At Work

Thoughts about things at work—education, technology, data, security, usability, and more.

On CIOs in K-12 Education

School Technology Group

School Technology Group

Thanks to Marco Torres for the Flickr Creative Commons image above.

Confession. I am a reluctant CIO. I catch myself swallowing the words Chief Information Officer during moments of introduction in a figurative hunching of the shoulders. I don't have issues with the title or role in general, but have spent most of my working years in education and non-profits where C-level titles were viewed with skepticism. We run lean organizations by necessity, not choice. Until recently, our organizations did not have CEOs or CFOs or COOs or CIOs. We had leaders, but operated in a world apart from our corporate counterparts. We have evolved. I am still adjusting. 

The Need for CIOs in Education

In the spring of 2010, the State of Oregon signed a state-level agreement with Google for the provision of Google Apps for Education to K-12 public school districts. Within a matter of months, the number of Oregon districts adopting Google Apps for Education skyrocketed. I lead the ORVSD training team that provides support and training for Google Apps, in addition to other digital learning tools. During one of our initial trainings, I had my first moment of clarity about the need for CIOs in education. Eric Edens, who was part of the Google Apps Edu team at that time, is responsible. Following a fairly technical meeting about user management and email transition, Eric remarked that schools were challenging the Apps team with scale issues they had not encountered in their business apps rollouts. In our largest districts, we have tens of thousands of users. Even our smallest districts have hundreds of users, which makes them larger than most companies. Our school migrations dwarfed the average business migrations.

I think about Eric's observation regularly. He's right, of course. We address issues of scale each day in our schools. Even with lean budgets, we purchase connectivity, devices, and apps in bulk. We provide training, support, and access. We control technology budgets that aren't tied to increasing corporate growth, but to equity and access. Supporting technology for hundreds or thousands of teachers and students is a serious job, one that requires serious leadership.

The Role of CIOs in Education

In decades past, K-12 technology directors tended to be network operations directors. They were skilled systems engineers who built the first district networks, equipped the first computer labs, and maintained projectors, printers, and email servers. Those are still vital functions, but education is operating in the same, rapidly-expanding technology ecosystem as the rest of the world. The role of technology leadership is expanding with it.

Whether you call them IT directors or CIOs, new technology leaders manage staff, budgets, and infrastructure, like before. Added to it, they are leading the following charges:

  • Integration of technology into learning—and by this, I don't mean computer labs.... I mean getting us out of the way of the user and trying to make technology invisible
  • Transitions to mobile learning environments, digital learning environments, heterogeneous platform environments (bring your own device and/or mixed-platform classrooms and the increased need for wireless)
  • Increasing data and analytics for our users and our stakeholders
  • Virtualization, cloud computing, enterprise and workflow efficiencies

The Future of CIOs in Education

We have several CIOs in Oregon's K-12 districts. Some are Chief Technology Officers. Some are Technology Directors or IT Managers. We are still grappling with the focus shift from technology (network operations and computer labs) to information (data, apps, and users). We are still thinking schools are the underfunded*, behind-the-curve little guy in the technology arena, rather than the leader in optimizing budgets and services. I am still shrugging a little as I say CIO.

As I continue shrugging, the CIO role continues evolving. At least a few of my Oregon peers are already interpreting the title CIO as Chief Innovation Officer. They are driving their organizations' momentum into mobile and digital learning. Joe Morelock is doing this in Canby, Oregon. And the Chief Digital Officer is on the horizon. Strike that. It's here already. The Verge profiled New York City's Rachel Haot earlier this year. It was my first glance at a role that makes complete sense and is rising as quickly as the tide of all things digital. 

There are days it may seem like we're riding the tidal wave, rather than leading. And there are bleak days when budgets don't match needs. We have teachers and students who are making a transition to digital learning. We have administrators relying on us for counsel on student devices, digital textbooks and content, social media, and data systems. Regardless of the title, K-12 education needs information leaders.

*Let me clarify that we really, truly are underfunded—the K-12 system is as a whole in most states. However, ask any corporate CIO how the recession has left them feeling. I suspect the response would sound similar. Constraints are constraints. Our work is to increase efficiency. I am struggling with this idea of efficiency as we slowly work towards sharing technology services in our region.