SPECIAL TECHNOLOGY REPORT: The Changing Role of the CTO
As Bailey Mitchell, chief technology and information officer in the 36,000-student Forsyth County (Ga.) School District, describes it, the way in which the school system made decisions about technology in years past was inefficient and pretty dysfunctional. "We'd go out and buy something, but if we didn't ask anyone if it was instructionally relevant, it might not be used," he says. "On the other hand, administrators in the academic and accountability departments would make a decision about something that might work for them and then lay it on the technology people to figure it out. That's no way to go about it."
This sort of miscommunication no longer happens in the district, he says, because decisions now are made jointly by those in the technology department—along with curriculum directors, instructional leaders, finance officers and others—to ensure that any new technology contributes to the overall vision of the district. Mitchell, who is also chair of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the professional organization for school technology leaders, attributes much of this change to his position now being included as part of the superintendent's cabinet and to his close work with Lissa Pijanowski, the district's associate superintendent for academics and accountability. "We talk informally, probably every day, to stay on the same page about initiatives, from the budget to federal or state compliance issues," he says.
Enabling the Mission
The experience of Forsyth County is not unique. The role of a district's technology leader, known by a variety of titles including "chief technology officer" (CTO), "chief information officer" (CIO), "director of technology" and others, is changing rapidly in school systems around the country. These administrators principally have managed the nuts and bolts of hardware and software but now are increasingly informing and influencing strategic decisions in district administration and operations at the highest levels.
"Technology leaders used to be the wires-and-boxes people," says Alice E. Owen, executive director of technology in the Irving (Texas) Independent School District. "They handled the technical side of the house," she says. Today, driven by economic and accountability pressures as well as changing technology trends, more districts are recognizing that there needs to be a greater role for their CTO.
"We have moved to the point where we need to be focused on how technology enables the mission of districts," says Keith R. Krueger, CEO of CoSN. "This isn't any different from what happened in district finance. There used to be bookkeepers and accountants, and there still are, but at some point, most districts realized that money and the way you spend it is a strategic asset, so they created chief financial officer positions at the cabinet level. Today, districts need to think about technology that way."
"With budget crunches and reduced human capacity in many districts, administrators want to see that anything they invest in is aligned to the district's general mission," agrees Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). "That puts a bigger burden on the IT leadership to articulate the role that technology plays in student learning, as well as how it contributes to overall efficiencies in the district."
In a move to facilitate this process, Krueger says CoSN is planning to announce a new partnership with the curriculum-focused organization ASCD (formerly known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) this summer. "It is more critical than ever that district chief academic officers and chief technology officers engage in collaborative leadership," says Judy Zimny, chief program development officer at ASCD. "Acting on this belief, we're proud to partner with CoSN to create and deliver resources for districts that capitalize on the expertise of both organizations."
Beyond IT Support
The continual evolution of technology has also helped to elevate the role of school technology leaders, particularly through trends like cloud computing and the use of student-owned devices. "There still are some complicated systems out there, but a lot of the educational tools we are using now are coming from cloud-based applications, so there is a lot less technical support that the district has to provide," asserts Owen. "With free applications in the cloud, you no longer have to buy and update and maintain systems," says Knezek. Similarly, with students bringing their own smartphones, MP3 players and other mobile devices to schools, there is less need for maintenance of school-owned hardware by technology staff.
Freed of some of their more technical responsibilities, CTOs are increasingly able to join curriculum leaders and other senior administrators in superintendents' cabinets. Jean Tower, director of technology in the Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough (Mass.), is also a member of her district superintendent's cabinet, as well as the curriculum review committee, professional development committee and parent advisory committee. Tower says her role has changed from answering questions like "Can we wire this classroom and get a computer in there?" to contributing to the district on a more strategic level.
Communication Is Key
"I see my role today as being a bridge between technology and academics," says Melissa P. Dodd, CIO of the Boston (Mass.) Public Schools, who has worked in the district's technology department for more than four years. "I need to have my foot in the technology world but also have a real understanding of our business of education, as well as keep abreast of the evolution of technology and how it can best support what is happening in the classroom."
Every month, Dodd meets with Irvin Scott, the district's chief academic officer, to discuss the ways in which technology plays a key role in curriculum and instruction. "For example, right now we're talking about our vision for online learning and how we can use that to target key populations of students, like struggling eighth- and ninth-graders or hospital-bound students," she says, adding that using technology to support students with special needs and English language learners is another important topic.
Dodd also participates on Scott's leadership team of academic superintendents at different grade levels, giving her an opportunity to collaborate about each grade and subject. In addition, she can join Scott's weekly staff meetings at any point to discuss district initiatives that involve technology, such as the recent implementation of a new student information system.
In the Irving superintendent's cabinet, Owen is at the level just below the assistant superintendents. Even as the technology leader, for seven years, she has been in charge of facilitating the district's curriculum development process because, as she explains, "we've put our entire curriculum into an online database," and she was considered the most appropriate person to manage the process. A former teacher and principal, she also was an executive director of the Texas Computer Education Association. "So my background is on the instructional side, not just the technical side," she says.
Bailey Mitchell began his career as a classroom teacher and says his background "enables me to chime in on things like instructional resources." But the relationship between technology and curriculum leaders in districts "wasn't always functional," he acknowledges. "I'm not speaking for all technology directors, but we can get kind of territorial. We have the reputation sometimes of being control freaks," he says.
"There can be conflicts between the technology people and the curriculum people," agrees Connie Louie, instructional technology director in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "Those departments are not always talking to each other."
Key to resolving conflicts is holding regular meetings between technology and academic departments, as Dodd and Scott do in Boston and Mitchell does with Pijanowski in Forsyth County, whose collaboration recently reaped benefits for the district. The two worked together to apply for a $4.7 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which they received in August 2010 for a project called "Engage ME-P.L.E.A.S.E." (Personalized Learning Experiences Accelerate Standards-based Education).
Mitchell says the five-year project, which uses an additional $1 million grant from student information system developer Infinite Campus, seeks to fulfill an idea Mitchell says he and Pijanowski came up with to use technology to personalize instruction, with a goal of increasing the achievement level and graduation rate and reducing the dropout rate. "We so closely collaborated on the application that the reviewers who read it could not discern the difference between the technology and academic parts. They saw it as one solidified, functional relationship. It was evident to them that this was a district where curriculum and instruction and technology services were one, in essence," Mitchell says.
The Next Generation
"Superintendents often are frustrated that they don't get the technology leadership they want," says Krueger. "The problem is, they're not always clear about the sort of person they need." As the role of the CTO changes, administrators should also keep pace by revising what qualities they look for when considering candidates for the position. Efforts are underway to give districts the tools to hire this next generation of effective technology leaders. According to Knezek, ISTE is preparing to unveil a new set of standards for information technology leaders that will reflect the job's changing nature. CoSN recently issued a revised and updated version of its "Framework of Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO," and through a one-year grant from the National Science Foundation is also developing the first ever CTO certification program based on the framework. The organization hired certification expert Gayle Dahlman as director of certification and education to lead the initiative. "The certification could dramatically elevate the profession," she says, "And empower CTOs with the range of skills and abilities needed to position them as education leaders, not just technology leaders."
Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.