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How to make technology and academics play nice

There’s pulling double-duty and then there’s Matt Townsley.

The former math teacher doubles as director of technology and director of instruction for the Solon Community School District in Iowa. He’s a veritable one-man band, equal parts chief technology officer (CTO) and chief academic officer (CAO).

“I’m the one who sets the budget, who sets the policy for both technology and instruction,” Townsley told Education Week for a story on the relationships between the two. “It’s a bit dictator-like, but I like it.”

Townsley is one of a growing number of school administrators filling dual academic and technology leadership roles. The trend is especially popular in small, rural districts that need to consolidate staff and conserve resources. In other districts, the approach serves as a way to stem escalating tensions between school departments.

A source of tension
Whether you work in a small rural county or a large city, technology will play an integral role in the future of your school district. A recent nationwide poll conducted by Ed Week found that 93 percent of teachers already use technology in some part of their classroom instruction.

But how technology gets integrated, and when, is often a source of tension between CTOs and CAOs, says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit representing school technology leaders.

A few reasons why:

  • Tech philosophy. While CAOs generally want to provide access to all possible tools that teachers request, CTOs want to make sure digital tools are standardized, secure, and work with other platforms.
  • Budget strategy. CTOs often want full digital integration, while CAOs like to put some budget money aside for traditional learning materials, such as textbooks.
  • Many hats. CAOs and CTOs often have duties that extend beyond learning and technology strategy, making it more difficult for them to find time to collaborate and solve problems.
  • Traditional silos. As collaborative as these positions have become, many school-based academic and technology leaders are used to making decisions on their own. EdWeek cites an annual survey of CoSN members in which school technology directors singled out departmental “silos” as a main impediment to their work.

Break the silos
Say you don’t have a Matt Townsley on staff. What steps can you take to improve communication between the academic and technology departments?

The obvious answer is to encourage more collaboration. But telling people to play nice isn’t exactly a solution.

You need to take a strategic mindset. That approach starts with creating a culture, not in select departments, but districtwide.

“It’s got to start with those one-on-one conversations, and relationship-building,” Houston Independent School District CAO Andrew Houlihan told Ed Week. It requires “having a coherent structure in place at the central office level. It can’t rest on one or two departments. It has to be across the board.”

The need for that kind of holistic collaboration doesn’t stop with employees. It extends outward, into the broader school community. If you’re integrating new classroom technologies, consider asking parents and students what they think. Develop a plan that draws on that feedback. Then, get your CAO and CTO and the members of their respective teams in a room to hash out a common strategy.

Are you planning a major technology implementation in your district? How do you engage your community in the decision-making process? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for a way to invite community input on major technology decisions? Here’s one way to give your community a voice.