The 21st Century CIO: “It’s not about the device” … or is it?

I just returned from the RTM Business Group’s CIO Congress in Miami, Florida, and it’s exciting to see so many school CIOs re-envisioning their role in classroom instruction. With so many of our largest and smallest districts exploring (even systematizing) one-to-one and BYOD programs, the Congress’s central conversation was around learning – traditionally the point at which a CIO would head for the door, not begin a discussion. A clear de facto theme for the congress was therefore, “It’s not about the device!” But we should think carefully before messaging this too loudly, as there are two ways to interpret this sentiment.

First, with the near-ubiquity of access, and decreasing importance of platform, the question of “which device” will continue to become more about personal preference (or, more likely, emotional attachment). I don’t see that changing. Consequently, school districts may be safest by avoiding the argument altogether by seeing their job as providing access, not specific technologies. I believe districts that are adequately future-proofing their classroom technology programs are more likely to be those exploring access through multiple devices and greater choice. At the very least, they are making their decisions about devices as late as possible in the planning process, allowing the “why?” discussions to evolve first. In this interpretation of “it’s not about the device,” we are on safe ground.

The other interpretation of “it’s not about the device” sets up a dangerous counterpoint to those of us advocating for ubiquitous technology in the classroom. In this context, “It’s not about the device” frames the discussion around the need for our schools to transform learning and teaching as a prerequisite for technology use. Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely in favor of any technology planning beginning with better learning as the desired outcome. In fact, I believe it MUST be the starting place. My point is that if we are too vociferous that technology merely plays a supporting role, we risk damaging the critical narrative that technology holds a unique disruptive power to trade teacher-centered teaching for student-centered learning. We also validate those who argue learning can be adequately transformed to meet the needs of students in the 21st Century without the personalized use of technology in schools. It IS about the device because the device enables the innovations we desire. Writing isn’t about pencils, either, but try writing without one.

Listening to CIOs actively engage with the instructional implications of technology use in the classroom is incredibly refreshing. We need more of this. But, while specific technologies deserve to be secondary to classroom instruction, the role of technology overall in enabling the transformations we seek is too fundamental to the change process to risk the slightest suggestion it is optional. The 21st Century CIO should use the phrases, “it’s not about the device,” as a way to enter, not avoid, the world of academics.

cross-posted at The 21st Century School

Robert C. Sidford is the Coordinator of the 21st Century Learning Division in Washoe County School District. Read more at