Jan 13 2021

Helping Hands: The Evolving Role of IT in Remote Education

IT staff have been critical in implementing remote learning for K–12 schools. Looking back on this past year, four experts discuss the changing roles of IT staff and their importance to key players in academics and operations.

K–12 IT staff handle much more than computing and networking.

That’s something IT professionals have known about themselves for some time. But for those outside of their circle, expanded remote learning has shown — or should show — that IT is a key part of education, from daily operations to academic success in the classroom. IT staff have been crucial to efforts to secure computing devices for students and teachers during the pandemic. They help with ensuring families have access to reliable Wi-Fi. They also work with teachers and administrators to implement technology in the classroom, set up and maintain virtual learning environments and provide ongoing support.

EdTech talked about the evolving roles of IT with four experts — Adam Phyall, director of technology and media services at Newton County School System in Georgia; Emiliana Vegas, senior fellow of global economy and development, and co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution; Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN); and Shawn Beard, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at Sand Springs Public Schools in Oklahoma.

EDTECH: How might the pandemic — and the need for remote and hybrid learning models — transform IT roles moving forward?

BEARD: It’s going to create that greater need for IT to not just be a service to faculty, staff and administration but to also help bridge the communication gap with parents and students. Traditionally, if parents had a question about technology, they would go to the school and the school would ask IT. Now we’re starting to see more of a shift where we’re starting to set up communication for parents to contact our help desk if they need help with Google Chromebooks or hotspots. As a result, there are different veins of communication that weren’t there before.

PHYALL: Digital and at-home learning involve being able to provide support for people — teachers, students, parents — outside of a normal workday but also with the understanding that you’re not available 24/7. You’re trying to find a happy medium. Maybe you can do email support, for example.

VEGAS: It will force the non-IT staff — such as the superintendent, the core and academic leaders — to work more closely with IT, because one thing we’ve learned is it’s not just about the connectivity or the content, it’s about how instruction is delivered and how students engage with it. Having the ability to monitor the use and engagement of those learning models — and that’s what IT departments usually do — is going to force a much closer collaboration as systems are embracing technology.

Krueger: To be honest, half of the people who have “technology” in their title have an education background. The other half are stronger on, maybe, the IT technical aspects. Both are needed, and you also need to understand the strategic vision. It isn’t just about the traditional work of managing IT, it isn’t just about understanding the educational applications — but that is essential. It’s also about that leadership and vision around what you’re trying to accomplish. What I’m hearing consistently is there are things you can’t do when everything is virtual — things that used to take a long time to implement, or trying to implement one new thing at a time. There’s much more openness and willingness to move faster.

Keith Krueger
There are new ways of doing your work as an educator or administrator that technology can enable.”

Keith Krueger CEO, Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)

EDTECH: The push for expanded remote and hybrid learning models required greater collaboration between IT and academic leaders. What could that relationship look like moving forward?

Vegas: It would be really important to have everybody sitting at the table from the get-go to discuss what they are trying to achieve and what their main constraints are. IT will have a lot of information around which students have more limited connectivity — because they don’t have Wi-Fi access or access to a device, or maybe they’re just disengaged. You want to collaborate because IT staff will sometimes see situations from the IT side that the education side, at first, won’t see. Education experts will see solutions where technology plays a role, but its use needs to be thought through.

Emiliana Vegas
It’s such a challenging time because even when students are participating, it’s really hard to know how much they’re getting out of a virtual classroom.”

Emiliana Vegas Senior Fellow of Global Economy and Development and Co-Director of the Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution

Krueger: There are new ways of doing your work as an educator or administrator that technology can enable. The finance office can be critical, as they think about operations, bus routes and food services. Using technology to connect those to the rest of the school system has been essential. We’ve also seen the need to provide social and emotional support to students in virtual environments. It’s a very different world for school counselors than it was in the past.

87%

The percentage of district technology leaders who say off-campus internet connectivity is an urgent problem.

