School board CIO offers an education in ‘instructional technology’

Ontario’s Peel District School Board recently received a donation of 30 desktops from the Steve Nash Foundation and MDG Canada, which will be used to support numeracy and literacy programs, as well as credit recovery and off-site credit completion. CIO Laura Williams spoke to recently about the changing role of technology – and the CIO – in education.

ITBusiness:ca How has the role of a school board CIO changed and evolved over the years? I’m assuming that it used to be mostly admin systems you’d have to worry about, and now computing has become ubiquitous, not only with faculty, but with students as well.

Laura Williams: Generally the role of the CIO has changed over the years. It has evolved from more of a focus on admin systems and infrastructure into something more strategic. We still have to do that other stuff, but I think generally you’ll see the CIOs at the same table as CEOs. My role is to understand the business goals of the organization and steer it where we’re going in that context. So it’s no longer about just administratively making us more efficient — I think the role of the CIO is trying to be more creative around how to solve problems and use technology to go where we couldn’t otherwise go, and I think it’s an exciting change. It’s certainly challenging because you need to understand not just the IT field, but your sector as well.

ITB: Can you give me an example of how that translates into what you do in the education field?

LW We are very sensitive to security in our schools. We’ve given principals and vice-principals Palms and on that Palm they can download information about student timetables and pictures. So if they find someone in the hallway of their school that they’re not familiar with, they can challenge them with ‘what class should you be in’ and ‘what’s your name,’ so immediately on the spot they know if that individual is just late for class or in fact doesn’t belong in the school. The business challenge is around security, but we can’t go there without technology. The other solution is to walk around with lots of binders, so there’s an example of solving a business challenge with technology.

ITB: What changes can students expect to see over the next five years or so in terms of technology in schools?

LW I think in the 1990s there was lot of focus around putting students in front of computers and I would call that technology education. So we wanted to make sure students were comfortable and that they knew how to work a spreadsheet and all these things. I think where we’ll start to see innovation is in technology in education. We call it instructional technology, so we’re starting to think about how technology can assist in teaching practice. Last year, Peel District School Board did a pilot with 12 schools. In each classroom we put an instructional computer, attached it to an LCD projector and then each of these was in turn connected to the Internet. We explored the use of the instructional technology to change or augment instruction and we did this all the way from junior kindergarten (JK) to 12. We had amazing results from that. One example is we were able to broadcast the Olympics into the classroom, and it was part of the fabric of the class – it wasn’t a special event. It changes the toolset a teacher has, and once you put that into a classroom you can really start to make use of simulations and rich resources on the Internet. Before you were kind of confined to going to a lab and then guiding individual students, so I think you will see a lot more innovation in the use of technology for instructional purposes. As part of that you will see a new focus in terms of online content, because once you put that LCD projector in a classroom you can use that online content as part of your daily practice and we’ve had amazing results. When they broadcasted the Olympics it was an opportunity to teach students about the shape of the world and why it was dark on the other side of the globe while it was bright here, for example, so it really enriches the classroom.

ITB: In the business world it has become common for people to collaborate on projects, not working so much in departments or divisions. Will we see that in education as well, teachers collaborating with other teachers around the globe?

LW Absolutely, and one particular example comes to mind. We had an English teacher who was teaching a novel written by someone in Australia. As part of the literature review, they connected (via videoconferencing) with that author in Australia. They brought in students from around the globe, and they were all having this discussion around the novel with the author, and I think not only is that exciting from a learning perspective but it’s also teaching students what are probably very necessary skills in that future work environment – learning how to have a conversation when you’re not face to face.

ITB: How are students driving that change? Is it like in the business world where employees started to buy their own PDAs so IT had to incorporate them into their infrastructure?

