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New training paths for school tech staff

Today’s top IT jobs demand customer-service and business skills
Anton Inglese, CIO at Batavia Public School District in Illinois, helps a student practice a math lesson on his tablet. He says he gained more insight into classroom practices while studying for the CETL test, and now considers the big picture when upgrading technology.
Anton Inglese, CIO at Batavia Public School District in Illinois, helps a student practice a math lesson on his tablet. He says he gained more insight into classroom practices while studying for the CETL test, and now considers the big picture when upgrading technology.

Given the need for qualified school technologists, there are a few training programs that specifically address the unique combination of technical and pedagogical skills needed for leaders and their staff.

The staff must not only understand the technical side but also know the education environment, says Superintendent Tom Trigg of the Blue Valley School District in suburban Kansas City, Kansas.

But some tech leaders haven’t even had adequate professional development.

“We talk about professional development for everyone in the school system around technology, and often the people in charge of technology haven’t had their own professional development,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN.

How then, do district technology leaders and their staff develop that unique set of skills?

Certification options

The most prominent CTO-specific certification developed so far is CoSN’s certified education technology leader (CETL) program. It’s a test-based certification focused on 10 skill areas, including strategic planning, information technology planning and stakeholder focus.

CETL certification is not for newcomers. It requires a bachelor’s degree and at least four years of experience in an educational technology role. Most test takers prepare through an online course offered by CoSN or in regional study groups. Preparation takes an average of two to five months, and the certification is good for three years. Total fees for the process run less than $1,000.

The Leading Edge Certification program was developed by an alliance of nonprofits and education agencies, such as the Association of California School Administrators and the New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education. LEC’s Administrator certification, offered since 2011-12, may be particularly appealing for schools and districts where technology decisions are made by principals and superintendents.

Participants create a portfolio as they work through eight modules, which can be completed online. The administrator portfolio includes a vision statement for the participant’s school or district, a presentation for school staff on how to prevent cyberbullying, and a roadmap for implementing a new tool or technology.

The course takes 40 to 70 hours over eight to 12 weeks, and costs around $750. The certification is good for five years, and covers material like data-driven decision making, online and mobile learning, cyberbullying and working with stakeholders.

LEC’s other certifications are Online and Blended Teacher, Digital Educator, and Professional Learning Leader. The 60-hour Online and Blended course mainly focuses on “building community in an online environment,” implementing online assessments and other techniques. Participants in the Digital Educator certification learn to engage “digital-generation” students in critical thinking, collaboration and communication. LEC’s newest certification, Professional Learning Leader, is for educators who want to design PD programs.

The California Educational Technology Professionals Association offers the CTO Mentor Program each year. It’s open to technology leaders outside of California, but consists of 10 weekend-long classes in California over the course of a year. Participants are predominantly from California or areas such as western Nevada, CETPA Executive Director Andrea Bennett says.

SETDA Executive Director Douglas Levin says he’s not aware of any states with special certifications for CIOs or CTOs. And SETDA has not recommended specific certification requirements to states.

Determining training

Creating a training plan for a technology leader or staff will vary depending on experience. Both instructional and technology backgrounds can provide deep skill sets to the CTO role, says Cameron Evans, CTO of Microsoft Education.

CIOs and CTOs who started their careers as teachers will likely want to pursue a different set of skills than will administrators who came from other industries and have limited experience in the classroom, says Brooke Trisler, director of instructional technology at Renton School District in Washington state.

Trisler started as a teacher, and needed to develop his data and communication skills. He also had to develop business skills to help school principals forecast return on investment when purchasing technology.

For others with only an education background, Cisco, Apple, Microsoft and Google offer a wide range of technical trainings—many of them online. Because few school districts will use technology from just a single vendor or platform, it’s also important to get non-vendor-specific technology training, such as through CoSN’s CETL program, Krueger says.

Anton Inglese, CIO at Batavia Public School District in Illinois, had no teaching experience before becoming a technology leader. “Teachers will tell me, ‘You make decisions that have a big impact in our classroom and sometimes you just don’t get it. You don’t understand what it’s like to be a classroom teacher,’” he says.

Inglese says he gained a better understanding of classroom practices while studying for his CETL test. Now he has an increased focus on teacher support and also considers the bigger picture when upgrading technology. For example, he would no longer create a technology solution for just a single teacher, but would instead make sure it was valuable across the district. And before launching the program, he would ensure teachers received the training and support they need to use the technology properly.

A more intensive PD option is going back to school. University of Kentucky and The George Washington University are among the very few colleges that have online graduate certificate programs in educational technology leadership. There’s also a need for more master’s programs, Trisler says. He and a school CTO are talking to a Washington university about creating such a program.

Levin says SETDA has yet to endorse any CTO-specific certifications, though it is watching CoSN’s CETL program with interest. “Efforts like the CETL and others to build the capacity of technology decision-makers at the school and district level are very important and require a lot of attention,” Levin says.

Find time and funding

Districts rarely budget PD funds for IT professionals, says Bennett of the California Educational Technology Professionals Association. Because of that, CTOs and CIOs tend to turn to professional networks to develop their skills. ISTE’s annual conference and others also provide critical training for CTOs.

Some states are beginning to offer scholarships for CTOs to pursue certifications like CETL, but district financial support varies. While districts may want to more strongly consider allocating funds for technology leadership PD, there are a growing number of free online resources to supplement formal training.

MOOCs can be helpful, says Evans of Microsoft, which recently made free an entire series of e-books. The titles range from “Building Cloud Apps with Microsoft Azure” to “Rethinking Enterprise Storage: A Hybrid Cloud Model.”

Microsoft also offers free online courses, including the 36-hour “Teaching with Technology” and “21st Century Learning Design.” Though the courses are not specific to education leaders, they can still be helpful depending on what skills a district leader needs to develop.

Because so much training for school technology leaders happens outside of the school day or as a result of personal initiative, one way to encourage training is to offer incentives or opportunities for career growth. Auburn School District #408 in Washington state gave its director of information technology, Jennifer Clouser, time to study for CETL and provided a small cash incentive bonus for passing the exam.

In other districts, the certification qualifies employees for salary increases, says Trisler of Renton schools.

“You still have to know technology, but you have to also have the bigger vision in mind,” says Superintendent Sherry Kropp of the Los Alamitos USD in Southern California. “You have to be visionary—someone who can motivate, be customer-service oriented and really believes in making sure technology is up and running."

Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.