How these 4 IT leaders are driving classroom innovation and guiding their districts through edtech

Since the pandemic, education technology has only grown to become one of the most important drivers for student engagement and learning. It forced many schools to adopt 1:1 models, incorporate remote learning strategies and consider the seemingly endless options of edtech providers. However, it’s not the sole solution for addressing student achievement. As one chief information officer puts it, the student has to come first, not the technology.

“Edtech’s function is to support student learning, not to drive it,” says Allison Reid, interim chief technology officer and senior director of digital learning and libraries for the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina. “Standards and student needs should drive it. Edtech is a tool that supports it.”

In a district as large as WCPSS, she adds, it’s important first to understand the goal they’re trying to achieve and then evaluate options to augment student learning and support academics through edtech.

“We begin with, ‘What standard are you trying to teach?,’ or ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’ And then, ‘Do I have tools in my arsenal?’, because technology’s not the right tool for everything. Sometimes the right solution is to sit down with somebody and have a conversation. It’s highly un-technical.”

Sometimes—in fact many times—technology can enhance outcomes, she notes. But if schools simply rely on finding a tech solution instead of a solution, they may unintentionally create barriers for some students.

But she doesn’t understate the importance of edtech, and neither does Valerie Summerlot, senior manager of professional learning at Indianapolis Public Schools, who says they’ve built an environment that allows edtech to blossom.

“The digital strategy team that I’m a part of has really worked hard to lay the groundwork for infrastructures and processes to be developed so that edtech can thrive,” she says.

At the start of the pandemic, IPS had to move to 1:1 out of necessity, forcing everyone to “learn on the go,” she adds.

“But because the groundwork’s been laid since then, edtech has moved from a reactionary to a proactive-type role,” Summerlot says. “We now have teachers passionate about edtech.”

Valerie Summerlot on IPS’ edtech teacher leadership initiative

Amy Alvis, senior manager of educational technology at IPS, also says the district is still in the early stages of utilizing edtech to its fullest potential.

“I’ve been in charge of our LMS for seven years and it wasn’t until Covid hit that everyone started using it,” she says. “I would say we’re probably in our infancy with it.”

However, the pandemic wasn’t the only thing that drove change and innovation through edtech in schools. It took advocacy and careful leadership to ensure all stakeholders knew just how essential it is for academics.

“We must work with curriculum to ensure we are meeting the level of depth needed,” says Darlene Rankin, director of instructional technology at Katy Independent School District in Texas. “That has been—and will continue to be—a focus to ensure. Edtech needs to be seen not as bells and whistles or ‘fun,’ but in a way that allows our students to portray their ideas through podcasts or show what they know through a video, or gain that quick feedback needed through the other tools that we have.”

Rankin is also a member of an AI advisory board created by SAFARI Montage that is looking into artificial intelligence and its use in schools.

“I have brought that work back to my district in order for us to write our own understandings on how this tool should be leveraged for good,” she says.

Technology leaders also serve as translators, as is the case with Reid, who says it’s her job to help others understand technology so that they can make sound decisions for themselves without making things too complex. As a leader, it’s important to explain priorities in both directions from educators to those at the cabinet level.

As far as edtech tools go, effectiveness depends on the district, and more importantly, the student using it. To name a few, tools like Canvas, Seesaw, SMART interactive boards, NearPod, Kahoot!, Google Suite, Schoology Learning and GoGuardian are just a handful of some of the most impactful tools used in these three districts.

In IPS, according to Summerlot, part of their mission to provide safe, effective learning through some of these edtech tools starts with ensuring that best practices surrounding cybersecurity are in place.

“The groundwork that digital strategy has worked on has been with a focus on cybersecurity and making sure our teachers and student have a safe environment to explore and learn more about edtech,” she says. “GoGuardian has been really beneficial for us, but also just that foundation of teaching students about cybersecurity, and even teachers because it’s not something that we really had to deal with like phishing attacks and all of the different things we deal with nowadays.”

As for the upcoming school year and beyond, the overwhelming consensus among these leaders is that they’re simply excited. Their district’s involvement and engagement with edtech has seen steady growth since the pandemic, and there are no signs of it slowing down.

In Katy ISD, for instance, they’re using the summer break to create opportunities for students and the district itself.

“Students want to go to our Miller Career Center to take Vet Tech, Cosmetology, Culinary Arts, Cisco Cert, Cybersecurity, Auto Tech, to name a few,” she says. “Katy ISD wants to give students multiple opportunities to explore and fulfill the students’ goals.”

“We work closely with curriculum and Kary ISD teachers to create and teach our own courses,” she adds. “We will continue to create and develop more courses—it especially helps with teacher shortages. This past year for the first time we had teacher shortages in computer science. We already had this course developed and ready to go and our current CS teachers were able to fulfill the need at the two high school campuses that were not able to secure a high school teacher.”

As for IPS, both Alvis and Summerlot say they’re eager to support and expand their edtech teacher leadership initiative with hopes to have at least one leader in every school building across the district.

“Next year, we’re going to have edtech teacher leaders at 13 of our schools and their extra role for the year is to work directly with teachers in their buildings on increasing technology integration,” Alvis says. “I’m one person, so I can’t get to our almost 70 schools. To be able to have these teacher leadership roles I think is going to be huge for our district.”

Over in WCPSS, Reid says she’s excited about one thing: streamlining. Starting July 1, the district is navigating to Canvas as the sole LMS in the district as they steer away from Google Classroom.

“Google Classroom is not a full-blown LMS. It doesn’t profess to be,” she says.

After two years of setting the stage through professional development migration instructions, she says they’re finally ready to make the transition, which she believes will pay off immensely.

“We’ve created a runway not just for staff, but also for parents to explain the parent portal, the fact that the grades will sync—that’s such a timesaver for teachers—it’s a good communication tool for parents,” she says. “As for administration, they can see oversight for all the things that are going out to their whole school that we couldn’t see in Google Classroom.”

“With the whole district on one system, we’re finally going to have some of that alignment that I really think is going to move the needle in terms of providing more efficiency for teachers. If I can give a teacher back time, that’s huge. If I can give administrators oversight and time and the ability to look in without being overbearing, I can increase accountability and improve equity outcomes for teachers and for students. I can push the right updated materials to all teachers, and they can still customize it. I’m not taking away autonomy, I’m giving them all a level-set starting point.”