LW It’s both students and parents. Certainly from our kindergarten to Grade 8 sector parents have a very strong voice and I would say in grades 9-12, students more so. Definitely this generation is different — they grew up in a 3-D and 4-D world, so how do we engage them, how do we offer them a learning experience that is meaningful to them? The old chalk and blackboard is not going to captivate them. That Socratic method has its place, but our students’ world is different, and they’re expecting a more media-rich learning experience and that expectation is driving a lot of discussion around what the classroom of the future needs to look like. On the parents’ side they’re driving change as well. A lot of households now have computers and many, not all, have Internet access, and I think there is an expectation from parents to more readily find information about what the students are learning. We’re finding parents expect homework sites, they want to be able to pick up the spelling list and know what time the tests are, so there’s this parental expectation that is really driving us into new territory.

ITB: In terms of the economics, some kids have lots of technology – PDAs etc. and there are the other kids whose parents can’t afford to give them all those things. Is that an issue at all?

LW Absolutely. We’re very cognizant of that. We have a lot of new Canadians and as they get feet under them, getting Internet access and cell phones is not high priority. There was a lot of discussion about the digital divide – about the students who had computers at home and those who didn’t. I think now the divide is about who has Internet access and who doesn’t. We’re very cognizant that some students go home to an environment where they can connect to the Internet and find resources, and some don’t, and we try to level that playing field with special programs to give students access to the Internet and learning resources after school and at lunch hour, but it is a big issue for us.

ITB: One of the issues that always comes up when people talk about IT in education is that it wasn’t always well-incorporated into the curriculum. How closely do school CIOs work with teachers to help them get the most out of available technology?

LW Part of the discussion is an investment discussion. We’ve had a lot of discussion around ‘for your money what are your options,’ and that has been a very valuable discussion, because I think when you start to see it that way you realize the tradeoffs you’re making. We’ve done a lot of financial modelling to show ‘with your money can do A, B or C,’ and that has driven some discussion around getting the maximum value. When we talk about IT we need to differentiate between technology education and technology in education. The Internet is a big one now, as is teaching students how to judiciously navigate the Internet. There’s also just embedding technology in daily use in schools. I visit schools every week and I think teachers are very innovative. My role is to give voice to those innovators. You will hear this quiet voice with this great idea in terms of a potential use for technology and sometimes our role is just to bring that idea forward and share it, so my focus next year will be to figure out how to give those teachers voice so they can connect and share their ideas with other teachers. It’s more a facilitative role. I don’t pretend that all the great ideas are going to come from just me.

ITB: What are some of the ways you’ve employed to deal with the ongoing budget limitations in the education sphere? I’m thinking of partnerships, that sort of thing.

LW It is a very acute issue in education. There’s the practical reality of being not for profit. One of our strategies is to have those investment discussions to put on the table what are our options in terms of the money we have. Our dollars will only stretch so far, so our partnerships — and I mean partnership in the true sense of the word — are really key. We work with a number of vendors to help them understand our challenges, because they know better what the tradeoffs are in terms of what problems we are trying to solve, what our challenges are and what tradeoffs we need to make to improve the price point and still do what we need to do. Our desktop computer vendor is MDG, and right now they’re working with us to figure out an affordable lab computer for our schools. We’ve talked to them at length about what it is we want to be able to do and they’re going to work through what the tradeoffs are to improve the price point for lab computers. We’re making good progress there but we couldn’t do that do through a tender — you have to do it through dialogue and discussion. The other thing is we rely a lot on donations. That’s actually a big part of my job — to try to match up the objectives of some of these charitable foundations with what we’re trying to do. We got a very generous donation from the Steve Nash Foundation. They’ve given us a significant donation for computers for our programs for at risk students. There is a place where we’re trying to put one-to-one computers for students and we can’t afford to do that otherwise. Once we’ve done that, those students then have access to all sorts of online learning resources. One of the programs we have is called credit recovery. The thinking behind credit recovery is a student has gone through a course and he or she hasn’t passed. They don’t need to take the entire course again. We have a blended learning model and what we try to do is fast-track them through that content (using our online resources) to help them get that credit, because what we find is when students start losing credits they no longer are going to class with their friends. It’s so important to help them recover credits so they can stay in the classes with their friends – it’s really key for graduation. The foundation was looking at how to focus on helping kids who need that little bit extra, so it was a perfect fit. Think of it: you’re a Grade 9 student and you didn’t pass math and now you have to go to summer school or next year you have to take that course again. It’s not very cost-effective, but the side issue is those kids find themselves in class with younger students so they feel awkward and they’re more inclined to drop out. Once they lose that credit, it’s very hard to catch it up.

