7 Changing Responsibilities of the School CIO

Doug Johnson, Director of Technology, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage (MN) School District
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Doug Johnson, Director of Technology, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage (MN) School District

Doug Johnson, Director of Technology, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage (MN) School District

The Department of Monumental Expectations & Minute Allocations. 

The quote above comes from an old advertisement for a now defunct technology company. It’s been on my office bulletin board for many years. While school districts in the United States range in size from fewer than a dozen students to nearly a million students, I suspect every school technology director, CTO, CIO, or math teacher on special assignment, can identify with the sentiment. A lot is expected of us as technology budgets shrink and technology demands expand.

I am the technology director of a mid-sized district in suburban Minneapolis. We have about 9000 students and 1200 staff members housed in 17 buildings. Our programs range from early childhood education to adult basic education as well as our traditional K-12 offerings. My department has responsibility for all things that plug-in, take batteries, beep, or depend on a reliable network and Internet access. We support 7000 student devices and about 2000 devices in labs and on staff desks.

I have been in the role of technology director since 1991, but started my career in 1976 as a classroom teacher and school librarian. I may be one of the dying breed of “learn-on-the-job” CIOs.  As networks and large data systems became mission-critical to school operations in the late 1990s, school districts began to hire technology directors with computer degrees and often with business rather than educational experience. The competencies of a school technology leader have been identified by national organizations such as the International Society for Technology in Education and the Consortium for School Networking only within the past few years.

Regardless of the size of the school district or the background of the technology leader, I see seven major shifts in our roles and our work. Those of you in the business world reading this may be able to identify as well.

1. Moving from internal maintenance, support, and resources to outsourcing. My staff of 14 technicians and coordinators handles tasks involving large data systems; classroom voice amplification systems; interactive whiteboards; multiple types of computing hardware and operating systems; social networking uses and abuses; acceptable use policies, technology ethics and digital citizenship tasks; applications of hardware and software in every curricular area and grade level including as assistive devices for special needs students; collaborative purchasing programs; state and federal laws surrounding technology data privacy; E-rate eligibility; e-books and digital textbooks; content management programs; document storage and retrieval; VOIP phone systems; security cameras, door card access systems; bus tracking for parents; and printers and copiers. And more. The areas of hands-on expertise needed to deal with all technologies in a school and their applications are impossible for any single individual to master—and any single department to support. The ability to negotiate with specialized consultants, contractors, and cloud-based providers is growing.

 The new role of the CIO is to make sure there is a realistic balance between the security concerns of the technology department and the goals of the educational program and individual user.​ ​  

2.Working inter-departmentally with curriculum, staff-development, public relations, assessment, and strategic planning leaders. Technology planning must be embedded into the planning of other departments. Integration of planning efforts makes all of us more successful by ensuring any new initiatives in the district can be supported by our infrastructure and legacy systems. Project management and interpersonal skills are vital.

3. Providing reliable access to school network resources accessible with individual devices in a safe environment both in and out of school. The days of computer labs are nearly over. We have over 7000 more student devices being used in our district than we had only three years ago, thanks to a successful technology referendum. This growth has strained our capacities for filtering and firewalls, wireless access, and repair and maintenance needs. At the same time, our 1:1 program has increased the importance of dependable networks since our staff and student rely on digital resource for teaching and learning. Along with this, we provide filtering for school-owned devices on non-school networks as well.

4. Understanding the “why,”  not just the “how” of a new technology in education. Today’s school CIO must be able to persuasively communicate with budgetary decision-makers why programs and equipment are vitally important to the organization—especially in the realm of good security practices. That’s why we as technology leaders must be able to translate “tech-speak” into a language spoken by normal people.

5. Aggressively addressing data security and privacy issues in schools. It is not just Facebook and Equifax that have experienced data breaches. Schools across the country have experienced ransomware, personal data being stolen, and malware attacks. We are as susceptible to the social engineering tricks of spear phishing as any business. Our data backup needs continue to grow. Plus, we have hundreds of very smart students within our networks who like to practice their hacking skills!

6. Resolving data systems integration challenges. Our district has over 70 separate programs which require data extraction, input, or pass back. These range from our student information system that tracks attendance and grades to our learning management system to online testing programs to learning games and productivity tools for which individual students need accounts. Automating these processes has become both more challenging and more important.

7. Balancing the needs of the “district office” and the classroom. Given our limited staffing, I must, on nearly a daily basis, prioritize my department's support focus. Both the finance chief who needs a working and reliable HR/Finance/Payroll system and the classroom teacher who needs a working interactive whiteboard have legitimate claims on my department’s attention. My mantra has always been “every technology problem is important to the person who is experiencing it.” That applies to the kindergartener trying to log in to a learning game as well as the superintendent who needs access to critical data.

Perspective and empathy are increasingly critical to being an effective CIO, perhaps overshadowing the hard technology skills or knowledge of earlier years. The new role of the CIO is to make sure there is a realistic balance between the security concerns of the technology department and the goals of the educational program and individual user.

In planning, supervising, project management, communicating to staff and administration, policy making, and budgeting, it’s critical I make informed decisions. Admitting my ignorance about both technology and education and then figuring out how to alleviate that condition has proven to be the most successful strategy I have found in my twenty-seven years of doing this work.

In other words, you need an educator in charge of the tech department who is willing to learn constantly. The content knowledge half-life of any post-secondary technology degree is, what, 18 months?

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