Why leaning on strong CIOs makes sense during a pandemic

It isn't only the technology that might need to change in your school district; it also might be the mindset of all stakeholders, including those at the top.
By: | November 16, 2020
Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

What separates true leaders from average ones? Tom Ryan says, in this period of crisis, it is two things: attitude and agility.

The chief information and strategy officer for Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico and the former president of the CoSN board says those who play ‘victim’ roles or approach major tasks with a ‘can’t-do’ response probably haven’t earned a seat at decision-making tables. However, those who ‘can do’ must be listened to, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ryan says school districts should be mindful of those who can both deliver necessary technology improvements during this moment and have the vision to lead their K-12 districts far into the future. The expectation is this experiment with virtual learning will not suddenly disappear in six months or a year. It’s up to districts to identify and listen to them.

“If you’re trying to hold on to what you always had, hoping we’ll get back, it isn’t going to go back to what the way it was,” Ryan says. “I can’t imagine telling all my parents, teachers and employees, turn your device in. Here’s a book.”

The past nine months have differentiated the haves and have nots and highlighted those strong leaders. Though some districts have struggled to overcome the big shift to remote learning, others in seemingly poor positions have managed to all but seal off the digital divide. Those CIOs and technologists have ensured students have access to devices and internet, implemented fail-safe plans for remote instruction, danced around funding challenges, and doggedly worked to keep networks and systems running smoothly.

“All of them will say: I have worked harder in the last eight months than I have in the last eight years,” Ryan says. “It doesn’t end. It’s all weekend, it’s all evening. It’s everybody needs help, and they all need it now,” Ryan says. “IT’s been saying for years, we need a seat at the table. Now, they’re saying, we have one. HR, special education, health and mental health instruction, they’re all dependent on us. The CIOs that are future-oriented, that are solution providers, are heroes. Exhausted heroes.”

Smart stakeholders matter

Of course, Ryan is quick to point out that not every CIO has the skills to be a strategic thinker and contribute to cabinet-level discussions. Without those skills, reporting to the superintendent would be a disaster both for the CIO and leadership team.

“The break-fix technologists don’t have that future orientation and haven’t been planning. They’re just reacting,” Ryan says. “And most of their reaction is, ‘Oh, we don’t support that. Or we’re not staffed for that. Or you’re going to have to find that on your own. That leads stakeholders to do it on their own, causing even a greater demand and shadow IT. It becomes everybody else’s fault. So you’ve got two camps: the digital strategist and the victims. The victims say technology can’t support it or the kids can’t get access because of the technology. And that’s just misery to live in that environment.”

However, districts that have “strategists” who are knowledgeable about education trends, should welcome and value their input because they will work with a variety of stakeholders and be able to forge high-functioning connections between schools and homes.

Remote challenge: How Santa Fe is delivering in pandemic

Behind Ryan and his team, Santa Fe rolled out devices and hot spots in connecting 98% of its 12,000 students in the first week after going remote back in March. They have had to do the same recently because of a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Ryan points out, “we had to move from what nobody’s ever done to what everybody had to do. We needed to make sure that the possible became concrete. Innovation became normal.”

One of the key elements to any successful technology plan, Ryan says, is often not the technologists but the others involved in ensuring its success – superintendents, principals, teachers, staff and students. In Santa Fe, they leaned on those who were willing to get on board with the technology.

“We focused on which teachers were embracing it,” Ryan says. “A few percent are innovators. There’s a next group of early adopters, another group of late adopters and another group of laggards. The innovators are the ones that will figure it out and are going to bring that group of early adopters in. We’re looking to get to a tipping point, which is about 15% of your staff. And once that happens, then they start working with each other within that group. If we focused all our time on the laggard, we’d never get anything done, because they’re least likely to change.”

Ryan says as his team took care of the technology part, the people part became the biggest challenge. But by doing a lot of surveying of various stakeholders – teachers, parents, students, the bilingual community – they were able see which pieces of technology and processes were working for them and what was causing them to stumble.

For example, he noted that “teachers liked using a wide variety of applications, but students and parents didn’t. We had to go back to our teachers and say, we have to standardize on certain components so that kids can be successful.”

They also focused on another key piece – professional development for teachers and for principals. The latter was especially important (and should be for other districts) because those principals need to be able to evaluate their instructors in an online environment and identify the supports needed to ensure their success.

“There are some kids that are thriving, and there are some kids that are really struggling,” Ryan says. “We’re finding that the kids that are thriving have teachers that are thriving. They’ve figured it out. We also have teachers that are struggling to understand the technology and all the challenges of teaching kids remotely. If the teacher can’t find success then it’s unlikely the kids will be successful.”

Making change isn’t easy

Some teachers haven’t been the only ones struggling to adapt to remote learning.

Ryan says district leadership teams also need to be transformed. Many of the skills that helped make superintendents and district leaders become successful are significantly different. Zoom or Meets sessions require a different set of skills such as: building personal connections, new ways of managing meetings, and creating cross-functional teaming, which are much different than in-person meetings. Ryan believes it is important to build relationships, in online meetings by starting with conversations and sharing such as, “How’s your family doing? Oh, you got that new baby? Do you have any pictures? Create personal presence. Because if all you’ve done is eight months of action-item delivery, there’s no relationship built. You can burn people out.”

Ryan says districts need leaders who can take control in that time of crisis, to be able to accept that change is coming and be dynamic enough to make it happen.

“The skill of a leader, whether that’s a superintendent or not, is to be a nimble, strategy-based executive that can lead through crisis, lead through extreme challenges,” Ryan says. “And that’s a different skill set than keeping the lights on and making sure the traditional system is well-oiled and maintained. I think there needs to be a redesigned rethinking of how do I run a school district? And that means, I’m going to need a lot more direct data because I’m not face to face with people. I’m going to need some kind of a system to collect, to inform and make decisions in a very quick way. I’m going to need better communication systems or integration with the resources that are available to me.”

Ryan says it’s important that cabinets and boards are thinking about the future and adapting their thinking about school, as well.

“If you’re going to have dramatic change in the classroom that has a dramatic impact on how a school functions, you can’t assume that the administrative structure of cabinet doesn’t have to change,” he says. “Executive staff are usually a little older and have lots of experience. They were successful as teachers. They were successful as administrators. They’ve moved up in the organization. They’re respected experts but may be challenged in re-thinking school design and processes especially if they lead a very top-down, hierarchical model of the mass production era.

“We’re in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which requires a very different organizational structure – one that focuses on cross-functional teaming is stakeholder driven and allows for decisions to be made effectively in an environment that will continue to change very quickly.”

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.