Chesterfield County Schools CTO Tim Tillman says education leaders should treat IT teams as primary academic partners.

Jan 13 2022

Q&A: Chesterfield County Schools CTO says Technology Plays Central Role in Education

Tim Tillman, former CISO for the Virginia Department of Education, speaks out on adopting an enterprise mindset and maintaining the technological acceleration brought by the pandemic.

Textbooks are out, and experience is in. But achieving a 21st century pedagogy requires technology that’s ready to take center stage. EdTech spoke with Tim Tillman, CTO and CISO for Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia, about how technology leaders can transform their approach to support a truly modern education.

EDTECH: What was your path to working in education?

Tillman: This is my 26th year in technology support and network administration. I’ve worked in education for about half of that career. I really like the educational field. Everything that we do impacts student achievement and student performance, which in my mind is a meaningful bar to reach.

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EDTECH: How does that long view impact your sense of what’s possible when it comes to ed tech?

Tillman: Earlier in my career — say, 10 or 15 years ago — it would have been accurate to say that educational technology was about five years behind industry; that we didn’t take chances, we waited until technologies were proven before we implemented them. And it would have been a step backward to enter education from another industry. That is no longer the case.

We are right there on the forefront. We have educational partners now that are leaders in the pack, leaders not just in education but in other industries as well. And the things that we are doing now have reached enterprise levels. School districts are now treating themselves as enterprise entities. We have many, many more devices. We have many, many more people depending on us.

And we are the linchpin that makes education possible now. We are the ones who bridge the gap between pedagogy and reality. We are the ones who give students and educators the tools they need. There aren’t textbooks anymore, really. We’re not learning through structured curriculum anymore. We’re learning through exploration, we’re learning through projects, we’re learning through research, and technology enables all of those things.

Listen to Tim Tillman discuss ed tech's role as a partner.

EDTECH: What does it mean for a school district to think like an enterprise, and how does that benefit schools?

Tillman: Enterprise thinking is more like systems thinking or design thinking. It’s utilizing IT methodologies that are used in enterprises — like project management or vendor management, change management, agile methodologies or those kinds of building blocks — that can really help a technology team advance to a higher maturity level.

A lack of people, time and resources can limit a team’s growth. However, enterprise thinking can help those with limited resources to manage projects and abilities, and using enterprise skills is one way to become more efficient with the resources they have.

EDTECH: You’ve described technology as being crucial. How can IT leaders get the support they need at the district level?

Tillman: Technology should no longer be treated as secondary, as it now affects every aspect of running a school district, from serving food, to managing lighting mechanisms and HVAC, to saving money and energy, to paying bills and paying employees.

With that in mind, support for technology must start with leadership. The superintendent has to believe in technology and has to support it. It’s one thing to treat technology as a support structure. It is quite another to treat it as a partner. I am lucky that my own school district treats technology as a primary partner with academics. But there are other school districts that are not so lucky.

KEEP READING: Learn about the impact of Internet of Things technology in K–12 classrooms.

EDTECH: During the pandemic, a lot of schools turned to technology in a way that they hadn’t before to keep students engaged and learning. I imagine you’ve seen a lot of innovation over the past year and a half.

Tillman: I think what we saw the most was not necessarily innovation, but acceleration. A lot of the things that were implemented were things that many ed tech leaders were already thinking of or had said that we needed. Once that funding became available, and once it became critical, we were able to implement it. We advanced very, very quickly.

A lot of school districts that were thinking about starting a one-to-one program now suddenly have one. When normally a one-to-one program would be rolled out over years, they had just weeks to do it. Now, they have to go back and re- evaluate what was done over the COVID year, look for efficiencies and look at decisions that may have been made in haste, and really try to shore up that environment.

I think one of the biggest challenges for us going forward is to maintain that level of technology that we advanced to, that comes with support structures around money and people and resources that we may still not have. Although we were able to implement very quickly, sustainability is something that we are all worried about at this point.

MORE ON EDTECH: K–12 admins should make these considerations for business continuity planning.

Photography by Zaid Hamid

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