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IT Leadership: Navigating Technology in K-12 Education

This year's Consortium for School Networking survey found improvements, but schools continue to face ongoing challenges in technology budgets, a priority to establish digital environments and the need for succession planning.

Want to know what's on the minds of school CIOs and CTOs? The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) gives us a good glimpse with its 2nd Annual K-12 IT Leadership Survey released April 16. 

This year's survey found improvements, but ongoing challenges remain in school technology budgets, a priority to establish digital environments and mobile learning, and the need for succession planning in the face of large numbers of retiring district technology leaders over the next decade, according to the professional association's survey.   

CoSN CEO Keith Krueger said the survey "helps us understand the human capacity of school systems to respond to the digital conversation." This conversation includes information on characteristics of technology leaders like CTOs and CIOs, their priorities and challenges, and the variables that affect their everyday, like staffing and budgeting, and how this all changes over time.

The leadership survey was distributed to more than 29,000 school system technology leaders, with 600 people responding from 45 states and 350 people completing the survey. Seventy percent of respondents are from the public school district level, and almost half from medium-size suburban schools, according to the survey.  

Denise Atkinson-Shorey, senior consultant for CoSN, said this year's survey revealed a better picture -- though not a pretty one -- for those navigating technology in education. 

Even in the bright spots of the survey, she said, like bigger budgets over last year, the survey reveals that three in five districts still report flat or declining budgets, and that nearly half of districts say their funds do not support existing technologies even while most have increased their assets. This makes it no surprise that budget constraints rank just behind the top challenge of dealing with the changing teaching and learning culture.  

Most districts are looking to overcome these budget shortfalls, according to the survey, by delaying replacement or deferring maintenance.  
"In the technology world, that's a really dangerous piece, because if a piece of equipment were to fail and it's no longer supported ... there's no replacement for it," Atkinson-Shorey said. "So that could mean that a district could have catastrophic issues, or very expensive issues." 

An interesting part of the survey, she said, comes from what leaders dubbed as their top three priorities. Survey respondents prioritized online assessment readiness first, and then the closely linked mobile learning and wireless access second and third, from a list of 19 possible priorities. 

But even as online assessment readiness sat at the top of the list, moving up from No. 2 last year, the survey shows that school districts face challenges to its achievement with just 18 percent reporting they are ready for 2014 online assessments. 

"So even though the priority is there and they are moving toward it, I think the lack of resources, the lack of staff, and the lack of funding districts have are preventing them from being successful," Atkinson-Shorey said. 

As for mobile learning and wireless access -- priorities two and three -- they point to an overall concern for what's happening in the classroom, said Atkinson-Shorey, who helped author the survey. However, this movement to bring technology in the classroom is again tempered as nearly half of districts report that their budgets are not sufficient to meet new classroom needs, she said. 

Along the same lines as districts' priorities, survey respondents made clear they think digital content will soon be king, with 83 percent saying such materials will account for half or more of education resources in the next three years. "That's a tremendous acknowledgement," Atkinson-Shorey said. 

Another sign of accepting technology in the classroom is that more than 80 percent of leaders said they support or have a bring-your-own-device policy, or are looking to incorporate one in the near future. This is in contrast to five years ago when personal technology devices were banned in most schools, according to the survey. 

When a BYOD policy is fully implemented, students can benefit from a ratio of as many as three digital devices per student, Atkinson-Shorey said. Although the devices cost nothing to the district, classrooms still need wireless and broadband access to use them, she said, looping back to the budgetary issues that have cropped up throughout the survey. 

Atkinson-Shorey also noted that 73 percent of respondents use the title of CTO or CIO, jumping from 43 percent last year. According to the survey, this likely means that leaders are moving away from titles like technology coordinator to titles indicating a more senior status.  

A looming high turnover is another key finding of the survey, which found that one in every two educational IT leaders plan to retire in the next 10 years. Even so, more than half of the respondents were not aware of a plan for after these leaders have left. 

"When we look at the leadership in school districts for technology, and we know that more than half of them have master's degrees, and more than half of them have been in that position for 6 to 10 years or more, we are looking at a big hole," Atkinson-Shorey said, adding that CoSN offers a training program that helps leaders attain the expertise needed to lead school districts.

Those same district technology leaders are also underpaid, according to the survey, earning less than half of the estimated $195,000 earned by their private-sector counterparts. 

Overall, the survey provides glimmers of hope, but those glimmers are offset by lukewarm budget and staffing news, according to Atkinson-Shorey, who is a former CTO herself and has done a number of technology and education consulting in her retirement, including consulting on both of CoSN's leadership surveys as the CEO of e-Luminosity. 

"While the feedback from district leaders offers optimism, it’s overwhelmingly apparent," Krueger said, that "districts still lack the necessary resources to provide transformative learning environments."