Special Report
IT Infrastructure & Management

Chief Technology Officers Play Key Role in Curricular Issues

By Benjamin Herold — March 16, 2015 5 min read
During a joint visit to Mill Creek Middle School in the Kent, Wash., district, Thuan Nguyen, right, and Louanne Decker discuss the district’s blended learning options. Mr. Nguyen is the assistant superintendent and chief digital strategy officer, and Ms. Decker is the district’s chief academic and innovation officer.
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Shortly after successfully deploying laptop computers to middle and high school students in Kent, Wash., in 2006, Thuan Nguyen went to his superintendent with a surprising proposal: The technology chief for the 27,000-student district wanted a half-dozen instructional technology specialists taken away from his department and reassigned to Kent’s chief academic officer.

“The equipment was out there, the initial professional development was done, and a lot of the basics were taken care of,” said Mr. Nguyen, now an assistant superintendent and chief digital strategist for the district. “I thought it best if those resources were immediately available to the academics department so they could direct the day-to-day transition” to digital classroom instruction.

School technology experts say the highly regarded Kent district’s flexible staffing arrangement represents an unusual solution to an increasingly common challenge: how to get districts’ academic and technology departments to forget old turf wars and start working together.

Such collaboration means a changing role—and, more importantly, a new mindset—for chief academic officers.

It’s not necessary to become an expert on fiber-optic cable, hardware specifications, or technical interoperability standards. But modern CAOs do need to be familiar with the basics of how networks, devices, and software operate.

They also need to know what questions to ask of their technology counterparts, and be willing to listen to the answers. Perhaps most critically of all, digital-era CAOs need to embrace “systems thinking,” making sure that technology and academic experts are working hand in hand on big decisions, said Thomas B. Ryan, the chief executive officer for the eLearn Institute, a Wyomissing, Pa.-based nonprofit that consults with districts on effective use of digital learning tools.

“It’s hard when districts are slashing budgets and departments are competing against each other to keep their funds,” said Mr. Ryan, a former chief information officer for the 90,000-student Albuquerque, N.M., public schools. “But CAOs really need to embrace a culture that allows for a more trusting partnership and a project-management approach.”

Potential Problems

There can be harsh consequences when a district’s academic and technology departments don’t work well together.

The high-profile meltdown of the 641,000-student Los Angeles Unified district’s ambitious 1-to-1 iPad initiative showed the danger of unrealistic expectations and a failure to balance the desire for new technology with what’s actually needed for effective classroom use.

Mr. Ryan said there are countless other examples of districts buying new computing devices that can’t support new online tests, 1-to-1 computing initiatives that crash because schools don’t have enough bandwidth, digital instructional materials that don’t align with academic standards, and classroom-administration tools that teachers never use.

Too often, district decisionmaking involves “technology on one side of the table, educators on the other, and they just lob verbal bombs at each other,” he said.

The position of instructional technology specialist highlights the divide. The role is relatively new. In many districts, the question of whether the people fulfilling it should be housed in academics is a source of major friction.

Partly, the debate is about what’s best for schools. Often, it reflects a larger struggle between chief academic and chief technology officers over money, power, and control.

And the friction is often exacerbated by deep-seated differences in how the two types of leaders think, talk, and operate.

“A lot of instructional people look at technology [leaders] as ‘the person who is stopping me from doing what I want to do,’ ” Mr. Ryan said. “And the [technology leaders] see the instructional folks with their Ph.D.s and think they’re living in a dream world.”

For Mr. Nguyen, the Kent district’s chief digital strategist, the move to cede direct control of some instructional technology staff was a way to ensure that the input of technology experts was actually more valued when the district’s academic experts were reviewing and purchasing new digital instructional materials, drafting new training materials, and hiring new staff.

Merri M. Rieger was the CAO in Kent when the district’s staff-sharing arrangement began.

“It was an alien partnership at first,” she said. “But I began to see that technology is a valuable tool only if you teach others how to use it.”

Now as superintendent of the 14,000-student Renton schools in Washington, Ms. Rieger wants to bring the same model to her new district.

And her replacement as chief academic officer in Kent, Louanne H. Decker, quickly embraced the collaborative approach of her predecessor.

The job of an academic chief is no longer about ordering “big boxes of books and giving 30 to each teacher and away they go,” Ms. Decker said.

Now, she said, CAOs have to be on top of access codes and compatibility concerns, software updates and data-privacy laws, and the changing ways students are learning.

Earlier this school year, as Kent prepared to expand its 1-to-1 computing initiative to elementary schools, Ms. Decker agreed to pass the district’s instructional technology staff back to the IT department.

Spurring Collaboration

The U.S. Department of Education is among those trying to spur collaboration between CAOs and their technology counterparts.

A series of “future ready” summits the department is hosting this spring will focus on helping districts develop comprehensive digital-learning plans. Participating school systems are expected to send a team—ideally consisting of both academic and technology leaders.

“The best CAOs are saying, “Oh, wait, I don’t have to be encumbered by the trappings of what we’ve done before,’ ” said Zachary A. Chase, a technology coordinator for Colorado’s 30,000-student St. Vrain Valley schools who is on loan to the federal Education Department as a fellow.

But to reimagine what teaching and learning looks like, Mr. Chase said, CAOs need to be in regular conversations with technology experts.

In the most forward-thinking districts, he said, that is happening by design. More often, it’s spurred by problems that arise after big technology purchases.

What it means to be a chief academic officer is changing as a result.

“Do they need to be out there laying fiber in the ground? No,” he said. “But CAOs need to be able to hold their own in those conversations.”

Coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership in Education Week and its special reports is supported in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Forging a Partnership for the Digital Age


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