Leading Change: How School District IT Departments are Evolving to Become Technology Evangelists

By Sarah Chou

A report released last year by IDC Government Insights estimated K-12 IT spending to be $4.7 billion dollars with 46% of school districts expecting to increase their technology spending.

The biggest areas of expansion were hardware (46 percent of districts expected to see more in this category) and teacher training (38 percent), while 28 percent of districts were boosting software budgets and 27 percent were increasing tech support over the previous year.

With so much money going into supporting technology initiatives, school administrators are rethinking the role of their internal IT staff to ensure they are able to maximize their investment and get the most out of their IT spend.

These changes are affecting IT departments from the top down in profound ways.

At the CIO level, many districts are rethinking the role to ensure greater alignment with district strategy. As Tim Harper, CIO of Seminole County Public Schools recently wrote in CIOReview, “The new role of the public education CIO is twofold; 1) building relationships to bridge the gap between the traditional operational functions of IT and those of instructional units within the organization, and 2) fostering a mindset that recognizes technology as a direct-connect tool for learners and educators to information and creativity beyond the physical classroom.”

In the article, Harper notes that the role of CIOs and IT departments in K-12 has shifted from ensuring network and systems availability to a multitude of areas that cross both operational and instructional lines within the organization.

Nowhere is this shift for the IT department more critical than when school districts engage with outside technology vendors to deliver improved services to students, parents and staff.

IT staff are evolving from just being the technology gatekeepers to being the technology enablers that help address the business needs of each department within a school district.

Just as new technology helps teachers adapt their instructional techniques from being the“sage on the stage” to being the “guide on the side” the introduction of outside technology presents an opportunity for IT administrators to take on a role of ensuring technology is applied strategically to help meet the district’s objectives. This shift in how IT staff are utilized presents new opportunities for staff, and could lead to greater adoption and ROI on district technology spend.

One example of how a school district’s IT staff has helped to lead change in how administrative processes are managed is San Ramon Valley USD in Contra Costa County, California.

The district had long struggled with managing its administrative paperwork processes across departments. Until recently, for many of their internal processes, including new teacher hiring packets, the district still relied on paper forms to be filled out by staff and sent manually to administration for approval. The process was time-consuming, and often resulted in incomplete or inaccurate information appearing on records.

Many of the staff within the district recognized that modernizing their processes through automation would help improve operational efficiency and streamline workflow, but they lacked someone that could own this project and ensure alignment across departments. That is, until they hired Jocelyn Hillis.

As the district’s new Information Systems Technician and Trainer, Hillis was tasked with helping to solve the district’s paperwork problem.  However, while she knew technology would be part of the solution, she viewed her role as one that would not only introduce new technology but one where she helped lead systemic change to improve how the district operates.

According to Hillis, one of the keys to leading change management with a major IT initiative is to listen to stakeholders. She notes, “Change isn’t easy and moving things to a digital world can be resisted heavily due to fears and insecurity. Listening is the first key to unlocking an objection. Once you find out what the main concern is you can work to resolve it and minimize aversion to change.”

When it comes to change management, Hillis recommends:

  1. Getting key stakeholders on board with change and securing executive support. This includes understanding their fears and potential objections, and ensuring that initiatives are aligned closely to other priorities within the district.
  2. Gathering process requirements from end-users and designing new processes collaboratively with them. Hillis believes strongly in a participatory process where stakeholders are involved in helping to design processes and then given time to provide feedback.
  3. Introducing new processes slowly to allow for additional feedback and continuous improvement. Critical to this step is understanding what milestones you want to achieve and then communicating clearly to the district when and how you expect to meet them.

”I spent a lot of time with each stakeholder to really understand the problems they were trying to solve and get their buy-in for trying something new. After I got a sense of what each department valued, I worked with them to identify their top priority processes and pain points,” notes Hillis.

She then looked at requirements across departments to see if she could identify any patterns. Where there was a pervasive need, she would prioritize that to make sure she addressed the biggest issues for each. This also helped when relaying feedback to the vendor as it ensured that information was flowing in an organized and coordinated manner.

In addition to requirements gathering, Hillis finds that the success of any initiative involves having well-trained champions within each department that can help usher in the new changes and ensure their success.

She adds, “Having come from a corporate training background, I knew the importance of making sure we kept things interactive, so I took a train-the-trainer approach. One of the first things I did after spending a lot of time training myself and making sure I understood the product, was finding my power users in each department. I knew that if I could get them on board that it would be easier to get this adopted across departments.”

Lastly, Hillis wanted to make sure that once the new technology was implemented people within the district were aware of the new procedures so that it would actually get used. “This required consistent outreach to my key stakeholders to make sure they got any of their questions answered in a timely manner,” said Hillis.

What was the end result of Hillis’ efforts in leading change within her district? Greater productivity and satisfaction amongst district staff.

In HR, where the new digital forms were first introduced, one certified HR assistant had this to say, “The most impactful benefit we’ve seen is the reduction of time we need to commit to new hire onboarding appointments. Prior to digitizing our hiring packet, we would need to block 60-90 minutes for each new hire to complete that paperwork as well as other hiring requirements. This year we’re spending only 10-15 minutes with each new hire, reviewing their documents and acquiring a few ink signatures. It has literally been life-changing – we have reclaimed hundreds of hours in our department alone. I’m a digital fan!”

Today’s IT administrator wears many hats within a school district whether that be maintaining hardware or infrastructure, managing projects or putting out fires. The emergence of outside technology and the increase in technology spending has made the role of IT even more important in ensuring that districts get the most out of their IT investment. However, beyond ROI, empowering IT staff to take on roles like this helps connect them more to the mission of the school district and gain a better understanding of how they can support each function within the institution.

For more, see:

Sarah Chou is co-founder and CEO of Informed K12. Connect with them on Twitter: @informedk12

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