Efforts to improve mobile learning, boost broadband capacity, and tighten cybersecurity are the three top priorities in 2017 for educational technology leaders in K-12 school systems, according to a new survey by the Consortium for School Networking, which represents school district chief technology officers around the country. For the third year in a row, leaders identified budget constraints as the No. 1 challenge facing their districts.
Leaders’ top priorities reflect the increasing digitization of the learning environment, said Tracy Weeks, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “We want to make sure that students have access to the content, to [technology] tools, both inside and outside the school building.”
The Consortium for School Networking conducted a survey of 495 school and district ed-tech leaders to identify their top priorities and challenges for this year.
Source: Consortium for School Networking
CoSN has tracked districts’ tech priorities via its IT Leadership survey since 2013. This marks the first year that cybersecurity has ranked in the top three, according to the report. Sixty-one percent of district technology leaders reported the concern as more important than it was last year, and 30 percent said it was “much more important.”
Experts point out that cybersecurity is a growing concern as criminals increasingly target schools. A recent study of IT infrastructure in several industries by BitSight, a security ratings company, found that K-12 and higher education experienced the highest rate of ransomware, an approach in which hackers insert a virus into a computer system and then ask for ransom payments to get rid of the virus. The CoSN report also points to a recent warning from the IRS about phishing scams—which are attempts by scammers to get personal information such as bank-account numbers—targeting school districts.
In trying to help districts, CoSN has developed a cybersecurity self-assessment and planning template for IT leaders looking for a strategy to address such issues. “Cybercriminals are getting very sophisticated,” said Keith Krueger, the CEO of CoSN.
Open vs. Proprietary Resources
The “2017 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report” also highlights shifts in other district technology priorities. Improving mobile learning, which has been listed consistently as a top issue for district officials, notched the highest spot this year. Increasing broadband and network capacity, the No. 1 priority in 2016, took the second spot this year. Rural districts in geographically isolated areas face an especially great challenge, said Weeks.
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 shows a decrease in the percent of respondents planning to evenly divide their use of OER and proprietary digital materials within the next three years, from 46 percent to 43 percent. At the same time, the share of respondents who predicted use of proprietary materials that are “only” digital increased, from 31 percent to 36 percent.
Krueger said that while there has been some “overhype” around OER, districts are still interested in the free resources. Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents, for instance, indicated that OER was a part of their districts’ digital content strategies. OER is an important piece of curriculum, said Krueger, but it’s unlikely to replace all proprietary digital content in the near future.
BYOD Loses Ground
Bring-your-own-device initiatives were at their least popular in the survey’s history, in last place on the priorities list. Though the proportion 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 those who are not able to bring their own.
Henry County Schools is implementing a version of this dual model. The 42,000-student district in Georgia has emphasized BYOD over the past several years, said Brian Blanton, the assistant superintendent for technology services. Next year, a local option sales tax will fund a 1-to-1 program in the district, but students will still have the choice to bring their own devices.
Budget constraints were identified by district officials as the top challenge in the report, for the third year in a row. Though a majority of leaders, 59 percent, said their technology budgets remained the same over the past year, more district officials are reporting decreases in their technology budgets. Since 2015, the percent of districts reporting budget decreases has gone up each year.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Ed-Tech-Leader Survey Pinpoints Top Priorities