Plain Dealer

DEK: As CIO for the Cleveland Municipal School District, Peter Robertson developed a data warehouse, launched an online report card system, and managed a 75 percent reduction in IT support costs while keeping service levels high. Now on leave to pursue a doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University, we got him to pause long enough to share some war stories.

Interview by Richard Hoffman

Q: Many K–12 districts are beginning more and more to resemble their corporate counterparts in terms of automation. At the same time, studies have questioned the value of computers in the classroom. What do you see as the role of IT in the school?

A: IT has multiple roles, but the one that we’re really grappling with is making sure that our IT investments are improving efficiency in the organization. Particularly in the 20 percent to 30 percent of the organization that has nothing directly to do with the classroom, technology should be doing precisely the same things it does in the corporate sector, namely, providing 2 percent to 3 percent productivity gains year in and year out. IT should free up resources, not consume them, so we can focus on the other, more important role of technology, which is to improve the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process.

The fact that we have not yet seen substantial gains in educational effectiveness through technology precisely mirrors the problem that business has had. For twenty years, businesses invested in technology with minimal obvious benefit. As Larry Cuban has pointed out, it’s really hard to get classroom processes redesigned to take advantage of technology. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m convinced that it can happen, it’s happening in some places, and that needs to remain the priority of technology in schools.

Q: From your experience, would you say K–12 IT operations are generally efficiently run? If not, what are the biggest areas where you can see room to work more effectively?

Let me start by saying that I’m not an expert in this area, but my general sense is that K–12 IT is not particularly effectively run. There are a number of very difficult challenges, and the biggest one involves the recruiting, ongoing development, and retention of high-quality people. IT people are knowledge workers, and knowledge workers play by different rules than more scrutinized work employees. Teachers are knowledge workers, too, but they lock themselves into one particular industry, while IT staff can go wherever the job is and are very mobile. K–12 IT workers need to be motivated differently—not only a different salary schedule, but also by making a heavy investment in ongoing professional development. Much of the problem that schools have in this area has to do with good people whose skills are generations old. In IT, whether K–12 or elsewhere, you have to keep the skill sets current.

In Cleveland, I got lucky. The Y2K boom was over, the tech bubble burst, and for a while I could pick up IT workers cheap. This past spring, however, I lost a lot of good people, many of whom could get 50 percent better pay elsewhere. They weren’t necessarily out looking for better pay, but they got frustrated with our inability to promise security and professional growth in a time of crisis. We can’t offer top dollar, but we at least need to find ways to let knowledge workers keep their skills sharp and their careers growing, or they will not stay.

The answer to this is, at least for larger school districts, to build a farm system: have a very skilled group of managers, a well-documented set of work processes, and bring in less-expensive workers who can cut their teeth on the excellent technical challenges and opportunities in the K–12 environment. Many will leave in a few years, and that’s fine, as long as there’s good management in place to allow for effective transitions.

Q: What’s your perspective on open source? Is it, as Microsoft has claimed, an intellectual property cancer, or a windfall for cash-strapped school systems?

A: Open source has enormous potential. We in Cleveland have not aggressively pursued open source at this time, largely because we weren’t sure we had staff sufficiently committed to the development community around those products. We didn’t have the in-house expertise to manage our open source applications. With big open source projects like Linux and Apache, major server vendors such as Sun, HP, and IBM will offer support as part of their service agreement, but in some areas, like middleware, open source is still not turnkey, and without the right staff capability, you end up not having a better TCO over proprietary software. Over time, many open source projects will become more and more turnkey, and this will benefit schools. Open source also provides pressure on Microsoft and other vendors to keep costs under control, so is valuable in that way as well.

Q: Is wireless LAN technology a boon, a huge security disaster, or somewhere in between? What pitfalls have you seen in your experience with WLANS?

A: Wireless is the future—we’ve done some of it. But we’ve done it in an environment without a lot of resources for deployment and analysis, so it hasn’t been as comprehensive as we’d have liked. We can’t yet prove its value the way we’d like to, but I believe it’s the future. Wireless is enormously powerful because it enables more open thinking about the form factor of instructional computing—palmtops and laptops, in more flexible learning configurations. Sitting kids in front of a bank of PCs isn’t helpful for the instructional process, but some schools are having wonderful success with carts of wireless laptops. Wireless deployment in schools is still a work in progress—the security protocols aren’t all worked out yet, and there are a lot of things the vendor can screw up with access points in terms of getting optimum placement and appropriate coverage. It’s going to take time to get good at it. At Cleveland, we were planning to be in pilot mode for at least another year or two, particularly as technology rapidly changes—for example, seeing how the new WiMax standard changes the game, and whether districts can count on at least another decade of value from 802.11b architecture.