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Building an Ed Tech Dream Team

If you could put together a staff to make the most of educational technology in your district, what would it look like?
The Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District dream team solves problems. Clockwise from top left: Robert Lane, Robert Rhyne, Frank Mukina, Scott Smith, Jeff Martin, Kim Cline and Michael Hiskey.
The Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District dream team solves problems. Clockwise from top left: Robert Lane, Robert Rhyne, Frank Mukina, Scott Smith, Jeff Martin, Kim Cline and Michael Hiskey.

At almost every turn over the past decade—from innovative instructional technologies to advanced database management—administrators and teachers have discovered a brave new world in education. But a host of experts in educational technology say that for all the progress in districts so far, that world is becoming markedly braver and newer—and in a hurry.

Even technology basics have made a quantum leap, observes Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “We used to think of bandwidth that supported 75 percent of the users in the district,” he points out. “Now we need bandwidth for two-and-a-half times the number of those people. Kids need laptop access and may also need tablet and mobile phone access.”

Justin Bathon, co-director and co-founder of the year-old Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE) at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, adds that technology-based initiatives once deemed futuristic are becoming commonplace in today’s classroom. “There’s increasing pressure to deal with technology in new ways, from online schooling to the growth in one-to-one computing to project-based learning,” he says. “All of these new learning models are made possible by the underlying technology structure.”

Bathon adds that these new models demand a different approach than many education technology departments have taken in the past. “The Internet is the greatest learning tool in the history of mankind, and we’re just at the beginning of what we can do with that platform,” he explains. “But you can’t use the same ed tech crew that you had 10 years ago, when the Internet was in its infancy. Then the district technology coordinator purchased and maintained the computers, and put some new technologies in the classroom. The district technology team has to recognize that’s not the job anymore.”

Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) in Washington, D.C., agrees that today’s ed tech teams have to master new skill sets. “As technology has become part of the way that schools do business—from instruction to assessment to communication with parents—it requires greater capacity and expertise on the part of the technology team to make good choices.”forsyth

Maribeth Luftglass, Bailey Mitchell and Scott Smith—technology chiefs of the Fairfax County, Va., Forsyth County, Ga., and Mooresville, N.C., school districts, respectively—know firsthand the opportunities and challenges of the new era in educational technology. Each heads a technology department known for best practices and ambitious innovations. While their districts are located in different states, are of different sizes, and contain a different number of employees on their ed tech teams, all three are up to their elbows in large-scale initiatives.

Luftglass manages a 450-person staff that supports 128,000 computers and a network connecting 240 locations, including almost 200 schools. Her district has implemented a massive bring your own device (BYOD) program that encourages students to use their own laptops, smartphones and tablet PCs in school. As a result, Luftglass’ department has had to support an additional 60,000 student-owned devices over a wide array of platforms.

Mitchell, meanwhile, supervises almost 40 central office employees and an additional 35 placed at individual schools in this 36,500-student district in suburban Atlanta. Besides tending 22,000 computers at 40 different sites, as well as two separate networks, Mitchell’s department is using a $4.7 million federal Investing in Innovation grant to combine formative assessments and other student data with a content management system to produce personalized learner plans. Smith has a staff of seven in the central office, as well as a certified technology facilitator and a help-desk person in each of the district’s two intermediate schools and in its middle school and high school. That deployment supports the district’s one-to-one laptop program for 4,000 students across grades 4 to 12. Those schools also rely on an array of Internet-based resources and applications.

With the possibilities of technological innovation multiplying inside and outside of the classroom, what’s a district technology department to do? What kind of technology team works best in this day and age? What would it take to create a tech dream team?

Configuring the Ed Tech Staff

For starters, say these ed tech leaders, making the most out of the burgeoning possibilities of educational technology is not just a matter of configuring computers and networks, but configuring the entire tech staff to handle a complicated array of tasks efficiently and effectively.

