The 'Cloudy' Future of the K-12 CIO

Doug Johnson, Director of IT, ISD 191 Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District
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Doug Johnson, Director of IT, ISD 191 Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District

For 23 years, the sign above my parking space at the district’s technology department offices read “AV Coordinator”, the position for which I was hired in 1991. Intranets, large data systems, firewalls, VOIP telephone systems, and even e-mail were all mostly just a twinkle in eye of digital pioneers operating at universities and in research labs, not a part of the K-12 educational system.

As technologies became standard in schools, the title of the “AV Coordinator” morphed into that of “Technology Director” and the position now changed yet again to “CTO” or “CIO,” especially in larger school districts.The change has not been in name only, but also in job responsibilities and skills needed to perform the technology leadership role in the district.

Since 1991, computers have become ubiquitous on both teachers’ desks and in students’ backpacks. Networks have allowed the flow of data among lab machines, then among classrooms, buildings, and now out to the world via the web. Connectivity has gone from being wired to wireless. Data has become mission critical to administrators, teachers, and parents. Our databases have become integrated with the student information system synchronizing data with food service stransportation, HR, finance, communications programs, learning systems, and a host of other smaller, but critical applications. Telephones, video, and security systems all need the data network to function. Sophisticated learning management systems are replacing textbooks, gradebooks, and worksheets, additionally offering a host of more interactive and differentiated experiences for students.

"As 'CIO' for my district, I continue to help organize, manage, and lead those with specific, sophisticated technology skills"

School CIOs are currently experiencing yet another seismic shift in responsibilities as our data systems become hosted by organizations and companies outside our district networks and support is contracted rather than hired. As our district has moved increasingly to “the cloud,” my role as technology director for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage (MN) schools, a public school district of about 9300 students, is changing yet again.

Recently our district, like many around us, has: 
• Replaced locally hosted Outlook with Gmail for email, calendaring, group mailing, and archiving. 
• Shrunk dependence on local storage drives in our SAN with Gdrive.
• Encouraged the adoption of the productivity tools in Google Apps for Education by both staff and students, resulting in the reduction in the number of Microsoft Office licenses needed. 
• Contracted with a regional technology intermediate service agency (TIES) to host and support our HR system, finance system, student information system, library system, and data warehousing/analytics system.
• Moved to managing student devices (Chrome books) through web-based Google Management. 
• Negotiated with our Internet provider to supply firewall and content filtering services, so we can phase out our internal firewall and content filters. 
• Outsourced printer and copier maintenance, and support and contracted for specific technical tasks such as server software upgrades, wireless access point installation, and data security auditing.

Yes, we still need an excellent network manager. My department employs building technicians and supervisors with data systems expertise. But the department’s operations increasingly rely on external contractors to evaluate, advise, set-up, and maintain digital services throughout the schools. Last year, driven by both budgetary restraints and technology department restructuring, we reduced our technology staff from 21 to 14 and saved approximately $250,000 in salaries.

 This move to the cloud has resulted in less of our always strained technology budget being spent on infrastructure, administrative, maintenance, and replacement costs and more being spent for direct instructional purposes. These instructional expenditures include student devices for both individual use and for use in the classroom and the adoption of Schoology, a powerful learning management system. As we plan to roll out over 7000 student devices over the next three years, we do not anticipate increasing our technology staffing - except for instructional technology specialists who will work one-on-one with classroom teachers. 

As “CIO” for my district, I continue to help organize, manage, and lead those with specific, sophisticated technology skills, but increasingly I also manage large projects, oversee contracted services,  evaluate SaaS applications, and coordinate the technology department’s work with that of other departments in the district, especially the Teacher and Learning Department that is in charge of curriculum and teacher professional development. 

As I summarized in a column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership in 20131, core competencies for educational technology leaders have morphed: 
• From configuring networks and local servers to mediating contracts for cloud-based and contracted services. 
• From supervising technicians to evaluating outsourced, work and setting up effective help-desk processes. 
• From writing technology plans to working interdepartmentally with curriculum, staff-development, public relations, assessment, and strategic-planning leaders.
• From providing technology devices to staff and students to providing access to school network resources accessible with personal devices.
• From writing policies that dictate behaviors and ban activities to writing guidelines and curriculums that encourage safe and responsible use. 
• From knowing about the “how” to understanding the “why” of a new technology in education. 
• From preserving the status quo to implementing new technology applications and best practices. 

As a K-12 CIO, I anticipate the move from being a technology expert to being an instructional technology expert will not only continue, but accelerate. Moving systems and services to the cloud not only frees up dollars that can help the school perform its primary mission of educating children, but frees up hours for the CIO to help with that mission as well.

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