Am I An Anachronism?

With almost 40 years of experience under his belt, Clark County School District's Philip Brody contemplates an age-old question.
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Not too long ago I was participating in a national meeting of K–12 CIOs, listening to a panel discussion on the latest developments in district IT shops. Although the three panelists were justifiably proud of their accomplishments, I was struck by the absence of a common component from almost all of the presentations and ensuing discussions. Yet I could not quite put my finger on what was missing.

The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I began to feel. I started to wonder if perhaps the unnerving feeling was due to a lack of familiarity with key concepts, a fear not uncommon to professionals who reach my age. I not only began to feel old, but wondered for the first time in my 39 years in education (34 in educational technology) if educational technology was passing me by.

My head was spinning. Was I becoming irrelevant? Were changes occurring at such a rate that I did not even know they were taking place? Put simply: Was I becoming an anachronism without even knowing it?

As an urban district technology leader for the past 22 years, I have tried to stay ahead of the curve and took pride in being able to marry ideas and concepts to reality. In recent years, for example, I directed the implementation of a GigE WAN throughout my district, along with a VoIP phone system, and instructional video streaming. Similarly, the district is changing its central information architecture and is in the middle of implementing an ERP. No, I don’t think my feeling of discomfort is due to falling behind the technology curve.

Well, it’s now 3:30 AM (one of my most productive times for problem solving), and I think I’ve figured it out: While differing in details, the CIOs who spoke at the conference all focused almost exclusively on the application of project management techniques. Indeed, each panelist showed off visual representations of relatively complex models using a large number of circles, squares, and other geometric forms in different colors.

As I considered the similarities of the project management–oriented presentations, I realized they were also very much alike in what they left out. In all three presentations, not one presenter (whom I respect for their accomplishments) mentioned words such as instruction, school, student, principal, or learning. I wondered if any of them had been to a school during the first week of classes or actually talked to a principal about one of the major information systems his or her staff had developed.

Unfortunately, there are CIOs, who, while designing systems to improve student achievement, have never visited a school, rarely talked to a principal, nor met with a curriculum coordinator. To remain aloof, distant, and even uncaring about the instructional side of the house cannot help a modern CIO, and, in the long term, will impair his or her IT program. It is difficult to get support from those you ignore.

Much of this attitude, I believe, stems from many IT directors coming into districts with little, if any, experience in education. Up until the last 7 to 10 years, IT leadership generally came from those who had years of K–12 experience. However, due to the increasing complexity of technology, the retirements of earlier generations of district–bred leaders, and the emphasis on accountability mandates, districts are increasingly hiring IT specialists from the private sector. This movement has transformed the meaning of IT from “instructional technology” to “information technology.”

But while they may be experts in technology, these leaders too often have limited knowledge of the industry in which they function—education.

With a little effort, I believe the barriers between central IT and the schools can be significantly reduced. I suggest some of these for a start:

  • Set up a CIO/Principals’ Advisory Committee to meet every month or two to discuss issues of importance. I did this at my district because it keeps me close to what’s important at the ground level, and it lets me know how well my technology team is doing (The principals sometimes tell a different story than my managers.) Also, it lets me test out and gain support for new ideas.
  • Distribute a quarterly newsletter to key groups in schools. In my setting, for example, I wanted to increase rapport with school technology specialists. Although my leadership team and I frequently attend their monthly meetings, we felt an informational newsletter focusing on their particular needs would help. To see a sample newsletter, visit www.ccsd.net/tls/Newsletter/oct06/newsletter-full.htm (Note: Some of the links will not work outside the district intranet.)
  • Speak at technology events at schools or those sponsored by different district groups. Virtually all districts have some type of technology-related events going on, whether it is third gradersshowing off their PowerPoint presentations, a high school robotics competition, or the computer club meeting. While you certainly don’t need to attend all of them, occasionally participating in one will help break down the barriers between the schools and your IT organization.
  • Visit a school. One of the things I enjoy doing, and don’t do nearly enough, is to visit a school to see how technology is being used by staff and students. Usually I call up the principal the day before or the day of my trip, and ask if it is okay for me to visit the school for one hour. I assure principals that I’m not there to check on them and that I just need to visit some schools for my own mental health. Almost always they’re delighted to host me and have the technology specialist take me around. It’s a great opportunity to show off something they are quite proud of and/or hit me up for something special. Either way, I have won.
  • Support innovative instructional technology projects that are usually associated with schools or instructional applications. For example, recently our purchasing department did not want to buy 80+ tablet laptops for a middle school. They believed that tablets were too expensive. I intervened and not only got the purchasing staff to relent but worked with the vendor to get special pricing. Another time, I took the lead on implementing a Web-based library management system throughout the district. The key point in each of these examples is that I left the “IT Center” and was directly involved in instructional technology.

As for me and my quandary, I feel better now that I’ve figured out what was bothering me about the presentations. There’s nothing anachronistic about a CIO focusing on where the rubber meets the road: students and learning.

Philip J. Brody is chief technology officer/assistant superintendent of Clark County School District in Las Vegas.

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