“I don’t see my job as knowing everything, but making sure people are in the right place,” says Mooresville’s Smith. Smith notes that one specialist handles the district’s VoIP telephone system, another manages the servers, and an accounts manager is responsible for the district’s learning management and student information systems. “I think it’s vital to have people who can make different parts and pieces happen,” he insists. “I don’t think you can be successful without them.”

For Luftglass and the Fairfax County school system, different tiers of expertise are the key to keeping their expansive ed tech program running and advancing. Tier 1, Luftglass explains, consists of the “break it/fix it” staff, including 150 technology support specialists based at individual schools, who focus on the day-to-day operation of the district’s network, Wi-Fi connections and almost 200,000 computing devices.

“People at this level really need to be jacks-of-all-trades, familiar with networks and applications,” Luftglass explains. The tier 1 job description also includes monitoring how long it takes ed tech personnel to respond to problems and identifying areas in which there are continuous backlogs or in which users have many questions, all with an eye to improving the resources and training the department provides.

At the tier 2 level, a group of application specialists handles the more complex tasks of managing and developing programs for areas such as student information, payroll, transportation and assessment. “What works best for us in these positions are people with school-based experience and who have a technical background with specific training for particular applications,” Luftglass says.

Tier 3 encompasses the network infrastructure and includes a combination of still higher-level—and higher-paid—specialists responsible for server management, network security, and the district’s Oracle and Microsoft SQL databases. These specialists include software engineers, who handle database design and troubleshooting.

Getting Extra Helpfairfax

Luftglass acknowledges that this wealth of human resources enables her to operate on such a large scale and pretty much amounts to a dream team. Other ed tech directors note that this tripartite division of labor suits the ever-evolving educational technology landscape, even on a smaller scale. They also agree a successful enterprise depends on people, based at individual schools, who promote and facilitate the use of instructional technologies, from using tools such as Google Docs and Skype to integrating Web-based sites into the curriculum.

In the case of Fairfax County, there is one instructional technologist at each school, “joined at the hip,” Luftglass notes, with the technology support specialist from her department. Together the two work out the ways that educational technologies can best support classroom teaching and learning, with the ed tech expert offering the technical advice to achieve the desired outcomes. In Forsyth County, Mitchell points out, the schools do not have the budget to afford a person dedicated to instructional technology. He connects instead with the media specialist at each school, and with positive results. “Our school-based media centers are changing in scope, function and perception,” he says. “They have a long history of understanding what might work for teachers.” For him, forming a dream team requires asking, “Have you adequately leveraged all your relationships [in the district] so you’re not wholly responsible for everything?”

In Mooresville, N.C., meanwhile, Smith depends on the media coordinator at each school to develop digital resources to bolster the almost entirely digital curriculum. “We haven’t purchased a textbook in four years except those mandated by the College Board for the AP exams,” he says. This means ensuring his staff and the media coordinators pick the right products and online subscriptions, from Discovery Education to netTrekker, a search mechanism that vets online content.

The Budget Challenge

Still, the best-laid plans of good tech directors can run up against numerous obstacles, starting with limited funding. Mitchell notes that his frontline technology support specialists start at $55,000 a year and that tier 2 and tier 3 professionals such as application developers and higher-level engineers start at $75,000 to $80,000.

Of course, better-paying jobs exist in the private sector. “We always risk losing our really good people,” Mitchell admits, adding that he has had to outsource some of his high-level engineering needs. “It would be all-in house if it could be, but the kind of systems engineers we need are in high demand, and honestly, I don’t know if I’d be able to offer that salary level.”

Mitchell notes that his department’s BYOD program, which has been in place for almost five years, can only afford a single staff member for 35 schools. “He’s our BYOD evangelist, who goes out and works with administrators at the building level,” Mitchell says. “But we don’t have the kind of coverage to keep up with the demand.” As a result, the district is not reaching all of the students who could bring in their own devices.

