The relationship between the head teachers and geeks has always been as contentious as it is important. For this roundtable, we spoke with some IT leaders and—to keep us truthful—we invited a curriculum leader to share her experiences, too. We hope you’ll learn from their insights.
Communication is key to any successful undertaking. How do you handle it between your IT and curriculum departments?
Pete Just: As with any kind of “union,” I think you have to be intentional about the communication piece. Our IT and curriculum departments have weekly meetings so that we can be face to face. We’re a Google district, so we also use Google Docs and Google Calendar to share knowledge and collaborate. There are lots of things you don’t need to discuss in person, but you do need to get together to work through challenges, especially with integrations. We do heavy integration of digital resources into the learning management system (LMS); lots of decisions need to be made, and it’s lots of work and minutiae. Judy and I are cabinet peers, and our teams must work closely together to gain and keep our momentum. During these integrations, we want to be sure we’re representing our curricular objectives and instructional goals, so all voices must be at the table so that we stay true to that.
Judy Stegemann: I agree that weekly meetings are key because it’s where we stop and say, “What questions do we have?” “What do we need to communicate?” If we wait for a reason to meet, things can go unmet. The meetings help us know what to work on next. Our departments are physically close to one another and it’s not unusual for us to be in each other’s offices regularly throughout the day, clearing up issues and keeping the communication open.
Sandra Paul: I report to the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. We work closely together in that I’m made aware of new ideas that come up through curriculum—not all, but most. At the same time, if I find something that looks interesting I can share it with them. I’m involved in collaborative meetings every month with our supervisors, building principals, and the assistant superintendent. In addition to directing information tech, I supervise the gifted and talented teachers, which calls for a lot of integration between curriculum and tech.
Chris Jenks: My situation is similar to Sandra’s. I report to the assistant superintendent (soon to be deputy superintendent) of teaching and learning. We have an open line of communication that includes one-on-one meetings. I’m also part of the cabinet-level staff that meets with the superintendent regularly. I hear about initiatives and it’s helpful to be in important conversations. Having people who specialize in certain places—such as a coordinator of instructional tech who works with coaches and library/media specialists—helps to make sure we’re resourcing people at the right time to work on LMS integrations, etc. It’s important for us to discuss how we make sure everything is available to everyone. As tech, we want to make sure the road is paved and the cars can drive on it. We’re routinely part of the conversation with curriculum and I’m able to inject a voice into that and to listen. I consider our core mission to be serving the needs of teaching and learning.
What happens when communication breaks down?
SP: I’ve been doing this work for 22 years, and bad communication used to be a big part of the problem. Someone would bring you some software that they had to use and you’d say, “This is for Windows 95 and we’ve been Windows XT for three years!” Over the years, that has changed. If you’re going to do 21st-century learning, then curriculum and IT have to work together.
PJ: I think the districts on this call are among the ones who are further along and have figured it out. The pressure to figure it out is often caused by pain. For instance, there may be incompatibilities between what’s adopted and what can work in your ecosystem, so then you have to pay additional money to get something you can use. Pain. It’s part of the process of learning new things. You fail a few times along the way, pick up, make changes, and move forward, get it better. There have been lots of fits and starts and now we’ve started to understand that the union between these two decision-making groups is essential for the sake of students.
JS: Whether you’re on the curriculum or the tech side, when the two integrate you’ll find challenges. It’s important to backwards map those challenges and create processes to solve them upfront the next time. What did we need to know six months ago? A year ago? There’s always another avenue. Today we ran into a problem at the high school. We were ordering resources we adopted two years ago and making sure we had the right information so that we could buy textbooks with an online component. In the past, the high school would have just replaced them, but we need the texts with the digital subscription that goes with them. It’s a more complicated system at every turn. You have to address those issues, clean it up, and not kick yourself for making mistakes. We have to constantly be aware of how to address this new way of operating and cooperating.
How do you move from silos to a team approach?
CJ: Last year, our sixth grade went 1:1 and they’re now bringing them into seventh grade. We’re poised to do grades six and eight in November. We are currently running Chromebooks camps for parents to get them on board. Once it was enough for the tech person to know his or her tech stuff and for curriculum to know curriculum. Now, in order to collaborate and cooperate, they both need to have some functional knowledge about the other. It’s not enough to have a textbook with some digital components; we want to adopt resources that have LTI integration to go into the LMS and make it seamless and single sign-on. If I bring that up to the curriculum folks and they have no idea what I said, we have to walk through all of that. They have to know some of the vocabulary and why it’s important. We can’t wait until we’re adopting textbooks to start talking about that background knowledge.
