Tim Goree

Connecting Seemingly Unrelated Things

Christian, Husband, Dad, Chief EduTechie, Ordained Deacon, Gamer, CUE Rock Star Admin Faculty, and FSUSD Classified Administrator of the Year

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When Timing Made All the Difference

 

Which question would you rather principals ask?

1. What technology can I buy for my school with the money I have left in my budget?

2. What technology will fit best with the instructional themes and goals of my school?

Number 2 is more often the question I get from principals now in the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, but a few years ago number 1 was the norm. I’d like to be able to say that I meant for this to happen, but honesty should prevail. This was a happy accident.

We were searching for a way to simultaneously solve 2 problems as we began purchasing and deploying large amounts of student devices across 30 schools.

Problem 1: Technology service response times and resolutions slowed to a crawl at the beginning of the school year (August and September) and got worse as our ingrained educational culture cried out for first time 1:1 student device implementations to happen at the beginning of the school year as well.

Problem 2: Teachers needed to experience 1:1 student devices for the first time in their classrooms when the pressure was off and they had already established a good rapport with their students, so they could be more flexible as they inevitably realize how drastically the classroom changes when students have that access.

To resolve both problems, we created a new technology purchasing deadline at the end of January every year. If principals put their orders in before the end of January, we implement in March. If they miss the deadline and make orders between February 1 and the regular purchasing deadline, which is May 15 for us, we implement in October.

The result has been powerful. Our 1:1 implementations have been some of the smoothest of any school district, with incredibly well-prepared teachers and excellent technology support for classrooms. By the time school starts in August after a successful first time 1:1 implementation in March, teachers have had the summer to consider the changes they saw in their classrooms and plan appropriately, making the start of the school year with devices a normal process.

Smooth implementations and well-prepared teachers translate into extraordinarily high technology usage rates. It’s not uncommon for us to see over 10,000 of our 15,000 devices on the network at the same time. We use more Internet bandwidth than districts 3 times our size. Over the last 3 years, our teachers have reported the speed of our technology support has been cut in half and the quality of our technology support has nearly doubled.

The unexpected result of principals thinking more strategically about their technology purchases has been a bonus that moves me from happy to downright giddy!








 

What Keeps a K-12 CTO Up at Night

Recently, I was asked, "What are the top three pressing concerns facing Chief Technology Officers in today's K-12 education environment?" I thought it was an interesting question, especially for those who might be interested in delving into this kind of career. The three came easy for me, and none of them are particularly technical.

Digital Citizenship

I believe students have the right to access the knowledge of the world and modern tools that help them create, communicate, and collaborate. As we create 1:1 device environments for students in pursuit of this belief, we also encounter a moral problem that we must address. We can put technological filters in place, but we can't completely protect students all the time from the danger on the Internet. We have an obligation to make sure that we are building the filter in students' minds through proper Digital Citizenship professional development and curriculum integration for staff, parents, and students. This is a huge challenge as staff will often view the integration of these concepts as one more thing that they must do with insufficient time. We've addressed these issues in our district by creating an environment in which schools earn greater access to Internet services (like YouTube for students and Pandora for staff) that they want by completing our Digital Citizenship Checklist every year.

Ongoing Budget Needs

Schools have been accustomed to purchasing technology with one-time money and categorical funds, but that's not a sustainable practice for the future. CTOs must convince their superintendents, CBOs, and boards that the technology supporting the core curriculum represents ongoing expenditures that need to come from the general fund. The convincing starts with a realization that core student technology is no longer an add-on to the classroom, but a utility (like electricity) that we must purchase in a sustainable way. It's the CTO's job to cast this vision, connect all of their thinking to educational outcomes, and show the organization how it is functionally possible.

Creating Sustainable, Supportable, and Flexible Environments

Many school CTOs are hanging on the idea that the only way to have a supportable install base of devices is to have a standardized install base of devices, where all or most of the devices are the same. However, this is an IT-centric way of thinking, not a student-centric way of thinking. We must have technology environments that support great flexibility to accomplish educational goals, and this is a huge challenge for CTOs. At the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, we've created an extremely flexible environment that allows principals to drive the educational vision of their school and pursue the technology that best fits that vision in a supportable and sustainable way. Through a mix of visionary leadership and innovative ideas, we do things that other districts think are impossible, or at least extremely inconvenient! The biggest challenge in this area for the near future, however, is making our physical spaces more flexible as well, and for most districts, this can only truly be accomplished over many years with the help of general obligation bonds and parcel taxes.

