School & District Management

Improving Mobile Learning, Cybersecurity Among Top Priorities for School IT Leaders

By Sarah Schwartz — April 03, 2017 6 min read
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Efforts to improve mobile learning, boost broadband capacity, and protect cybersecurity are the three top priorities for IT leaders in K-12 school systems, though those administrators continue to face financial and personnel shortages that hamper their work, according to a new survey.

The 2017 K-12 IT Leadership Survey was released today by the Consortium for School Networking, which represents chief technology officers around the country. The survey, conducted this year in partnership with MDR, is based on data collected from 495 respondents—either chief technology officers or other IT leaders—in school districts.

“The pressure on chief technology officers is enormous because [they’re] being asked to do more every year,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, in an interview.

The survey also reinforced a lack of diversity among district tech leaders, and disparities in how much top female administrators in those roles are being paid, compared with their male counterparts.

The report was released to kickoff the CoSN annual conference, being held in Chicago this week. Reporter Ben Herold will be posting updates from the conference on this blog. You can also follow him on Twitter @BenjaminBHerold.

CoSN has tracked districts’ tech priorities since the first IT Leadership survey in 2013. In 2014, when cybersecurity was first introduced as a priority option on the survey, it ranked second-to-last on the list.This is the first year that cybersecurity has ranked in the top three, according to the report. Cybersecurity was the number-three priority for districts, with 61 percent of leaders reporting the concern as more important than it was last year, and 30 percent saying it was “much more important.”

Cybersecurity is a growing concern as criminals increasingly target schools. A recent BitSight study of IT infrastructure in several industries found that education experienced the highest rate of ransomware, noted the CoSN report, which also pointed to a recent warning from the IRS about phishing scams targeting districts. (For an inside look at districts’ experiences combatting ransomware, see Education Week’s recent story, “Ransomware Attacks Force Districts to Shore Up--or Pay Up.”)

In an effort to help districts, CoSN has developed a cyber security self-assessment and planning template for IT leaders looking for a strategy to address these issues. “Cyber criminals are getting very sophisticated,” said Krueger.

The report also highlights shifts in other district priorities:

  • Improving mobile learning, which has been listed consistently as a top issue for district officials, notched the highest spot this year. The ubiquity of mobile devices is a driving factor behind this priority, said Krueger.

  • Increasing broadband and network capacity, the number-one priority in 2016, took the number-two spot this year. It’s not surprising to Krueger that improving broadband is a consistent priority for districts. Beyond simply having broadband access, leaders are also concerned about making sure their classrooms have a “robust connection,” he said.

  • Despite the recent scaling up of the open educational resources movement, the report found a “slight” shift in district officials’ preferences for proprietary digital resources. CoSN’s survey showed a decrease in the percent of respondents planning for 50/50 use of OER and proprietary digital materials within the next three years, from 46 to 43 percent. At the same time, the percent of respondents who predicted use of proprietary materials that are “only” digital increased, from 31 to 36 percent.

    Krueger said that while there has been some “overhype” around OER, districts are still interested in incorporating the resources in some way. Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents, for instance, indicated that OER was a part of their district’s digital content strategy. OER is an important piece of curriculum, said Krueger, but it’s unlikely to replace all proprietary digital content in the near future. “There will be some districts that will be on the edge of the frontier where they’ve gone totally OER,” he said, “but for the average school district, I think it’s going to be a mix.”

  • Bring-your-own-device initiatives were at their least popular in the survey’s history, in last place on the district priorities list. Though the percentage of districts with fully implemented BYOD programs increased to 24 percent this year from 16 percent in 2016, the percent of districts with no interest in BYOD reached a high of 34 percent.

    “Device prices have dramatically come down, and so you see much lower [priced] options—Chromebooks and things like that—that [have] changed the economics for school districts,” said Krueger. He predicts that districts will gradually move to a dual model, in which students are invited to use their own devices and the district provides devices for students who are not able to bring their own.

Budget constraints was identified by district officials as the number-one challenge in the report, for the third year in a row. Though the majority of leaders, 59 percent, said their technology budgets remained the same over the past year, more district officials are reporting decreases in budget. Since 2015, the percent of districts reporting budget decreases has gone up each year.

Of all respondents, 43 percent said their budgets were not sufficient “to meet the overall expectations of the school board/district leaders” and 36 percent said IT budgets did not “allocate enough financial resources to support the technology assets that have already been purchased.”

Within these districts experiencing gaps, 53 percent plan to use E-rate funds to address funding shortages. But the future of E-rate funding is “uncertain,” the report noted. The recently appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has said he supports the program’s overall mission but also has criticized what he sees as lack of oversight and accountability. Recent decisions to boost E-rate funding by the FCC have been a “major factor” in connecting districts to reliable internet, said Krueger.

Short Staffing, Lack of Diversity

Staffing is also a key challenge for districts trying to make ed-tech work for their students, with only 13 percent of districts reporting that their personnel are matched to needs. IT teams’ responsibilities have increased as more of the districts’ functions take place “on the network,” said Krueger, but staff sizes have not increased. The majority of districts, 66 percent, reported that staff sizes have remained flat over the past year.

Districts’ ed-tech leadership also lacks racial and gender diversity, the survey found. Of survey respondents, 90 percent of IT leaders are white, while 4 percent identify as black or African American and 5 percent identify as of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. The report notes that significant and similar racial gaps exist at the highest levels of district leadership and in senior positions across other tech industries.

“It’s very disappointing [that] we have so many majority-minority districts and so few technology leaders who reflect that diversity,” Krueger said. “School districts and CoSN need to do a better job about making [the profession] appealing, and recruiting and celebrating a diverse workforce.”

And while school districts represented in the survey presented far better numbers on gender diversity—47 percent of all survey respondents were women—a significant salary gap remains for women IT leaders. Women are overrepresented in the lowest salary category, those earning under $70,000, and underrepresented in the highest salary categories, for employees making $130,000 and above.

“You might expect that there was some education or length of experience that would differentiate [salaries], but in fact, it’s counterintuitive,” said Krueger of ed-tech administrators. “Women have more education and more years of service than the average male, and they’re still getting paid less.”

Photo: 2017 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report Infographic.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.