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CIOs are not just techies anymore

The role demands collaborative leadership, instructional skills, and (don’t forget) cutting edge technical expertise
At Batavia Public Schools in Illinois, administrators gather with CIO Anton Inglese. From left to right, Kris Mon, assistant superintendent of finance; Superintendent Lisa Hichens, Inglese, and Steve Pearce, assistant superintendent for human resources.
At Batavia Public Schools in Illinois, administrators gather with CIO Anton Inglese. From left to right, Kris Mon, assistant superintendent of finance; Superintendent Lisa Hichens, Inglese, and Steve Pearce, assistant superintendent for human resources.

WANTED: CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICER: Looking for a technology expert, experienced with Mac and PC; servers; mobile technologies—including smartphones, tablets, laptops, and netbooks; coding; and helpdesk. Must be a strong people person and a great communicator, coach, and teacher, used to juggling multiple projects simultaneously, a team player, and always willing to pitch in. Comfortable in a fast-paced environment. People who have one way of doing things need not apply.

Sounds like a tall order. But this is exactly what is expected of a K12 district CIO today—a role that is completely different from what it was just five years ago.

The CIO position in the K12 education sector has changed in three primary ways: 1) From managing boxes and wires to providing service and support; 2) From making decisions in a vacuum to making collaborative decisions with others; 3) And from being an under-the-executive-radar manager to having a seat at the executive leadership table, and being included in long-range district planning and instructional decisions.

Increasingly, the CIO position is being considered a cabinet-level position, and the tech leader has a voice in decision-making at executive team meetings, particularly with regard to planning instructional technology for the future.

In 1990, 80 percent of a district CIO’s job was technical, says Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of CoSN. “Now, that’s about 20 percent of their job,” he says. “The rest has shifted to visioning and leadership, working with others throughout the organization and managing staff.”

The big change isn’t in technical proficiency, but in people skills. CIOs are now required to work with teachers and administrators, listen to them, and to understand the priorities and the reasons why they’re important, says Geoff Fletcher, deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

And the background needed for the position depends on what the superintendent feels is important at the time, Fletcher says. For instance, if there’s a push on Common Core, the superintendent may bring in a tech leader who has experience in installing learning software, laptops, and smartboards, and then training teachers how to use them to teach and test students.

Mike Leseberg’s job is vastly different today. Before the transition, “technology was pretty static,” says Leseberg, executive director of information technology at the Richland School District in eastern Washington. But the boom in mobile devices, tablets, and BYOD changed everything. “These advancements have made me change my thinking regarding how best to support staff and students with new technologies, especially those that can be tied directly to improving student performance and learning.”

Previously, IT departments made decisions on which technologies to purchase without asking others’ opinions. Now, the teachers will often drive those decisions.“We used to have a captive audience where we said ‘here’s your technology and this is what you’re using this year,’ ” says Anton “Tony” Inglese, CIO and assistant superintendent for Batavia Public School District in Illinois. “We were command and control. We didn’t consult people, we just did what we felt was best.”

Now, Inglese says, that model has flipped 180 degrees. “When people started to bring their devices from home, the old model didn’t work and teachers started to rebel,” he says. “They said, ‘We need it this way and it needs to do this and you need to hear us and you don’t understand what the impact of your decision might be on us and on learning.’ So that pushed us not only to listen to our internal customers, but also to become proactive to predict common issues and determine how to prevent them from happening in the future.”

For example, he says, from a service delivery standpoint, there is a big difference between ‘I can’t print’ and ‘please install my new printer.’ Leseberg’s experience has been similar. Where he used to avoid technology with high security risks, such as those built on open networks, “Now, I look to see how we can leverage them to benefit us as an educational institution first and then see what security measures we have in place or potentially need to acquire to support it,” he adds. “I’ve become much more open to accepting different technologies outside our comfort zone.”

Leseberg attends twice monthly board meetings and is particularly interested in decisions around teaching and learning to ensure the right resources are available. For instance, the district is looking at digital curricula and open educational resource material. “That puts a heavy load and stress on internet access and bandwidth, so we need to know in advance what those requirements are,” he says.