More than Just the Core

As published on the Acer Education Blog...

It’s difficult to find an educational technology professional today who isn't thinking hard about the coming national online assessment initiatives. Like many, my natural inclination, when faced with the kind of operational challenges that these initiatives present, is to ask questions like:

What kinds of devices will work with the new program?
What are the minimum specifications of these devices?
What is the minimum number of devices per school needed to accomplish the goal?
How much bandwidth per device will be needed for proper operation of the program?
What network ports and websites will need to be accessible for the program to work?
When does all of this need to be done?

Armed with the answers to these questions, I, the illustrious technology leader, can calculate the minimum requirements for success, put a price tag on it, and present the plan to the rest of the organization. Done deal! Where are we going for lunch?

Not so fast. We don’t have solid answers to most of the questions above yet. Furthermore, it is becoming apparent to most that the answers that we need won’t come in time to complete the work that will need to be done. Take for example the push and pull between the number of devices “needed” at a particular school to achieve the minimum, and the number of devices that would be ideal. Allowing a 6 week testing window at a particular school can provide a fairly low minimum number of devices required, but is it fair and equitable to have some students test more than 5 weeks earlier than others? How does a principal decide which students will test earlier than others? There are some real concerns here that fall outside the realm of technology, but greatly affect what educational technologists must do to achieve the goal.

While it makes a lot of sense for districts to be focusing on Common Core and the new testing initiatives, I wonder if the technology departments inside those districts are making a grave mistake by focusing on the minimum requirements of those same initiatives. While these initiatives are important (and daunting), shouldn't we be elevating the conversation? Don’t we aspire to much more than just enabling technology-based testing?

It seems to me that we should be looking for all encompassing ways to achieve technology-enabled learning, and testing should be just one part of that larger picture. If we aim at the minimum standard for enabling technology-based testing and miss the mark, we’re left with nothing. If we aim at achieving a high level of technology-enabled learning within the time-frame that we've been given for enabling technology-based testing, we’re much more likely to be successful.

The process that I’m referring to will look different for every school and district, but it will likely have some common elements. For the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, it starts with comprehensive surveys directed at administrators, teachers, parents, and students (delivered by Clarity from brightBytes.net). These surveys will give us data that can help determine what types of technology-enabled learning initiatives might be most successful at each individual school as well as how prepared the school currently is to successfully implement. Our technology department is also working directly with each principal to start small pilot programs at their schools that run the gamut of 1:1, BYOD, a hybrid of the two, and teacher device programs. Devices that we are using with students and teachers also vary, including iPads, Android Tablets, netbooks, and laptops, depending on the applications and instructional needs.

As the planning and implementation progresses, we are simply ensuring that the work being done is compatible with our view of what will be needed to enable technology-based testing and the Common Core. As a technology department, our focus is not on the testing, but we recognize it as one required component of what we are focusing on: technology enabled learning.

To help other educational technology leaders also elevate the conversation in their districts from the minimum requirements of technology-based testing to a high level of technology-enabled learning, CETPA (California Educational Technology Professionals Association) will be conducting a one day conference in May, 2013, focused on “More than Just the Core” in San Jose, CA. Until then, my hope is that we can begin the conversation via social networking and other educational technology events!

The Big Picture

As published in the DataBus, Winter 2011 Volume 2011 Issue 1...

Years ago, I took a trip to Las Vegas with a good friend and colleague. It was my first visit there, and I had the opportunity to learn a few things about blackjack with a more experienced friend at my side. Before we sat down to play, he asked if I knew the “rules” of the game. My answer, which at the time seemed intelligent to me, sounded like I was a much bigger fan of The Price is Right than of playing cards. You know, get as close as you can to 21 without going over. It’s simple. Right? He blinked, shook his head slightly, and let out a low whistle. He informed me that he would be sitting to my right at the table, and I had no idea why that was significant at the time. 

