Designing smart education networks remains one of the biggest challenges for today’s CTOs. As schools continue to add devices to school networks and rely more and more on network resources, CTOs have to find ways to support the increasing demands of digital learning and today’s 21st century classrooms.
In a panel session at CoSN 2015, Marie Bjerede, founder of e-Mergents, said K-12 schools are “looking at doubling their network capacity every 18 months.” That’s no easy task, especially since the expectation is that this work will be completed with zero downtime.
“An hour of downtime or a day of downtime is a big deal,” Bjerede said.
Bjerede served as the moderator of a 60-minute panel session called “Designing Smart Education Networks.” She was joined by Bob Collie, CTO, Education Networks of America, Phil Emer, director of Technology Planning and Policy at The Friday Institute at North Carolina State University, Frankie Jackson, CTO and assistant superintendent, Cypress Fairbanks ISD, and Kevin Schwartz, CTO, Clear Creek ISD.
The panelists said the most important considerations when building “transformational networks” is how you’re going to pay for it, mindset and planning for ongoing support.
“One of the most important things people can do is know where they want to be in 3-5 years from now,” Collie said.
CTOs don’t necessarily need to know how they will get there, but they do need to have an idea of what the future will look like and what the district’s goals are in terms of learning and technology. Understanding a school’s wiring infrastructure is an important detail for a CTO, according to Emer. If the proper wiring is not in place, schools will not be able to support new technologies as they continue to advance. It’s also important to remember that creating the right network design and then actually implementing it is a multi-year project. Communicating that to district stakeholders, especially administrators and the school board, isn’t always easy.
“There’s a gap in understanding of these things. We need to talk more, not less,” Schwartz said. Technology leaders need to consistently keep stakeholders in the loop when it comes to planning and implementation.
Frankie Jackson offered up an example from her own district, Cypress Fairbanks ISD, which took on a project to implement technology that was the “best of breed.” This involves integrating a number of technologies, some of which are provided by competing vendors. The district passed a bond as part of the funding. Jackson said one of her biggest challenges was “communicating to principals, leaders and staff that, yes, we passed a huge bond, but results will not be immediate.” The complexity of the project means it will take time.
Not only are CTOs required to be effective communicators, they’re often called upon to act as financial advisors in a sense. They need to consider smart funding options and think about the best way to spend district money. Emer said one of the mistakes he often sees is that schools use 20-year bonds to pay for technology that has a life of about six years. One example that was tossed around was a school that used a 20-year bond to pay for iPads. The panelists debated about the merits of that decision, but most seemed to agree they would be cautious about following suit.
The panelists were also in agreement that the team a district puts together is a large determinant of success. There will always be challenges with every ed-tech initiative. Those challenges don’t necessarily determine success or failure.
“It’s how well you build a team around it,” Schwartz said. “If they cut and run, you’re going to fail. You will encounter problems. It’s how you respond to them.”