Tech trends every school leader should know

A new generation of students with vastly different learning needs is redefining expectations for classroom instruction, and a growing emphasis on school accountability is changing the role of the school district IT leader: These were two of the main ideas outlined in a Dec. 10 webcast from the Consortium of School Networking titled "Major Technology Trends that School District CTOs Must Know."

According to William Rust, research director for the IT research and consulting firm Gartner, there is a new digital divide occurring in schools. Whereas this divide used to refer to whether or not students had access to technology, now it concerns whether schools are using technology effectively to achieve results.

Rust identified four key trends that school district chief technology officers (CTOs) should be aware of: accountability, the changing nature of learners, the accessibility of technology, and the "internal and external demands" that are now placed on ed-tech executives.

"If CTOs are thinking about these four factors and how they can keep up with these changes, they’ll stay ahead of the divide," he said.

Regarding the changing nature of learners, Gartner believes that so-called "digital natives" will demand, and need, new types of learning experiences.

Citing a report by Ian Jukes and Anita Dose of the InfoSavvy Group, Rust said digital native learners prefer (1) receiving information quickly and from multiple resources; (2) parallel processing and multitasking; (3) processing pictures, sounds, and video before text; (4) random access to hyperlinked multimedia information; and (5) interacting and networking simultaneously with many others.

"The biggest shift we’re seeing right now is student preference shifting from print to digital resources," Rust noted. "It’s all about the web."

As for accountability, Rust explained that No Child Left Behind’s extensive data tracking and reporting requirements have prompted the use of robust student information systems and data-warehousing strategies in schools. Now, the next logical step will be to apply this same degree of scrutiny to schools’ financial data, Gartner believes.

Soon "NCLB will be on steroids," Rust predicted, and will extend to a school district’s fiscal reporting, holding educators accountable for their purchases and spending.

The greater accountability ushered in under NCLB has changed the internal and external demands on school district CTOs, Rust said–especially with regard to storing data and granting access privileges. Whereas data once were locked away and stored forensically, he explained, now they are made available to teachers, parents, and staff.

And technology’s broad accessibility, Gartner believes, is changing the paradigm for how students receive instruction. Like the growing trend of telecommuting to work, Rust predicted, virtual and distance education soon will trump the delivery of instruction via brick-and-mortar classrooms.

The changing role of the CTO

The increased emphasis on accountability applies not only to school systems, but also to their IT departments, Rust said.

"IT accountability is definitely … a growing trend," he said. "IT budgets might seem to be constantly under attack, because a lot of CTOs [don’t] know how to explain major purchases and decisions to [their] stakeholders."

Rust described how many CTOs use emotional appeals, such as "technology will save this school," or appeals to stakeholders’ sense of pity, or even appeals based on blind faith with no supporting research, when advocating for ed-tech expenditures.

He explained that with budgets feeling the pinch of the current economic crisis, and with school accountability reaching an all-time high, school district IT leaders will have to undergo a major change: from having technical skills to acquiring business skills; from needing to know how to fix a computer to knowing how to sell an idea and work with business leaders.

Gartner predicts that by 2010, the IT profession will be split into four domains:

1. Technology Infrastructure and Services. Now composing 65 percent of IT staff, this segment will dwindle to 40 percent. This group should emphasize technical knowledge, such as: "How does this technology work?"
2. Information Design and Management–will rise from 20 percent to 30 percent. This group will need to focus more on business-specific knowledge, such as: "What makes this institution tick?"
3. Process Design and Management–will rise from 10 percent to 20 percent. This group will need to balance business knowledge with core process knowledge, such as: "What processes make this area unique," and with industry knowledge, such as: "What characterizes this sector?"
4. Relationship and Sourcing Management–will rise from 5 percent to 10 percent. This group will need to balance business knowledge with core process knowledge.

Gartner also predicts that by 2010, six out of 10 people affiliated with IT will assume business-facing roles around information, process, and relationships.

"Less than 10 percent of new CIOs hired by Global 1000 companies in 2012 will have engineering and/or computer science degrees," predicted Rust. "This means that technically educated and/or experienced IT practitioners–including current CIOs–must target 2009 to begin acquiring at least one or two years of non-IT business-unit management experience if they wish to viably pursue new CIO opportunities opening up in 2009 or 2010."

Changing school practices

To help put these trends into perspective and offer real examples of how schools are dealing with IT changes, Bailey Mitchell, chief technology officer for Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools, cited some of his district’s recent action plans.

According to Mitchell, Forsyth County has added video conferencing and revised its acceptable-use policy (AUP) to allow for personal devices, such as cell phones, smart phones, and laptops, on school grounds.

"As consumer devices come into the schools, the CTO doesn’t own all the services anymore," said Mitchell. "We’ve dealt with this change by asking students and teachers to take more responsibility for the role technology plays in their work in a self-serve sense."

Forsyth County also is looking at Web 2.0 tools, but making sure to ask questions, such as: "What is the purpose and educational value of social networking in our schools?" Mitchell said it’s important to choose a good fit, providing a resource that not only will be used, but also will produce academic results.

"Right now, we’ve had to tighten the budget a little, so we’ve started to use web-based and open-source resources," Mitchell added. Forsyth County uses OpenOffice software, as well as various Google applications and Skype. "We’ve saved over $300,000 this year by making this switch," he said.

Another way Forsyth County is saving money is by transitioning to digital content rather than textbooks. According to Mitchell, textbooks usually cost his schools $85 per student, but digital content only averages $35 per seat.

Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services for the Round Rock Independent School District in Texas, also said saving money was a major concern, prompting Round Rock to pursue virtualization at the server and PC level.

"That provides more bang for your buck, as well as switching to open-source technology," said Zaiontz. "We’re also trying to focus on total cost of ownership; we need to prove that our purchases are productive, that they produce results. It’s all about the value of the investment."

Zaiontz also listed several areas and trends that Round Rock is taking an interest in:
– Energy efficiencies, such as green IT;
– Individual mobile devices and wireless environments;
– New safety and security measures that are needed for the connection of personal devices to school servers;
– Document management and eDiscovery in response to record-retention laws;
– Web and video collaboration;
– Online learning, to help cut the millions of dollars that go toward new school construction;
– Software as a Service (SaaS); and
– Creating a flexible AUP to reflect ever-changing technology standards.

In closing, Gartner’s Rust recommended that CTOs use and share best practices; establish effective communication with stakeholders; look ahead, and stay out in front; provide solutions, not problems; and understand the business implications of IT.


Consortium for School Networking


Forsyth County Schools

Round Rock ISD

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Leveraging the E-Rate resource center. Fueled by a growing need to prepare students for an increasingly global, 21st-century workforce, school leaders understand that access to school technology is more important than ever before. But as school budgets face cuts and re-evaluations in the midst of a struggling economy, many districts are concerned with their ability to pay for new technologies. Go to: Leveraging the E-Rate for Ed-Tech Success