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From Fixers to Leaders: The Expanding Role of School CIOs

As last year's drastic shift to online learning put technology front and center for school districts, many K-12 IT officials have found themselves in key advisory or leadership roles with growing responsibilities.

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While many school districts had already reported investing in digital learning devices and platforms prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most didn't expect online education to become a requirement for millions of students by the turn of the decade. With this shift, school chief information officers suddenly found themselves leading discussions about how to change the very nature of public education in the months and years ahead.

Santa Fe Public Schools Chief Information and Strategy Officer Tom Ryan said K-12 CIOs now have to serve as “digital leaders” to guide K-12 digital transformation efforts. Rather than solving IT problems as they arise and acting on the orders of school boards and superintendents, he said school IT leaders now provide officials with insights on how to best utilize technology for instruction.

“If it’s the old break-fix CIO that says, ‘Call me when you’ve got a problem,’ then there’s no reason for that person to be on cabinet, because what cabinet needs is a strategy person that’s looking at the future and is helping strategize with the other members on how we can make this happen,” Ryan said, noting that ed-tech leaders must now aim to be proactive rather than reactive. “Now we’re playing this strategy and innovation kind of role.”

Lenny Schad, chief information and innovation officer for District Administration magazine, said digital learning tools have become a "non-negotiable need” rather than an addition to student learning. With technology playing an increasingly crucial role in how schools operate and how learning happens, district CIOs now have the responsibility of making decisions that have a direct effect on student success.

Ryan and Schad both attested that many IT administrators must now provide input and feedback on classroom methodologies, as well as professional development programs that train teachers to make use of new ed-tech tools.

“At the end of the day, COVID made every IT team and every school district look at technology not as a solution but as part of the classroom experience. That was the biggest thrust of this changing role of CIOs and IT teams,” Schad said.

From 2013 to 2019, Schad was the CIO of the Houston Independent School District, where he and other officials worked to establish a 1:1 program to provide devices and Internet connectivity to every student. At the time, most districts had only entertained the idea, though it later served as a model for schools working to bridge the digital divide during COVID-19 school closures.

In order to get such a plan off the ground, Schad said CIOs are expected to serve as a “change agent” that encourages other officials to think outside the box about the benefits of ed-tech tools.

“Technology [troubleshooting] is still an element of what they do, but I don’t think it’s going to be the crux of what you see five years from now for these CIO roles,” he said.

Though millions of K-12 students have returned to in-person classes, others have elected to stick with virtual learning. Ryan noted that roughly 70 percent of secondary students in Santa Fe have opted to continue remote learning following the recent reintroduction of classroom instruction.

According to a 2020 survey by the American School District Panel – a body of several hundred school district leaders assembled by the research nonprofit RAND Corporation – about 20 percent of schools now plan to establish and expand online courses beyond the pandemic.

“Because everybody had to dip their toes into this, most superintendents are now saying, ‘We’re not going to walk away,’” Schad said.

On top of other responsibilities, CIOs now remain engaged in a never-ending battle of wits with cyber criminals, who targeted schools more than ever before last year.

Ryan and Schad said IT leaders must focus on cybersecurity awareness to help schools combat the rise of phishing scams, ransomware and other cyber threats that occurred during the pandemic. Schad added that CIOs must also advocate for more investments to strengthen K-12 cybersecurity.

“This is not a one-and-done thing,” he said of the fight against cyber crimes.

Not only for schools but for most organizations, serving as a CIO came with a plethora of IT management responsibilities even before last year's surge in telework and remote learning. According to research from Government Technology in 2019, the average state-level CIO stays in their position for less than four years.

And while most K-12 tech leaders have embraced their leadership roles, others have found their new responsibilities daunting.

“I don’t think a lot of them were really prepared for what a seat at that table really meant,” Schad said of the new roles of school CIOs. “Regardless, that is the role that’s being demanded now from IT teams.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.