ITB: IT companies are always complaining that there aren’t enough students choosing IT as a career. As a CIO, do you see yourself as a role model in encouraging students, particularly girls, and if so, how?

LW It’s very interesting. We are seeing a decline in the enrolment of young women. It’s a pretty humbling thought to think of yourself as a role model, but to state the obvious, my being here says IT is not the realm of just boys, that women can be CIOs. I think we do need to grapple with perhaps the curriculum we put forth and whether there are hurdles for young women. I went to a university where access to the computer lab meant I was on campus late at night. I was fortunate: I had a group of people I could travel with, but for some people some of these hurdles become such barriers that they don’t pursue it. I think there is an image of the IT industry that’s it’s not attractive for young women; they tend to think if it as geeky. So we have to look at why very early, as early as grades 7 and 8 where young girls are choosing to be interested in technology or not. We need to look closely at the classroom dynamics, because that starts to shape their interest in technology. I think generally the young women I see are very interested in the applied aspects of technology and perhaps not as interested in the mechanical, such as how do I make the perfect piece of code? If you invited young women to come to a class around music and you happened to be leveraging technology for music, they might be more interested in the applied aspect than ‘come to the computer club.’ I don’t think young women are signing up for that computer camp or club in droves. I took a lot of math in my high school years, and to be honest I haven’t used calculus in IT, so we have to look at that path starting from as early as Grade 7 that generates interest and what’s that path in terms of all the pieces we put together to go into that IT field. There are things along that path that are hurdles. I’m not sure calculus is necessary; discreet math is very appropriate for IT. It’s interesting to look at not the computer club but ways to generate that applied interest.

ITB: There’s always an assumption that kids these days know everything they need to know about technology and that parents and teachers are the ones who have to catch up, but are kids really learning the kind of IT skills you might see as necessary for post-secondary education, beyond using IM and designing their own Web sites?

LW I think students are very good at the mechanics. We have computer clubs and students are very good at the details of building Web sites and there’s a place for that, but what is sometimes is missing is they need to be thinkers in their judicious use of the Internet. Students may be able to navigate and know how search engines work, but we need to teach a layer on top of that. We need to teach how to differentiate between credible and non-credible sources. Someone needs to guide them through that whole thoughtful process. They know a lot about some of those entertainment (applications) but that may not be the skill set we need as employers. There is technical knowledge we need people to learn so I’m very supportive of all these technical programs but when I employ IT people I need those teamwork and collaborative skills, all those other interpersonal skills sets.

ITB: How do you balance some of the security and safety requirements you have?

LW We make those balance adjustments weekly. We have here plus-140,000 students and some can get quite creative. We have to perhaps lock down our environment to some extent and yet we want it to be flexible, particularly for teachers. We have to make sure teachers can still do what they need to do, and sometimes we can’t give them as much flexibility as we’d like to. We have an advisory group and they really help us have those discussions; it should never be the IT department on its own. We’re constantly adjusting at a local level. Teachers would like a great deal if flexibility but at a corporate level we have to limit that to make sure our networks are reliable. If technology is going to be part of the everyday fabric of your classroom it has to be reliable. We have to have a certain standard. It’s not like a business of 140,000 employees – they are young people and they are learning and we rely on teachers to teach them to live within a corporate network. They’re creative, that’s part of the learning process and these students need to learn some of those boundaries before they get into the workplace.

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