FETC 2020 Information Technology track had something for everyone

The FETC® Information Technology track featured a wealth of ed tech experts, practical experiences, best practices and quality solutions
By: | January 17, 2020

The Future of Ed Tech Information Technology track 2020 was an opportunity for leaders in technology departments to learn, strategize and plan together, and, more importantly, to build long-lasting relationships with peers and experts from across the country.  

“We had attendees from 50 states and 68 countries, so there were lots of opportunities to meet people who could share their experiences,” said Lenny Schad, chair for the IT track and the chief innovation and information officer for DA. “Our featured speakers this year included highly successful technology leaders with a wealth of experience, leadership, knowledge and practice.” 

Attendees were treated to a multitude of hands-on, solution-based sessions that delved into current trends, emerging tools and best practices. And as IT continues to evolve so quickly, new sessions this year were dedicated to up-and-coming topics, including blockchain, artificial intelligence and the newest cybersecurity threats. 

To that extent, Mark Racine, chief information officer for the Boston Public Schools, presented “Practical Cybersecurity,” which delved into the basic principles of cybersecurity in a K-12 environment, with an emphasis on practical approaches to safeguarding students and staff in an era of shrinking budgets and competing priorities. Racine started by showing various news stories involving some of his district’s failures, and promised that the district would probably be in the news again. “Tomorrow’s attacks will break today’s rules,” Racine said. He also emphasized the need to communicate with all staff as to why certain measures are taken so that staff will not try to go around them. Phishing, spear phishing, spam, email protection, ransomware and malware, spoofing, distributed denial-of-service attacks, data breaches, and viruses were among the subjects discussed.

Venturing into another popular subject, “Digital Equity: More Than a Device and the Internet,” was presented by Marlo Gaddis, chief technology officer for Wake County Public School System in North Carolina. Gaddis explored how digital equity in schools is much more than access to devices and internet at home and school, and how that involves students having what they need to succeed. In particular, three components are necessary—providing access, promoting digital literacy and leveraging technology. “For students, the question is: How do I use technology for doing something amazing?” said Gaddis. “And how do I use it to create, and not consume?” Technology is not the what but the how, she said, and educators need to focus on using technology as the right tool at the right time for the right child. Professional development is important, as always. “Students will not be digitally literate if the teachers are not digitally literate,” she added.

In the “Student Safety: How AI & Human Monitoring Can Save Lives” session, Michael Jolley, a former high school principal and the director of K-12 safety for Securly, discussed how monitoring students’ online activities can help keep them safe. For instance, by using intelligence-based monitoring, a distinction can be made between “a cheerleader who posts on social media, ‘Let’s kill the Vikings tonight!’ and a student who says, ‘I want to kill myself,’” said Jolley. Having such granular detail can help educators and parents to identify potential instances of self-harm, violence and bullying, and then respond proactively.

Although there were many sessions dedicated to issues such as hardware, software and infrastructure, some went beyond nuts and bolts—including how to pay for nuts and bolts! Diane Doersch, VILS technical project director for Digital Promise, and Courtney L. Teague, a professional learning engineer with VILS, presented “Funding Your Dreams: Grant Writing in the Information Age,” in which they discussed what to look for in technology grant proposals. “We can’t have people say, ‘I want a bunch of iPads,’” said Doersch. “You have to have a district plan.” Teague also stressed: “Anytime you write a grant, you have to absolutely stress the problem you need to solve.” They provided practical advice, top tips (“Always follow the directions!” stressed Teague), and review questions to ask for great grant writing. 

Two-hour workshops, which offered deeper dives, covered topics such as cybersecurity, transformational leadership, organizational change management, digital equity, funding, governance and strategic planning.

In her “Transformational Leadership in K-12 Education” workshop, for example, Lorrie Owens, past president of California IT in Education (CITE), discussed how organizations can move from making mere changes to undergoing true transformations. “Information is coming at our students faster than ever, so when you have that coming at you, you cannot remain static in your organization,” said Owens. “So either we drive or manage that change, or it will drive or manage us.” The discussion focused on the importance of involving stakeholders before and during major technology implementations. Owens also offered six steps to drive effective organizational change management. 

Other featured speakers included: Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico; Melissa Dodd, chief technology officer for San Francisco USD; Kenneth Thompson, chief information technology officer for San Antonio ISD; and Kevin Schwartz, former CoSN national CTO of the year.  

Ultimately, the IT track’s most compelling feature was its quality variety.

“Every hour, we had something for every area of IT,” said DA’s Lenny Schad. “It’s been great!”

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