By Tim Harper, Ed. D., Chief Information Officer, Seminole County Public Schools
In recent years, the role of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) has shifted from purely technical to one where some degrees of knowledge in many areas of the organization are a necessity. In a not-so-distant past, the CIO/CTO was mainly concerned with all things technology and granted, this is still one of the primary responsibilities but the job has grown into a much broader position requiring connections in every area of the organization. This is true whether in corporate America or the public sector. These connections rely heavily on a clear understanding of the day-to-day business of the organization, relationships, and the ability to listen to the customer.
Public education, an arena that has seen its share of changes over the past several years, is experiencing movements ranging from becoming a “Future Ready School” or “Future Ready School District” to “Rethinking High School”. The momentum to move public education to more of a future-ready position has been significant and is accompanied by ideas such as blended learning, online courses, digital curriculum, coding, and reimagining high school, to name a few. Some districts meet these opportunities with initiatives ranging from providing computing devices to every students, often referred to as 1:1 initiatives, Bring-Your-Own-Technology (BYOT), ensuring WiFi is sufficient to meet demand, and addressing ongoing cybersecurity concerns. In addition to infrastructure and hardware initiatives, some districts have completely moved away from the traditional textbook to comprehensive digital curriculum. Individually, initiatives mentioned above have merits and come with their own challenges, but all of them should eventually come down to how it will improve learner outcomes, not on standardize, annual assessments but rather how the individual becomes an owner of their learning and how that translates to the workforce and life or higher education. This value-added concept is challenging to measure but listening to the voice of the learner can and should be part of the feedback loop and not be discounted. Oftentimes, the first step in gauging customer satisfaction is listening to their experience, both the good and the bad. In public education, another good measurement of customer satisfaction falls along the line of being a repeat customer; in other words, if they return for the next school year then there is some degree of satisfaction.
As a result of school choice movements throughout the United States, a good argument can be made that students and their families are now fully empowered customers as opposed to the past when families were zoned for specific schools with limited education choice short of private schools. If public education, in general, and more specifically I.T. is to meet the needs of our customers, then we must find and build relationship channels to ensure those needs are being met and that when they aren’t we can make appropriate adjustments. CIOs and CTOs can build these necessary relationships by ongoing school visits that take a deeper dive by getting into the classroom and listening to both students and employees. In fact, it may be more appropriate to say that CIOs and CTOs should listen to “learners” in the organization considering that all individuals in the organization should be “learners”, including CXOs!.
On a recent visit to several elementary and secondary schools one observation stood out when student were using devices. Elementary students were comfortable with touchscreen devices while secondary students were more inclined to use keyboards. This points to the need for a variation of devices that are both age and generation appropriate to the customer. Yet there was one commonality at all levels, learners were generally comfortable with using technology to support their quest for information. In most cases, students were working in teams of 3 or 4 and engaged in discussion about their project.
Another recent example of the value of customer voice was a project to rethink high school. This year long project had multiple feedback loops, including individuals from all areas of the organization. Some of the most intriguing and valuable ideas came from the student voice. A number of students were engaged in the project and met on a regular basis throughout the project. They joined the project with some amazing ideas that grew stronger as concepts were broadened by partnering students with educators and local business partners. Without going into much detail, the point here is that if we are interested in improving education we often turn to our peers but rarely turn to the customer, our students. They indeed have unique and valuable insights on how we can join in improvement efforts for public education as a whole.
CIOs and CTOs must be action-oriented individuals and they are given a great opportunity to ensure technology is available as a tool within the organization. We do so by empowering our teams and by connecting with our customers. Possibly the most exciting part of our jobs is understanding that the mission is to support each individual customer’s journey as a learner throughout life. In public education this opportunity is available on a daily basis to the CIO/CTO who is willing to engage, and seeks to build relationships. The first step to building valued and meaningful relationships is to listen!