District Leadership Teams Can Undermine Tech. Initiatives, Says San Diego County Leader

By Benjamin Herold — June 27, 2013 3 min read
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San Antonio

As the assistant superintendent and chief technology officer for the San Diego County Office of Education, Stephen Clemons helps about 30 school districts with strategic planning around technology use. At ISTE 2013, Clemons took part in a panel discussion on the “empowered executive team,” then sat down with Education Week. Clemons said superintendents’ ability to get their top staff from key departments at the same table and on the same page will often determine a tech initiative’s success—or failure.

With Clemons’ permission, the edited transcript below has been compiled from both his remarks during the panel and his interview with Ed Week.

How do district leadership teams derail technology initiatives?

Too often, there’s a split between curriculum, technology, and educational technology. [Within some districts’ central offices], I see curriculum people running off in one direction, doing seminars and professional development. The ed tech folks are talking about what devices the district needs. And the technology person doesn’t always have a seat at the visioning table. They’re just expected to get their information from [their superior] and support whatever is put in place. That can create a real problem.

Also, dictates never work. I had a new superintendent who took over a district and said, “I love iPads, we’re going to iPads.” But [the superintendent] didn’t include the financial person, didn’t talk to the [tech] people, didn’t understand that the wireless infrastructure wasn’t robust enough to support iPads.

It takes effective communication, but it’s not always that simple. People have their agendas.

What kind of problems have you seen as a result of these issues?

I was working with a district on curriculum selection. I told them the product they wanted wouldn’t work on their iPads or their servers because of the way it was programmed, but they bought it anyway . They spent $100,000 on a piece of curriculum that became shelfware because it wouldn’t work.

There was also a district that bought 25,000 iPads. But they didn’t buy keyboards, which is going to be an issue with the common core. And the ed-tech folks didn’t talk to the tech infrastructure people, so they didn’t know the wireless network and the bandwidth coming into the buildings were not up to it.

I see these “gotchas” all the time - “Oh, now we have to spend another $100,000 on a wireless network.” The [district that purchased the iPads] is going to have spend $50 apiece on 25,000 keyboards [$1.25 million.] [Other districts] are going to have the same issue. We need to be planning for the common core when we make technology purchases, and for the common core, iPads need to have keyboards.

Which members of district leadership teams should be at the table on new tech initiatives?
Curriculum and instruction, business, the superintendent, technology, and ed tech. You have to have the chief business officer involved to make sure the money is there. And the ed-tech and tech people have to be involved from the very beginning, as you’re talking about goals, objectives, and where you are right now. A lot of times, the techie folks, who configure the routers and set up the computers, are considered an afterthought.

Getting everyone together up front, creating a methodology for testing things out and getting good advice, takes work. But it will help save money in the long run.

What does the challenge of implementing the common core mean for all this?
The big question is how do we prepare for the [online] assessments [that will be required beginning in 2015]? When 30,000 students hit the ‘enter’ button at the same time, and your system fails, you’re going to lose the confidence of everyone involved.

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