CoSN Conference Update

There are few things that I find more draining than professional conferences.  Not long ago, in a discussion with a friend of mine who is also in the ed tech field, I mused that I’m more exhausted after a day full of conference sessions, networking, and lectures than I am after a day spent shoveling landscape rock.  While the latter is definitely harder work, I’m pretty convinced that the former is more exhausting.  As this year’s Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) conference wraps up in Chicago, this belief has been reinforced.  

That said, I get tremendous benefits from attendance at educational tech and leadership conferences, in the form of dozens of new ideas and approaches to ed tech problems, exposure to new (or new to me) technologies, integration strategies, and pedagogical approaches, a shot of enthusiasm and motivation, and – perhaps most importantly – in-depth conversations with technology and innovation directors, superintendents, teachers, technology integrationists, curriculum leaders, and board members from districts around the nation and the world.  We at ICCSD are not facing our challenges alone; other districts face similar challenges and implement a wide range of responses.  At a conference like CoSN, I’ve been able to talk to my peers about topics ranging from staffing challenges in a small district in Iowa, to the developments of a mature personalized learning initiative in suburban Denver, to the structure of technology support in the Los Angeles Unified School District (enrollment: 735,000).  

Here are summaries of a few of the insights and areas of focus that I’ve come away with this year:  

Student Data Privacy is Critical, and Enormously Challenging

I attended a number of sessions relating to this topic, which has been a focus of discussion for us in Iowa City.  As a public, educational institution, we are bound by federal laws and ethical requirements to protect the privacy of our students’ educational, health, and other records, a charge that is increasingly at odds with our increasing reliance on cloud-based or otherwise-digital services.

One of the fascinating approaches that I’m hoping to work towards implementing in Iowa is the work of the Student Data Privacy Consortium (SDPC).  One of the key problems that the consortium is trying to address is that vendors cannot support terms of service and privacy rules that are customized to individual clients; any attempt by Google, for instance, to maintain separate privacy terms for tens of thousands of school districts would be unworkable from the vendor side, resulting in inadequate protections and unrealistic expectations.  The SDPC approach would create state-level groups, drawing upon education professionals, IT and security professionals, and industry groups to develop terms that would be made available to all schools and districts within a state, allowing for greater customization along with a workable solution that could reasonably be expected to be enforced.  

Convergence of Educational and IT Leadership

Whereas some school leadership structures are relatively universal – almost all schools have principals, and larger schools generally have assistant principals and/or administration managers, for instance – technology leadership does not fall into this category.  Within Iowa alone, I can think of districts that have: 

  • no specific technology leader at all
  • a technology leadership role that represents a small portion of the responsibilities of a technology support staff member
  • separate directors of information technology and instructional technology
  • chief information officers and chief academic officers, who oversee IT and instructional technology leaders, respectively
  • a technology leader who is a member of the superintendent’s cabinet
  • a technology leader who is considered a support staff role and is not a member of the district’s leadership team

In Iowa City, our technology leadership is largely defined through my role as director of technology & innovation, in that I oversee our operational (IT) technology program as well as our instructional technology services and resources.  As someone with background in IT (13 years in IT-heavy roles) along with teaching experience and an almost-completed PhD in educational leadership, I relish the opportunity to work within both the IT and academic contexts.  

One of the challenges facing those districts that have divided these roles – often within completely separate departments – is communication and cooperation.  I attended two sessions that focused on methods to facilitate better relationships and coordination between these areas, in districts ranging from a small district in Minnesota to Los Angeles USD.  The overarching message is that responsibilities must be clear-cut – ambiguous responsibilities result in conflict and needed actions falling through the cracks – and regular lines of communication must be created and perpetuated to make sure that operational and academic technology leaders are aware of and contributing to the initiatives of the other.  

While we don’t split these roles at ICCSD, some of the messages and strategies of this session are undoubtedly valuable.  Our work impacts, and is directly impacted by, other departments throughout the district, specifically including curriculum & instruction, physical plant, and special education, among others.  While we already have mechanisms in place to foster communication with these departments, I’m now thinking about ways that we can formalize that a little bit more in order to establish more regular, more productive communications.  

Innovation Clusters

One of the sessions that I attended was focused on the concept of innovation clusters, presented as implemented extensively within the state of Connecticut.  Essentially, these are communities of practice that include stakeholders from within the schools, as well as local and community participants, state-level representatives, higher education, and representatives from the corporate sector.   

In Connecticut, these innovation clusters work to identify general objectives, such as personalized learning, career readiness, STEM, gamification, etc., based upon the specific challenges of the community.  Some of the key targets include mastery-based learning, digital equity, efficiencies, privacy & security, and open education resources.  In addition to the Connecticut implementation, I was able to review case studies of similar innovation cluster implementations in other states, including Rhode Island and Arizona.  

This is a really compelling idea to me.  Schools cannot operate in a vacuum, and alignment of our goals with those of other community stakeholders – while maintaining an ultimate focus on the educational needs of our students – offers tremendous opportunities to both our students and our communities.  Innovation clusters in Connecticut and other states have worked to provide teachers with professional development opportunities, improve technology funding, facilitate workforce development and college readiness programming, organize the development of cross-functional teams and advisory groups, and advance legislation and policy initiatives relevant to K-12 ed tech, among many other functions.  I’d love to see what we could achieve with this kind of group in Iowa City and in the State of Iowa.  

Funding is a Challenge

As I mentioned in a recent post, technology is expensive.  Limited funding is certainly not limited to Iowa City or the state of Iowa; we have it substantially better than some places, and substantially worse than others.  One of the challenges that is somewhat more unique to Iowa is that we don’t have dedicated educational technology funding sources – funding that is specifically intended for technology – which form the backbone of ed tech funding in schools in a number of states.  While I am a huge proponent of the basic equity achieved through Iowa’s school funding model, it is easy to be a bit jealous of districts that are spending more on collaborative classroom technology, on a per-student basis, than we spend on our entire technology program.  

Taking the long view, this gets me thinking about what we can do to expand funding opportunities for ed tech in our particular context.  Public-private partnerships, funding opportunities developed through the work of innovation clusters (discussed above), and local option funding mechanisms are all compelling approaches to providing ed tech funding without undermining other educational priorities that are at least worth exploration in Iowa City and the state as a whole.  

What Comes After 1:1? 

This was another common topic, and one on which I attended a couple of sessions.  While this may seem like a bit of a cart/horse problem, as we have yet to launch our initial 1:1 program at the secondary level, I think that it’s critical that we have a well-developed perspective with regard to what we expect 1:1 to facilitate in our classrooms, and what we want to build towards as next steps following our (hopefully successful) 1:1 launch and implementation.  

One of the advantages we have at ICCSD as relatively late-comers to the 1:1 game is the fact that we can draw upon the experiences – both positive and negative – of thousands of other districts that have gone before us.  I learned about the status and current initiatives of districts in Oregon and suburban Chicago that launched 1:1 initiatives over five years ago, and now consider those programs to be basic components of their curricular offering upon which they can build other programs and develop opportunities.  

The common themes focus, somewhat unsurprisingly, on the importance of continued and increasingly-focused professional development, along with a broad focus on improved instruction and student-centered learning.  As we plan our own initiative in Iowa City, these are key areas that we’ve identified as critical for ongoing development and attention, and the feedback from these districts confirmed that a well-implemented 1:1 initiative offers a tremendous framework upon which to build.  

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