Mitchell also acknowledges that his department is straining to keep up with network and equipment problems. “We’ve been very good about taking care of teachers in less than a four-hour period. You can’t allow a teacher to be offline for more than a period or two, but we’re about three or four people short,” he explains, adding that this is due to a tight budget. He has had to use outside contractors to fill gaps.

Smith has his own wish list for additional staff members to leverage student data. “I would add a database-management type of person, who would focus on [the data related to] academic achievement, and I would add some data integration people to build a better repository and reporting tool,” he says. Administrators could then better track student performance over the school year.

Finding the Right People

Dan O’Reilly, technology coordinator for the Pequot Lakes (Minn.) Public Schools, has written about the underfunding of today’s ed tech departments and notes that they may need to adjust how they use their budgets. “We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on technologies, but not on the people who can create solutions,” he says. The missing link, he explains, is “technology integrationists,” who can create applications and find other solutions for teachers to use. “You need someone who can speak the teacher’s language and have the know-how to present solutions to a teacher who says, ‘I want to address reading skills in my third-grade class.’”

O’Reilly also argues that districts run the risk of wasting expertise in the name of savings. Especially in smaller districts, the technology coordinator becomes the technician, and ends up restarting computers, he says. “If the district could spend a little extra money to pay for technicians, the tech coordinator could be focusing on mobile computing or BYOD, and looking down the pike to see what else is coming,” O’Reilly says.

SETDA’s Levin agrees that district leaders, including superintendents, often could do a better job of understanding educational technology. “We’ve seen really wide variation among educational leaders,” he reports. “Many have spent much of their careers without having to use technology very much, so they may end up under-resourcing the technology department and putting the ed tech coordinator in a tough spot.”

CASTLE’s Bathon suggests that districts do not have to ride the massing wave of educational technology by themselves. “Smaller districts are going to have to work together,” he says. “A district with strong instructional technology support can partner with one that has strong server-side management. And you’re going to need two superintendents willing to say, ‘Can we have 20 hours of your time in exchange for 20 hours of our time?’”

For example, the rural RSU No. 38 School District in Readfield, Maine, which has about 1,200 students, sells a portion of its technology time and expertise to a smaller district comprised of one elementary school, according to Superintendent Richard A. Abramson. For the past five years, the No. 38 district has sold the school time from members of the tech team to “enable them to have services comparable to ours,” he adds. They provide hours from the technology equipment manager/repairman, access to the student management information system and professional development for their teachers; also, the tech director meets with them to ensure their needs are met. “The funds provided by this school district help offset our costs to maintain our staff full-time,” Abramson says. “Any profits that we are able to obtain are plowed back into our technology needs. It is a win-win situation.”

The Case for an Ed Background

Regardless of the way ed tech departments deploy their personnel, tech leaders agree that they would be better off if even the more technically oriented staff had backgrounds in education. Mitchell notes that his tech team consists mostly of former teachers and administrators. “They’ve evolved with the growth of educational technology from the onset,” he says. They can truly understand the educational environment and have an easier time relating to their peers at school.” The risk, Mitchell says, is a disconnect, because technological experts may be unable to grasp the finer points of teaching and learning.

“If you’re working on an application for our online testing and assessment system, you have to be familiar with assessment methods and have to understand what testing is,” explains Luftglass. “You’ve got to have someone who’s flexible and can adapt to change—especially in technology, where things change so fast—and still keep the educational vision in mind,” adds Smith, who has a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. “Tech folks can be control freaks and forget what the real mission is. They might say ‘We can’t support this on our network.’ That’s not the right answer. The right answer is, ‘What are the things we need to do to support [that need]?’ That’s a shift for people.”

Even though Mitchell needs additional personnel, he is satisfied with his team. “I have a dream team in that I’ve been working with the same people over seven years,” he says. “We have a synergy of working together and being willing to try things ahead of the curve.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.