Providing executive support

As chief innovation officer of the Community Consolidated School District in Chicago’s Arlington Heights suburb, Ben Grey’s title and job description are slightly different from his peers. Superintendent Art Fessler, who moved over from Oaklawn at which Grey was CIO, picked Grey for the new position.

“I learned from my experience that, while we do a good job of supporting teachers, we’re not providing enough support for our leaders,” Fessler explains. “I wanted to develop another element of the CIO role that would allow someone to have significantly more contact with the leadership team and begin to shape their thinking so they can become instructional leaders and understand teaching and learning with 21st-century tools.”

Grey explains that the district’s new 21st Century Leadership Academy for administrators runs for seven days during the school year and has several two-hour follow-up sessions, resulting in 63 total hours of focused professional development a year. The academy in part teaches administrators how to implement project-based learning curricula and how to use online communities as part of the learning process.

Teachers and administrators expect the technology team to function as a partner rather than just a provider, says Inglese. “To be an intermediary who facilitates services, project management, workflow analysis—those are the services IT will provide to districts going forward. That leads to innovation as a core competency of technology itself, being on the crossroads of ideas where change happens.”

In larger districts with ample budget dollars, there may be two separate positions. “One person is concerned about boxes and wires and one is on the instructional side,” says Fletcher. “It’s a stretch to ask people to do both because the former requires someone who sits in an office and is always looking at the latest and greatest stuff. The latter person needs strong people skills as they will spend a lot of time in the classrooms and offices where the technology is being used.”

As director of instructional technology for Raytown Quality Schools in Missouri, Melissa Tebbenkamp spends a lot of time with people. “Five years ago,” Tebbenkamp recalls, “teacher training consisted of, ‘Here’s how you check your voicemail and access your login’. Now, I’m leading a 90-minute laptop session on the learning management and student information systems. And I show teachers how to access eSource, our website where we keep all of our curriculum.”

CIO as service broker

The IT department is now service focused, which requires a more outgoing personality style than in times past and a shift in some skills, such as learning how to teach others. “We’ve talked at SETDA about the role of the concierge,” says Fletcher. “It’s about, ‘How can I help you facilitate what you want in terms of learning math? Let me find a way to help you do that. It’s about facilitating the use of technology throughout the district.” Ultimately, he says, the technology becomes less important than the process.

Tebbenkamp is so focused on providing quality service that she has given her superintendents service level agreements, an unusual tactic for a district. The SLAs set goals, such as having the network up and running 99.9 percent of the time, guaranteeing a four-hour repair response time, and solving common issues within 24 hours. “We set those expectations so the staff can depend on us and so teachers can do their job,” she says.

Leseberg recently hired two helpdesk techs. One had an education background. The other ran a helpdesk at an Office Depot store. The latter’s service experience working with people “translated easily into what we were looking for,” Leseberg says, noting that that was more important than having an ed background.

Collaboration with administrators and teachers is also part of the regular routine. Inglese holds ‘Tech Talks’ twice a year at each school with teachers and administrators to hear their questions about the programs and technology. “Instead of processing issues and frustrations about how technology isn’t working, we now talk almost exclusively about our vision for the future, and how technology is and will continue to transform teaching and learning in our district,” he says.

Collaboration is the key behind making Common Core a success, and soon, Inglese says, everything will be connected. “We’ll know what students are reading, what video they watched, what they’re interested in, and what engages them. We’ll be able to aggregate trends not just locally, but worldwide, and empower teachers and administrators with that information, to help them pick out resources that have been tried and proven.”

The next five years

Going forward, the technology leader will be intimately involved in helping solve the big educational challenges. “My job is not just as an administrator,” says Grey. “It’s critical in supporting teachers and preparing kids for life. I hope three to five years from now, people will see the difference we’re making.”

Lynn Russo Whylly is newsletter/copy editor.