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Losing sleep

Four school leaders share what keeps them up at night and how they’re tackling those issues.

7 min read


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What keeps school leaders up at night? Four district superintendents shared what issues they’re facing and how they’re working through these challenges during a panel discussion at CoSN 2017. Dave Schuler, superintendent at Township High School District 214 in Illinois, led the Q&A session with the panel, which comprised Mark Benigni, superintendent at Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut; Bill Shields, superintendent at Community Consolidated School District 93 in Illinois; Susan Patterson, superintendent at Cullman City Schools in Alabama; and Jim Roberts, superintendent at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Indiana.

Here are highlights from their conversation.

What are you doing to ensure technology is transforming teaching and learning — and not just becoming a different way to do the same thing?

Identifying tech ambassadors. Your staff members are like your students — they’re at different levels, Benigni said. His district has taken some of its teachers and divided them between tech coach and educator. They chose teachers who were ambassadors in technology use. “They have credibility among their peers,” Benigni said. “The staff responds better when it’s one of their peers. The respect for one another is there.”

Shields and Roberts agreed. Both use similar approaches, with on-site teacher coaches. Shields’ district uses full-time coaches, but they all come from the buildings, he said. “They don’t have offices at the district,” he explained. “They’re on-site.”

Sending staff out to learn. Give teachers an opportunity to learn by sending them to conferences, Patterson encouraged. Her district, which uses full-time integration specialists, sends some of its teachers to conferences to do development. “Expose them to conferences and other districts so they can see the possibilities,” she said.

How are you removing silos separating the technology department from the teachers?

Bringing the sides together. Consistent communications is key to eliminating silos, Patterson said. She told the story of a network administrator at her school who would, if he saw activity he deemed inappropriate, throttle down the internet to stop the behavior. The administrator had the right intentions, but this move created new problems for users. The experience prompted Patterson to hold regular meetings with the IT team and teachers to discuss priorities. “It’s important to work with staff and make sure that each of them understands the needs.”

Meshing technology and instruction. Benigni’s district combined the positions of curriculum director and technology director to create one director of curriculum and instructional technology. Benigni said he was eager to streamline these roles. “I was getting too impatient,” he said. “Every change required a series of approvals and pushing back and forth.” The new role made one person responsible for the entire operation. “And now it’s seamless,” he said.

How worried are you about data privacy, and what are you doing to address it?

Fostering digital citizenship. “The fact that students have access to each other 24/7 scares us to death,” Roberts said. His district has put a priority on digital citizenship, teaching students to protect themselves and the data they receive from the school. “We spend a lot of time teaching students how to use the network and resources.”

Preparing for the inevitable. Attacks will happen, Schuler said. “We need to start asking different questions of tech staff,” he explained. “It’s not ‘How are you preventing cyberattacks?’ but ‘What will happen when you’re breached?’ ” Don’t wait until the attack occurs, Schuler warned. “Be prepared when it does.”

What are you doing to eliminate the digital divide and provide out-of-school access to students?

Developing community partnerships. Create partnerships with local municipalities to put wireless access in common areas — such as parks and libraries — where students congregate, Benigni and Shields said. Talk with your local housing authorities as well to make sure all their developments have access as well, Benigni advised. 

Rethinking policy and providing resources. Think of things from a policy standpoint, Roberts suggested. If homework assignments require students to have access, some students will run into problems. For those with no access, let them download homework materials while they are at school and provide maps listing places that offer free Wi-Fi, he advised. Another idea: Get Wi-Fi on buses — not just when they are parked but also while they are in transit.

How are you making sure that your tech plans are not just filling current needs but are also thinking ahead to the future state of technology?

Listening to students. Give students voice and choice, Benigni advised. When his district began investigating devices a few years ago, it surveyed the students to find out their preferences. The survey revealed that students wanted more portable devices, so the district began looking at tablets. Two years later, student responses changed, and the district began evaluating Chromebooks. Both types of devices supported the direction the district planned to take with connectivity, digital content and personalized learning. “We’ll continue to follow the voice of students,” Schuler said. He conceded students can be fickle. “Sometimes they’re making decisions that are going to last three years and they might have wished they could change a year from now, but I don’t think that changes what we’re gaining from the device. We’re still getting connectivity. We’re still getting the vehicle to access digital content.”

What are your biggest fears regarding technology and students?

Emotional intelligence. “Emotional intelligence is critically important to success in life,” Benigni said. Provide opportunities for personal contact, he suggested. Students need to know how to communicate, work with other people, discuss issues and solve problems, and “not always look for us to have a fix.”

Constantly connected. Devices and social media apps give students 24/7 access to one another, Roberts said. They need time to disconnect from their peers and refresh on their own. “They can never just be away from each other,” he said. “It’s an issue.”

Crystal ball: Where is technology five to 10 years from now?

Virtual reality, 3D printers and coding. Virtual reality and 3D printing will be common in classrooms, and coding will be the new foreign language, even among the youngest learners, Schuler said. Benigni agreed. It’s not so much the product, he said, but “more about how our students can see the world.”

Personalized anytime, anywhere learning — and the dismantling of seat time. The next phase of personalized learning will no longer just match tasks to student capability. Instead, personalized learning will take place “anytime, anywhere, learning all year long, even on vacation,” Shields said. The teacher’s role will evolve as well. “The teacher will be as important as ever,” he said, “[as] that facilitator of knowledge, even more so.”

The future will also see a move away from the traditional seat-time model, the panelists stated. And the change is necessary, Benigni said.

“I think we really just need to blow up the system,” Benigni said. He expects that the next 10 years will bring change to the traditional model of Carnegie unit of credits, six-hour school days and 180-day school years.

“I think that technology and digital content and learning and access has provided us with the opportunity to explain how we can do it differently,” Benigni said. “For years we were saying this doesn’t make sense, but really we have a solution to the problem. The solution lies right here [with us].”

Kanoe Namahoe is the editor for SmartBrief on EdTech and SmartBrief on Workforce.


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