We sat at the far right side of the table, the cards got dealt, and several hands later I had lost $50. Just then, the dealer indicated that my friend might want to help me improve my game before the rest of the group at the table decided to tar and feather me. I remember glancing up at the four players sitting on my left and noticing for the first time that they didn't look very happy. You see, when a blackjack player starts saying, “Hit me” because it seems like the fun thing to do rather than logically processing the odds of the situation and making a smart play, that player often takes cards that the people to his left may have needed. Pretty soon, the players to the left of that illogical player start perceiving that their hand could have been much better if the lead player to the right was making better decisions. Resentment naturally follows. I had no idea until that moment that sitting on the right side of a blackjack table in Las Vegas was so much like being in charge of an IT department. 

Think about it. 

Have you ever made a decision that turned out to be a real stinker? You know, one of those decisions that created unnecessary work for your organization and had the people around you shaking their heads and grumbling. It happens to everyone at one time or another, but when you work in an IT department, it can’t happen too often or you lose important measures of respect. 

Mutual respect is the glue that holds good IT teams together, and respect is earned by consistently making logical decisions and coming up with elegant solutions to problems. Those who earn a large amount of respect over time within an IT group become that group’s leaders, regardless of their official job title. Those who routinely show poor judgement which results in unnecessary work for others or a loss of forward momentum for the group will often be treated as a cancer, sometimes drawing open hostility, but more likely being quietly cut out of the work flow. These reactions are reasonable attempts by the rest of the IT department to protect the organization at large, and often occur only semi-consciously. 

But, what if you are the IT leader and the group has begun to cut YOU out of the work flow, treating you like a cancer that the organization needs to be protected from? It is extremely difficult for someone to analyze their own decisions and detect faulty reasoning in them. After all, one wouldn't typically make a decision that they actually thought was illogical, right? Fortunately, there is another explanation for why something like this might be happening, so stay tuned. 

I had a boss once whom I greatly respected and admired for his ability to make logical decisions, lead with passion, and see the worth of technology to the future of education in visionary ways. He was not a technical person, but he knew what to do with technology. We created a project together into which our district invested a lot of money and man hours, and at a highly pressurized time in the project, something happened. My boss began to make a habit of being absent from the office regularly without explanation. 

After more than a month of excessive absences, I was really missing his input and direction; and I perceived that the team was suffering because of it. At one point I cornered him in his office, closed the door, and let him have it. I let him know that I had decided that he was making some really bad decisions by being absent so much and that his lack of logic was bringing down the project that we had worked so hard to bring to life. There was a distinct look in his eye that made me wonder if he was about to smack me or simply kick me out of his office. He had every right to tell me that his decisions were none of my business and that I was completely out of line, but his demeanor changed, and he began to explain. It turned out that his absences from the office were due to excessive meetings that required him to defend our project against political opposition. 

Oh, and he also had a brain tumor. 

Suddenly, as the true environment within which he was making decisions became known to me, I realized that what he was doing made perfect sense. I also realized that I was going to need to step up and become more of a leader than I had been in the local office so that he could concentrate on the battles that he was fighting, both personally and on our behalf. That day, my boss completely changed my attitude and direction by simply sharing the big picture with me. 

This is a leadership technique that I highly recommend: share the big picture with your staff on a regular basis. Not because they need to know all of the unrelated information and political wranglings that you encounter when you aren't around them, but because their opinions of your decision-making abilities are affected by their perception of the environment within which your decisions are being made. Their opinion of your decision-making abilities, like it or not, governs the amount of respect your IT employees are willing to give you. In our environment, respect is the currency for getting things done. 

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Tim Goree is the Director of Technology Support Services for the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in Fairfield, California (TimG@fsusd.org). He has 20 years of IT experience, with 14 of those years being specific to education. As a member of the CETPA Board of Directors as well as a leader in the Computer Using Educators organization, Tim is well known for his ability to bring IT staff and educators together ideologically to produce outstanding educational results.