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Professional Opinion

Ending the edtech backlog

Nashville school district singing new tune with software integration
John Williams is executive director of technology for Metro-Nashville Public Schools.
John Williams is executive director of technology for Metro-Nashville Public Schools.

When your job is to manage the IT infrastructure for more than 83,000 students, across 150 schools, who use more than 340 different pieces of education software, it would not be too surprising to be singing the blues.

But in Music City—Nashville—our district is singing up-tempo and thriving even as we enter year two of a sweeping technology initiative to equip all students for 21st century learning and future colleges and careers.

Data-driven district challenges

Like many large urban districts, in Metro Nashville Public Schools we have implemented aggressive plans to create new digital learning opportunities for students and teachers. For example, our district became a fully data-driven operation with the rollout of our data warehouse in 2010. All learning software used throughout Nashville schools is now tracked and measured.

Additionally, our district began working with Nashville community and business leaders in 2013 to define and launch a five-year learning technology plan that would prioritize digital learning and technology training. One important goal of the future-ready coalition was to ensure students were prepared to take on the many IT jobs going unfilled in the city—particularly in the fast-growing healthcare segment.

With the new data warehouse, and a forward-thinking learning technology plan, our district was set to move forward. Instead, we hit a brick wall.

As we had hoped, the schools and teachers requested a wide array of exciting new education software, but the setup process turned out to be long and laborious for both our district and the software vendors. The data integration was killing our IT department. We were backlogged with a line out the door and just did not have the manpower to roster, test and approve the onslaught of new programs.

Software use exploding

When I started with Nashville five years ago, the district used 10 core IT systems. It now uses 49. Additionally, our IT team currently oversees 344 apps and some 200 more are in the queue to be integrated. Before adopting the new platform, we were almost completely backlogged.

I resigned myself to the fact that there was no solution to our dilemma. A typical single integration would have taken weeks or even months with countless back-and-forth cycles required between our team and the vendor.

With Nashville’s software backlog growing, I felt bombarded and knew I needed to find a solution. We needed to process and onboard the software so the schools could take full advantage of the latest apps in their classrooms.

I reached out to several technical directors in similarly sized districts, including Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Houston ISD, and learned about the integration solutions they were using with great results.

Once our district had a solid integration solution in place, the results were almost immediate. The process for new software integration now averages just one or two days. Now IT can move very swiftly to test, approve and roll out a new application.

Single sign-on

We are also in the early stages of evaluating single sign-on. We recognized the security risks associated with generic logins. By implementing single sign-on, we anticipate benefits in the areas of convenience, class time savings and better overall security, all of which are very valuable—and especially important to our schools and parents.

As we move forward with our learning technology plan, schools and teachers will be able to enjoy access to more learning software apps than ever before—and our IT department will not be overwhelmed and backlogged. In addition, when a new learning app pops up, our IT team can respond almost instantly.

With the new data-driven trend in most districts, if IT departments want to make their mark they need to be ready with an answer to the integration problem. Finally, there’s help where we once had no solution. In Nashville, that’s music to our ears.

John Williams is executive director of technology for Metro-Nashville Public Schools.