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Server room to the K12 classroom

A look at the new roles tech teams take on when districts personalize instruction
  • TECH TRANSITIONS—Pickerington Local School District’s IT team has more than quadrupled in size as its members become more involved in instruction, thanks to a 1-to-1 program and personalized learning.
  • ACADEMIC REACH—Students in the Verona Area School District in Wisconsin can detail their learning progress with new software. The district’s newly minted edtech coaches go beyond troubleshooting to ensure teachers and students get the most out of the latest education platforms.

When Amy Arbogash took the reins of the technology department at Verona Area School District in Wisconsin in 2017, it was in the middle of a multiyear shift to personalized instruction.

Students were developing their own learning plans during the rollout of a 1-to-1 iPad program. That is why the district gave Arbogash the title of director of technology and personalized learning.

“Some technology directors are very focused on the back-end IT,” says Arbogash, a former teacher. “They may not understand instructional technology and may not come from an education background.”

Besides leading the personalized learning initiative, Arbogash oversees a small IT staff that is responsible for network and mobile device management.


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“There needs to be someone filling the gap between IT and instructional technology, wherein each side understands the other,” she says. “As I lead this department, it is important that I help the tech employees see why we are doing certain things.”

Throughout K12 education, districts moving aggressively into personalized learning covet IT leaders who not only understand instruction, but who also have the technology chops to make decisions about devices and networks.

Traditional IT leaders will struggle to be seen as partners on personalized learning efforts if they aren’t familiar with pedagogical goals or if they act as gatekeepers, restricting what type of software can be used, says Eric Butash, director of operations at the Highlander Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps districts develop blended and personalized learning models.

“Nine times out of 10,” he says, “the reason personalized learning does not happen is because some systems or controls are set up by IT leaders who do not understand the transformation happening in the classrooms.”

Linking tech to teaching

At Pickerington Local School District near Columbus, Ohio, Brian Seymour, the director of instructional technology, is part of the team working to blend traditional teaching practices with a digital environment.

For instance, the district, which no longer buys textbooks, will soon offer online classes to prepare high school students for the college experience.

“When the superintendent put me in this position, he said he wanted a direct link between technology and teaching and learning,” says Seymour, a former curriculum coordinator and instructional coach. “That has been a main reason why we are having success.”

As Seymour has supported personalized learning and a 1-to-1 initiative, his team has grown from four to 18. It now includes instructional technology, IT support and information management to handle analysis and reporting.

Seymour’s educational technology coordinators also partner with curriculum department employees to focus on specific grade levels.

“Curriculum doesn’t do anything unless they check with us, and we don’t do anything unless we check with them,” Seymour says.

Tech leaders also have to measure the effectiveness of digital platforms. Jessica Peters, the associate director of personalized learning for KIPP charter schools in Washington, D.C., selects programs for the blended learning portfolio and develops teacher training sessions for more than 50 software products.

“We have made huge strides in trimming our portfolio down from more than 90 to fewer than 60 products,” she says.

“Some products were not being used or not being used effectively,” she adds. “Others, even if they were used effectively, weren’t having any impact on student achievement.”

From coordinating to coaching

At Pickerington, the roles of Seymour’s technicians have also changed.

Previously, they worked with carts of iPads or Chromebooks; now they must support individual devices for thousands of students.

That involves setting up procedures for distributing devices; keeping inventory; planning for broken hardware and handing out loaners; and collecting from students some 8,000 devices at the end of the year.

“We got rid of all the general computer labs,” Seymour says. “If every student has a device, why do we need computer labs? We don’t have that to worry about anymore.”

At Verona, Arbogash rearranged staffing priorities. Previously, each building had an edtech coordinator and a tech assistant who were spending considerable time fixing technology and implementing software, rather than working with teachers.

This year, their job titles changed to edtech coach, and they guide teachers through the implementation of a learning management system, a collaboration platform and a software program that allows students to detail learning goals and experiences.

Mastering the data

At Pickerington, teachers of the same grade levels meet weekly to discuss student data generated by instructional software.

“Sometimes we have too much data,” Seymour admits. “We had to scale back some of our programs to one or two for each subject area at each grade level. That way, the teachers can concentrate on the data from those programs.”

KIPP’s Peters spends significant time mining personalized learning platforms for student-achievement data that she can present to teachers and administrators. Because vendors present the data differently, Peters compiles a data dashboard for KIPP’s educators every week.

“We try to be really consistent about how those are formatted so it is easy for people to look at various assessment platforms in a way that makes sense.”

More administrators are hiring analytics staffers because districts have struggled to leverage the power of data, says Leo Brehm, learning evolution officer at the Central Massachusetts Collaborative, which works with dozens of districts to maximize technology’s impact on learning.

Districts should be able to quickly funnel back assessment data to educators to help steer spending decisions, professional development programs and curriculum adjustments, he says.

“We still struggle with that,” Brehm says, “because of a few cultural problems in education around how we handle data, how we interpret it and how we use it to be impactful for students.”

Solving privacy problems

IT leaders sometimes find that student privacy legislation stymies personalized learning efforts, according to a February 2018 report by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

In the report, the association says that New Hampshire’s law includes “heavy-handed provisions” to prevent critical student data from being stored and analyzed in a state longitudinal data system.

“If these tools cannot identify a student’s input or responses, they cannot personalize the education experience,” the report states.

Individual district tech leaders also struggle with student privacy provisions in software contracts, says Andrew Wallace, technology director in the South Portland School Department in Maine.

Wallace suggests that IT leaders seek assistance from organizations such as the Student Data Privacy Consortium, which has created a privacy framework that guides districts in
vetting contracts.

Promoting ‘Project Unicorn’

Highlander’s Butash suggests that district tech leaders insist on data interoperability from vendors so it is easier to pull together information from different systems for assessment and reporting.

Districts can require vendors to become compliant with the Ed-Fi Data Standard, a set of rules that enables previously disconnected software applications to connect.

They can also ask vendors to sign the “Project Unicorn” pledge, which commits vendors to focusing on the interoperability of their products.

Administrators at Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, for example, told vendors they will not use products that are not compliant with the Ed-Fi standard, Butash says.

Every vendor working with the district signs a “Project Unicorn” pledge and goes to Ed-Fi workshops. “That is a big success,” he says, “and the fruits will be borne down the road.”


David Raths is a Philadelphia-based writer who regularly covers edtech.