Source: cosn.org, “School District Technology Leaders Anticipate Funding Challenges Heading Back to School This Fall,” June 19, 2020

Phyall: Everybody just really has to try not to make things like they were. When collaborating, that hinders some of our decision management. We’ll miss great opportunities to really make changes and reach all students if we’re trying to put it back in the box of how things used to be.

EDTECH: A number of districts teamed up with governments and businesses to address remote learning needs. Moving forward, what might those partnerships look like, and what needs might they address?

Beard: One thing partnerships need to focus on is choice. In some cases, states will work with one vendor to provide a solution, but sometimes that solution is not feasible or affordable for every school district. Levels of choice are necessary, instead of a partner coming through and saying we’ve chosen platform A and everybody needs to buy that.

One of the things we’re also probably going to see a lot more is vendors working more closely with school stakeholders, not just training the administrators or faculty on how to use tools. I’m starting to see that with some vendors that are beginning to reach out and provide direct training to parents and students.

Krueger: Companies have stepped up and made special donations or offers for education. That’s been very helpful. That said, we shouldn’t depend on which district has which employers in their backyard. We have to get, at a federal level, some sustained investment. Philanthropic efforts are helpful but not sustainable.

Phyall: A partnership lets you also expose students to job opportunities that are out there in the technology field. As I talk to vendors, I often ask, “Hey, do you have a program we can make our students aware of?” It’s also important to ask vendors to share how to get into those career areas.

Adam Phyall
I see schools making a seamless transition to being fully virtual at the drop of a hat moving forward.”

Adam Phyall Director of Technology and Media Services, Newton County School System

EDTECH: What urgent or emerging tech needs will schools have in 2021 and beyond? What can IT professionals do now to prepare to meet those needs?

Krueger: One of the major funding sources for technology is E-rate, and it has not covered most cybersecurity costs. School districts haven’t always appreciated the need for more sophisticated tools that keep data, teachers and students protected. It’s also important to have the human capacity to use those tools.

Beard: What schools really need to do is take a hard look at funding and really scrutinize what they need to make online learning happen. What often happens is we get bombarded by vendors who show us the newest and greatest, and we start seeing all the bells and whistles, but we can lose sight of what we really need to function. It’s important to provide a consistent learning management platform across the district, so as students move up through the framework of learning that you have, they don’t have to relearn everything every year.

Shawn Beard
What schools really need to do is take a hard look at funding and really scrutinize what they need to make online learning happen.”

Shawn Beard Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, Sand Springs Public Schools

Vegas: It’s such a challenging time because even when students are participating, it’s really hard to know how much they’re getting out of a virtual classroom. What IT can do is start figuring out how to better measure student participation. Then they can intervene and help teachers work better remotely.

For a teacher to be able to teach in a traditional way, expecting all students to be learning at the same pace with the same material, wasn’t a very effective approach in the past, and it’s much less so now. Technology can really meet students at their level and help them progress.

Phyall: We’re seeing a lot of school systems looking at expanding wireless access to outside of the building, expanding internet to light up the parking lot or football field — open areas on campus. Then you can break kids out more with social distancing and are able to utilize more of your campus.

Connectivity will be that final mile we’re still going to have to be fighting, because more and more, content is going to be streaming. So it’s no longer just getting connected to the internet. It’s how much data can you get access to so you can listen to videos or upload content — that’s going to be a challenge. A lot of kids have access to the internet; the amount of data they have is that hurdle we have to get past as we look at wanting teachers to be content creators and uploaders. That data piece is going to be a critical point in moving things forward.

This was a wakeup call to a lot of people. We’ve had, in the past, schools shutting down for a flu outbreak for a few days because there wasn’t a plan in place where learning could continue. Now, people realize COVID-19 is not a one-time occurrence. I see schools making a seamless transition to being fully virtual at the drop of a hat moving forward. Internet-accessible learning is definitely here to stay.

MORE ON EDTECH: 5 questions to ask when securing the work-from-home environment.

Taylor Callery