Tim Harper, Ed. D, & CIO, Seminole County Public Schools
The Changing Role of CIOs in Public Education
Technology in public education is no longer a novelty and has become paramount to the delivery of content in many PK-12 classrooms across the United States. The demand for digital content delivered wirelessly and growing interest by educators and learners in blended learning models have led to the necessity of public education to rethink and realign the role of Information Technology (IT) departments, in general, and that of the Chief Information Officer (CIO). The new role of the public education CIO is twofold; 1) building relationships to bridge the gap between the traditional operational functions of IT and those of instructional units within the organization, and 2) fostering a mindset that recognizes technology as a direct-connect tool for learners and educators to information and creativity beyond the physical classroom.
"The power and efficiency of technology and its pervasive nature in all areas of public education will increase when the CIO sets the stage to serve as a bridge between operations and instruction"
The days of IT operating in a silo are slowly fading as public school district superintendents and school boards look to the future of education where technology plays a major role both in and outside of the classroom for learner and educator, alike. While the mission of I.T. departments may well continue to be the maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure within the organization, it is also being realigned to work hand-in-hand with the traditional instructional departments such as teaching and learning, often referred to as “curriculum”, and departments whose focus is supporting special needs students and English-language learners (ELL).
Aligning the role of the CIO to meet the needs of future ready schools requires the ability of the CIO to “bridge the gap” that often existed between operations and instructional entities within the public school district. As in the corporate arena, it is necessary in today’s educational environment for CIOs to have a comprehensive and clear understanding of the core mission of a public learning institution where student achievement is the focal point. In addition, the CIO must be aware of the varying pathways the individual learner is being offered in their educational portfolio. Much of these “individualized pathways” are now available as a direct result of technology in the hands of both educator and learner.
Scaling the Role of CIOs
The new norm for IT departments and CIOs has shifted from ensuring network and systems availability to a multitude of areas that cross both operational and instructional lines within the organization. In order to maximize the potential benefits of having a CIO on staff who can bridge the gap, it’s important that she or he is an active contributor at the superintendent’s leadership table with an equal voice. Equally important is for the CIO to build relationships with those individuals who are responsible for instructional-related areas within the public school district. The power and efficiency of technology and its pervasive nature in all areas of public education will increase when the CIO sets the stage to serve as a bridge between operations and instruction. This may be in the form of bringing together stakeholders such as transportation and curriculum departments to pilot Wi-Fi on buses, assisting a facilities department with redesigning learning spaces, supporting the growth of social media networks to help promote the public school district, or ensure access by learners and educators to all on-premise or cloud-based instructional materials throughout the academic year.
Seminole County Public Schools is located in Central Florida and teaches approximately 67,000 PK-12 grade students and employees 8,000 personnel, including approximately 4,500 teachers. The district had reduced its CIO position several years ago due to budgetary constraints but has recently moved back to the CIO-model. As such, the CIO position is an integral part of the Superintendent’s weekly cabinet meeting, where both operational and instructional topics are discussed. In addition to being part of the district’s leadership team, the CIO meets weekly in a more informal setting with counterparts from the Teaching & Learning and ePathways departments. The informal meeting with major players on the instructional side of the house has been instrumental to ensuring that resources are coordinated and available during major implementations or changes. This alignment strategy has also provided for improved changes in selecting and deploying instructional technology to classrooms.
The current focus of the school district, in terms of technology, is improved infrastructure as a provision for delivering instructional and operational digital resources. On the instructional side of the house, the primary emphasis has become wireless availability of digital content in two dimensions; time and location. Often referred to as 24/7/365 or anytime anywhere, the new normal is for learners and educators to have access to applications and content on-demand, regardless of their location.
While the district is in a relatively good position with wireless coverage, improvements are necessary to increase Wi-Fi density to provision for the ever increasing demands being placed on the network to accommodate Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) and the Internet of Things (IoT). An even greater challenge is ensuring the availability of digital resources for learners who may be lacking devices, Internet access, or both when not at school. While there are programs available to assist school districts in removing the digital divide, or what is becoming known as the “homework gap”, much work remains. It is as much the responsibility of the CIO as it is any other executive or educator in public education to create a level of confidence in which all learners have equal access to resources not just during normal school hours or the 180-day school year but year-around.
Another emerging area of interest is that of future ready schools. Public education CIOs will be part of the core thought leadership team that designs, develops, implements, and monitors future-ready learning spaces to ensure that the needs of learner clients are met along with reaching instructional outcomes. The CIO will be instrumental in developing internal and external relationships, envisioning open learning spaces and provisioning them with relevant, reliable technologies, promoting the value of near real-time data for monitoring the performance of learners, and creating robust feedback loops for continuous improvement in and adjustments to these learning spaces.
It’s an exciting time to be in public education in the United States as technology becomes a more embedded element in instructional and learning processes. The changing role of the CIO in public education institutions is equally exciting for those individuals who enjoy being change agents while making relationship building a core part of daily work. As educators we often say that “it’s all about the student” and that is at the heart of every teacher. In order to harness the power and magic of technology for the individual learner, CIOs are now called upon to have a connection and passion for taking an organization of many people and breaking it down to one individual student. Only then can we ensure that “it’s all about this one student” and her or his access to all available (digital) resources to promote a lifelong love for learning.