related issues.
Having a Shared Understanding of Technology Needs, Goals
In today’s schools, technology is integrated into classrooms and other areas of schools and districts, such as physical security hardware and HVAC systems. That integration makes it necessary for IT leaders to be at the table with a district superintendent’s cabinet when decisions are made about issues ranging from instructional needs to security.
For example, McMullan recalled a superintendent saying cyber thieves had breached his district’s HVAC system, which was managed by a third party. She heard another superintendent discuss an attack that came through a district audiovisual system. Vulnerabilities aren’t limited to computers and email.
“There are all kinds of different entry points now as we’re putting more resources outside of the district,” McMullan said.
That reality makes it important for administrators, IT professionals and other school leaders to have a shared understanding about issues such as cybersecurity.
School officials attending the session also noted other areas that are “major challenges” for superintendents and other school leaders, such as teacher training and support, student access to digital resources outside of school, and the politics of change.
Digital initiatives can’t be successful, especially not at scale, without the superintendent’s buy-in and support in terms of providing resources and professional development for teachers, Bearden said. It’s important for superintendents to understand the big picture and create a culture of support, recognizing that lifelong professional learning is an important part of technology transformation, she said.
“You may have pockets of innovation, but if you’re really looking at scaling a technology initiative, the superintendent 100 percent has to be on board,” she said. The same is true for principals.
“If you’re asking teachers to use technology in the classroom but you are not modeling how you expect them to be using technology, teachers see right through that,” Bearden said. “You’re not going to get their buy-in.”
McMullan understands firsthand the need to break down silos between administrators and other educators. In her previous role as an education technology director in Texas, McMullan helped the tech and curriculum departments communicate with each other about what they were doing and how they did it.
“Bottom line: We’re still in the learning business; we’re not in the technology business,” she said. “But my goodness, technology can make us or break us.”