JS: That’s a piece of what we learn in our weekly meetings. It’s important that we continue to deepen our knowledge in the area of integration and communicate accurately through the adoption process.
PJ: It’s crucial to have a clear understanding between teams. When we look at a digital resource we determine that we can bring it into the district in eight different ways, only two of which are really acceptable. Not everyone plays with LTI, CC, or TCC, our “best way.” The other options are increasingly onerous. Having the understanding that a digital integration must be one of the preferable methods, and finding out how to pre-load it cleanly in our LMS before we provided it to teachers, took us about a year and a half for everyone to understand the first time. As Judy said, it’s a continual conversation.
SP: Communication and collaboration between departments involves give and take. I’ve worked on both sides, and I currently do tech integration with teachers. If I put my tech hat on, I’d say, “We’ll block this and this and this.” The curriculum side is saying, “We need this! We need this!” It has to be a give-and-take, finding a way to accommodate curriculum, innovation, creativity, and moving forward with changing pedagogy. It’s important for an IT person to figure out a way to accommodate that.
CJ: I consciously decided that if I could make my answer yes, I would, but there are constraints that temper that. In the past, our technology department could make more unilateral decisions. That builds up barriers between curriculum and IT. If students are our focus, we have to find a way to get people the resources they need.
Any other advice or tips?
SP: Our district is 1:1 for grades 9–12. We’re getting ready to give the new 9th graders their devices next week. We’re also deploying another 1,700 Chromebooks in November or December to cover grades 6–8, and grades 3–5 next year. We’re doing a digital curriculum and blended learning. We’ve all realized curriculum has changed. The pedagogy we used when I taught a bunch of years ago is no longer in existence.
JS: We’re looking for the integration of tech where it will amplify student learning, and we lead this work through curriculum. We do that best when my coordinators and coaches lead in the utilization of new tools and resources to forward our mission of students learning the curriculum. When something new is coming from the tech side, our coaches and curriculum coordinators have to be trained in the first phase and also be early adopters so that it’s not seen as an add-on but as a tool that positively impacts student learning. That’s a critical piece in the partnership.
PJ: When we vetted which LMS to move to— and this is the third we’ve used since 1999—we wanted to be sure the curriculum instruction and assessment folks had a vote and were part of it. We wanted to make sure as many people could be engaged as possible. This is something that was missing in previous decisions. We can’t make decisions in a vacuum with any degree of quality or success.
JS: We also can’t see tech tools as something the techie person does. They’re something we all understand and embrace. The curriculum department has to lead utilizing resources and tools.
CJ: I say in curriculum meetings that we would never tolerate someone saying, “I don’t do that math thing very well.” So we can’t say, “I don’t do tech well.” We have to all learn together how to accomplish the tasks. Curriculum has to buy in, and IT has to buy in, and there must be a leader in adopting new things.
JS: In 2005, we built a K–12 curriculum, and it was housed in a software product that was separate from our LMS. Two years ago, as we were looking for a new LMS, I decided that with my team and Pete’s support we could move curriculum out of the separate software and embed it in our new LMS. It involved some heavy lifting for the LMS developers. We needed an LMS that allowed teachers to collaborate within it, build digital experiences in collaborative environments, deliver and analyze common assessments, and more. We wanted the new LMS to be embraced by teachers, and embedding the curriculum teachers depended on was critical in this transition to a new LMS. The curriculum transition came with challenges, but it’s amazing what the LMS allows teachers to do in a collaborative environment.
Check out MSD Wayne’s presentation, “Building Bridges on the Path to Digital Transformation” and see the district’s flowchart for digital content integrations as well as responsibilities for both the IT services and curriculum/instruction departments.
Director of Technology
Tuscaloosa (AL) City Schools
Chief Technology Officer
Metropolitan School District of
Wayne Township (IN)
Assistant Superintendent for Academics
Metropolitan School District of
Wayne Township (IN)
Director of Information
Technology & Operations
Township of Union (NJ) Public Schools