The Evolution to Team Leadership in Education Technology

by Josh Sumption, Director of Technology, SW/WC Service Cooperative

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Josh Sumption
Director of Technology
SW/WC Service Cooperative

In the earliest days of technology in schools, infrastructure usually consisted of a lab full of Apple IIe computers used for word processing and simple interactive learning activities such as Oregon Trail and Number Munchers. In those days, personal computers were the newest advent in the world of technology and schools were adopting them at a rapid rate. There were no concerns about digital citizenship; we mostly worried that students (or teachers) would be sticking their fingers through the center hole of the 5 ¼ floppy disk. In some schools, teachers were put on special assignment for an hour or two per day to take care of the computer labs and make sure everything was in working order and troubleshoot issues with their nearest service center if necessary. Overall, systems seemed to run dependably and were normally relevant and cutting-edge for about eight years without a question. Life seemed good and computer technology was progressing quickly for the time.

Thirty years later, and here we are. Apple IIe computers can be seen in museums, and are a distant memory or an unknown concept for many. We’ve seen enterprise-class networks develop and interconnect our districts in ways we couldn’t have imagined in the 1980’s. The Internet delivers an endless supply of information, media, classroom resources, with exponentially increasing bandwidth demands every year. Schools also need to monitor for digital threats and inappropriate material. Software systems are continually collecting and analyzing data on all components of our educational ecosystems and providing us with trend and analysis information that is driving the instructional and administrative decisions we are make every day. Educators and students are mobile, and have ready access to devices. Some schools now have a device to student ratio that exceeds 1 to 1 and in some cases is quickly approaching 2 or 3 to 1. The days of scheduling time to use the computer lab are over, and the technology is now in student and teacher hands. Even the smallest wearable technologies have many times the computing power and storage capacity than the Apple IIe computer we relied on years ago.

Remember how that teacher on special assignment could keep the technology running for a couple hours each day? That too, is a distant memory for school districts across Minnesota and the nation. As technology has evolved and made our lives easier to manage, the complexity of maintaining, servicing and training end users on proper implementation and integration of those technologies has also significantly increased. As use and dependability that schools have on technology has continued to increase, so too has the expectations and reliance on the school technology department. School district technology leaders of the past two decades have seen some of the most dramatic and radical changes in responsibility and demands of almost any leadership position within our school systems. Technology directors have seen their role switch from one of desktop computer installation and troubleshooting technician to being a role of leadership, supervision, and decision-making, along with dramatically different professional development paths in technical support or technology integration roles. Technology implementation within our schools is now truly a team effort, even in the smallest of Minnesota’s rural school districts, where the technology director might still be a teacher on special assignment for a couple hours per day.

The key to success in providing a technology environment that is going to successfully serve our school systems falls on two simple, but very complex components: relationships and professional development.

Relationships are all about ensuring that the school district has a great team of people working together, from the technology leader, support staff, and instructional technology integrationists to external components such as personnel in a regional cooperative or contracted support from a business. All of the state-of-the-art technology can be purchased, but if the district lacks the right combination of staff with the right skills in place to make those components work together, the district has nothing but a lot of expensive machinery. As a technology leader, one of the biggest challenges is finding the right talents and personalities in people, and applying those skills and knowledge to support an enterprise-class system on a school-class budget. In the days of the Apple IIe, schools were more concerned about the names students were adding to headstones and the leader board in the Oregon Trail than trying to bring our technology staff together to work towards the common good of our schools.

Once the right people are in place, appropriate and timely professional development is critical. In the last ten years, how many different operating systems, devices, software and web-based applications have you used? How much training and experimentation did it take before you felt comfortable operating those technologies? How many times did you call your school’s technology department needing assistance, expecting them to have the answers? How much time and budget was your technology department allocated for professional development to become experts in that new technology? Normally the answer to the latter is “not much, if any.” While we cannot expect to create in-depth expertise in every application or system that is in place within our schools, we do need to provide our technology staff members with the ability to research, problem-solve, make contacts and coordinate the support or correction of issues. When incorporating professional development opportunities for technology staff, the focus should be on the most broadly used software and devices to build up a great internal support system for the technologies in use, but also to focus on broader skill sets such as project management, service level management and customer service. These types of professional development needs reflect the very radical changes in the school district technology leadership roles that we have seen within the last ten years.

Today’s school technology leaders also need to think beyond purely technology infrastructure decisions but must focus on the overall educational goals of the school district and then help apply the roles, tasks and responsibilities to technology department staff to help support those goals. Going a step further, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), has developed a framework of essential skills that technology leaders should possess and has developed a nationally recognized certification process around the framework, the Certified Education Technology Leader (CETL) certification. The process of preparing for and taking the CETL examination is a very rigorous process and one that validates a technology leader’s skillsets in administering a word-class, 21st Century education technology environment. The job of technology leader is no longer confined to simply keeping computer labs in operating condition and the administrative systems running, it has expanded to enhancing and supporting the education of every student in our schools at an individualized level, quite the drastic shift from where we were just three decades ago.

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