Being a Student-Centric Technology Leader

student-centric technology
(Image credit: Pixabay)

For Michael Marassa, the key to running a good technology department at a school is creating a culture in which your team prioritizes the needs of others. 

“Our job as technology leaders is to really facilitate the wants and needs of our teachers, our administrators, and our students,” says the chief technology officer at New Trier High School District in Illinois. “It's not what's best for the technology department.” 

Marassa recently received the Innovative Chief Technology Officer Award at Tech & Learning’s Innovative Leader awards in Illinois for helping steer his district through this turbulent era in education with impactful use of technology. 

QR Codes and Clear Sound 

During the height of the pandemic, Marassa led two initiatives that helped earn recognition. 

The first was a QR-code based health screening and entry system for the entire district.  Student and staff members were regularly tested for COVID using a saliva test. They would also take a health screener each morning before attending school to indicate they were symptom-free. The results of both this screener and test were linked through an app to unique QR codes for each student and staff member. If someone’s COVID test came back positive, they would be notified immediately. In the event that they still showed up to school after their QR code was scanned, they wouldn’t be admitted. 

“It got to be quite a sophisticated logistic system but it was what worked and what we felt did our best to minimize the virus getting into the building and helping people to feel safe while returning to school,” Marassa says. 

Secondly, Marassa helped the district prepare for hybrid learning by installing nearly 200 classroom audio systems to facilitate communication between teachers and students and remote learners. Today, those systems are still used to videoconference in remote presenters. 

New Challenges Post COVID  

While the QR-health screening system is a thing of the past, many other aspects of school have changed since the pandemic. Prior to March 2020, parents did not receive access to the grade book for their children’s LMS and not every class even utilized an LMS. Now, Marassa says, “We really have become unified in using the same learning management system and also giving access to our parents.” 

This change came after the district realized the need to be more student- and parent-centric in its approach, and to get better at recognizing when students are struggling. 

“The students that we have today, even without COVID, are more complicated and are facing all kinds of additional stressors,” Marassa says. “So the more information we have, the more that different leaders of different aspects of an organization can intervene earlier.” 

Refresh and Communicate  

Marassa advises others working in IT to have a plan for refreshing the district’s tech. “Sometimes we are reactive instead of proactive,” he says. “I’ll use the examples of our homes. We have all kinds of things in our house that eventually they're going to break, and we need to fix them. Like our air conditioner, our furnace, our refrigerator, our washer, and dryer.” 

But waiting until something goes wrong doesn’t fly with edtech. “That kind of mindset, when you are a CTO and you're managing an organization where there are so many technology systems that need to run, it's just not an acceptable practice,” he says. “Really work on being a systems thinker, and stepping back and looking at all aspects of your infrastructure, and in putting together a lifecycle plan that you can work out financially with your CFO and superintendent so that they can plan financially to make sure that your district remains reliable high-performing and secure.” 

For technology school leaders, communication with different stakeholder groups is also essential. “First and foremost, with those people that are on the ground that work with you and for you as a leader, you just need to be engaged in relationship-building with them and getting to know them,” Marassa says. “Because they can really make or break the culture of your department. So it's really important that you establish those relationships, and make it clear with your messaging, that you're a student-centric and a student-first kind of leader." 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.