Jun 17 2021

New K–12 Technology Leaders Rise Up from the Educator and Administrator Ranks

Newly minted school technology leaders face the pandemic and look beyond it.

Oscar Rico describes his first days as technology director at Canutillo Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, as an effort to “swim an ocean” of information. It was spring 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. He had experience as a biology teacher, high school administrator and middle school principal, but none in technology.

Rico says he scrambled to learn about specific technologies that could support CISD’s mission, but the need to quickly enable remote learning eclipsed other concerns.

“I knew what teachers and students needed to be successful,” Rico says. “In some ways, the limits of my technical knowledge made me bolder in going after solutions, and the district’s great technical team backed me up.”

Transitioning to a Technology Role

Rico is among the 42 percent of K–12 technology leaders who come from the classroom or school administration, with 48 percent coming from IT training and experience and the rest from business management or other backgrounds, according to the Consortium for School Networking’s “The State of Ed Tech Leadership in 2020” report.

“Nobody comes into these jobs with all the skills they need,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, a professional association for K–12 technology leaders. “The bulk of the job is how you apply technology to educational problems.”

While those with education backgrounds must quickly learn what’s possible with technology, they already understand the goals and language of education, says Krueger.

Regardless of experience, taking on technology leadership during a crisis is not easy. However, the pandemic yielded some benefits, says Krueger. “Moments of crisis are opportunities to do big innovations,” he says.

Photo of Keith Krueger
Moments of crisis are opportunities to do big innovations.”

Keith Krueger CEO, CoSN

Many teachers report that they now have a greater understanding of how educational technology can support them. Conversely, remote learning has made it easier for technologists to peek into classes and better understand the work of teachers.

Ensuring Connectivity for Canutillo Independent School District

One of Rico’s first steps was settling on Google G Suite (now Google Workspace for Education) as the district’s communication and learning platform, and training teachers to use the tools.

Internet access is woven into the fabric of education, and Rico understood that connectivity was critical whether students were in a physical, hybrid or virtual classroom. CISD issued devices to each of its 6,200 students — tablets for those in pre-K through second grade and laptops for older students — and supplied hotspots to boost bandwidth in students’ homes. Because local telecom companies don’t cover some of the neighborhoods that CISD serves, Rico spearheaded an initiative called Canutillo Connect, working with Cisco to create a mesh network using Cisco Meraki software and access points on a Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul IP backbone to provide connectivity to all CISD students.

After the pandemic, Rico’s top priority will be to deploy technologies that equip teachers with the data they need to make informed decisions about each learner.

“We want to provide the tools for teachers to see students from all angles and find the gaps in their learning, and then provide solutions to fill the gaps,” Rico says.

RELATED: Schools look to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 for increased connectivity.

Enabling Educators with Technology Resources

As a K–12 STEM supervisor for Ridgefield Public Schools in Connecticut, Wes DeSantis was already helping to lead the district’s response to COVID-19 when he became its first director of educational technology in January.

“I’ve always been interested in technology, but the experience that has been most valuable for my new job is 10 years as a high school physics teacher,” says DeSantis, whose district serves approximately 5,000 students in nine schools. “Of course, the pandemic flipped everything upside down, and tech, which used to be a support pillar for education, has become the main conveyance.”

At DeSantis’s urging, RPS purchased Logitech HD webcams early in the pandemic and mounted them on flexible tripods so teachers could move around their classrooms as they presented lessons to both remote and in-person learners. DeSantis also created an online teacher resource center containing humorous but instructive videos of him demonstrating how to use technology tools.

Wes DeSantis demonstrates how to use Google Meet.

For now, DeSantis spends much of his time on the road, visiting classrooms to see if there is other technology that can help teachers during the pandemic and beyond. When the pandemic is over, his priority will be to find appropriate tools to help teachers create digital content, especially more video content.

“We struggle with visual media, and we need to catch up,” he says. “The kids are entering a world where they will increasingly be in front of or behind a camera. We need to start getting them ready for that world.”

DISCOVER: The Logitech C270 HD webcam provides a clear picture for K–12 instruction.

Focusing on the Progress Made Amid the Crisis

Steven Hopper cites his years in the classroom as a special education teacher as giving him a broader perspective for his new job as technology director for the Ames Community School District in Iowa, a role he took on last July. ACSD has eight schools and more than 4,900 students.

“I see things in ones and zeros, but I can also see things in letters and shapes and colors — it helps me contextualize issues,” says Hopper, who has also had stints as a school administrator, technology curriculum coordinator and instructional technology consultant.

ACSD was a one-to-one district before the pandemic, with laptops issued to high school students and Google Chromebooks to those in lower grades. The district also purchased 300 hotspots and distributed them to families with limited or no connectivity. ACSD is holding in-person classes for K–5 students and using a hybrid model for the middle school and high school; 30 to 40 percent of Ames families have chosen to continue learning remotely.

Responding to the pandemic wasn’t easy, but the crisis did produce progress, says Hopper. “I have seen more happen in the past year to further the integration of technology into education than in the last 15 years,” he says. “I’ve seen teachers embrace remote learning who never would have before. I’ve seen courses taught online that no one thought possible. In those ways, the pandemic has moved learning technology forward.”

DIVE DEEPER: Is virtual learning here to stay?

Now ACSD is planning a permanent remote campus, providing an option for remote learning or a blended model with some in-person classes, says Hopper.

“The pandemic has taught us to see problems as a way to innovate,” he says. “I want us to use that model to solve problems and use technology for more student-centered solutions.”

Setting a Gold Standard for Technology Skills

Managing IT, understanding the educational use of technology and demonstrating leadership skills are the three competencies that make for a successful K–12 technology leader, says Krueger.

CoSN has devised a 10-point framework to parse those skills in more detail. In an effort to elevate and standardize school technology expertise, the organization has created a national certification program, the Certified Education Technology Leader. CETL is the first aspirational school technology certification in the world, says Krueger, open only to those with at least four years of educational technology leadership experience.

“It’s not an entry-level certification,” says Krueger. “It’s meant to be a gold standard.”

Read more about the evolving role of IT in remote education at edtechmag.com/k12/RemoteIT.

Steven St. John