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Former CIO's Insights: Learning from COVID for School CIOs

Former Oakland and Seattle CIO says COVID is retooling the school experience with a focus on service

When I opened my K-12 technology practice, Tech Reformers, in 2019, I was coming off nearly 10 years as the technology leader at three large urban districts: Fremont and Oakland, both in California and Seattle. I left Seattle near the end of 2019.

Four months later, COVID hit. 

In many ways, I still think of myself as a school CIO. I’ll probably never stop thinking that way and that helps me in my practice. Perhaps that’s why I now find myself thinking of my colleagues in districts and how my role in any of those places might’ve changed amid the events of the last year.

Teaching and learning is the focus for IT directors. That focus has only grown with COVID. As schools ship hundreds of thousands of laptops and tablets home, connectivity and security are paramount. Yet, to me, instructional delivery hardly feels like the biggest change. Most of us were already facilitating some version of digital learning prior to the pandemic. Though not at this scale! Nevertheless, the bigger change, at least for me as I help districts across the West, came from beyond the virtual classroom, to something I call simply, “the experience.”

I’m referring specifically to the countless decisions that school leaders have had to make about issues big and small. Are we responding quickly to a student with an issue? Have parents picked up food for students? Is a teacher’s issue being resolved? If parents have questions, do they have a way to ask them? How does a student get tech help? How do we connect with our stakeholders, either for learning or other purposes, when we’re sitting at dining room tables and in bedrooms and libraries, miles apart? What is that experience like? And how do we ensure that it is organized to provide the kind of value and engagement that our communities, including families and teachers and staff, both deserve and demand? More importantly, how do we use data to measure effectiveness and ensure a more consistent and equitable experience for every staff member, student, and family?

For the first time, every single department in a school system is 100% reliant on the connectivity, collaboration, services, and security provided through technology. It’s digital transformation at warpspeed. The pace of change is moving school IT departments out of the back office and onto center stage – with a spotlight on the CIO/CTO/Director. And it requires us to be at our absolute professional best.

The arrival of a vaccine and the continued re-opening of physical school buildings isn’t likely to reverse  the high-profile trajectory of our jobs. If anything, it will make our work even more visible. The old internal helpdesk will become both internal and external. Where staff used to submit tickets for help with connectivity or hardware or passwords, entire communities, including students and parents, will submit tickets for a range of issues, from help delivering instructional technology to meal delivery to transportation to physical safety. Are IT leaders prepared to deliver these same systems and services at scale across every department? Assuming we can meet the demand, can we guarantee the same level of support, responsiveness and care to every stakeholder?

As an IT leader, I can still remember fielding questions from stakeholders asking why they had to open service tickets at all. Internally, we needed a reliable way to track problems and repairs at scale. We wanted a system, so that we could offer a high level of service. We wanted data so that we could identify patterns and improve. Ironically, your internal helpdesk is probably the least of your problems right now. With so many devices out there in your local communities, your external stakeholders need you just as much, if not more than teachers and staff. It doesn’t help that your budgets probably have not increased in proportion to the rising demand. You almost certainly can’t hire more people. Which is precisely why we need the right systems and technology more than ever.

So, how does this change our role as IT leaders? For one, it expands it. Yes, we’re still responsible for making technology work and ensuring connectivity and security and uptime. But we’re also in the front-facing customer service game. The pressure is on to ensure that all stakeholders, internal and external, have access to the tools and resources they need, from wherever they are. Recent research shows that support ticket volumes in schools are three times what they were prior to the pandemic.

Check out the chart below from a sample of more than 500 school districts.


Source: K12 Insight 

As school buildings reopen, the number of inbound inquiries into schools shows no signs of slowing down. 

In one of the large urban districts where I served as CTO, a member of the HR team came to me. They wanted IT to create a system whereby employees — teachers and staff — could get the same level of customer service that the technology department was providing through its helpdesk system. At another district, the communications department came to me with a similar ask for the superintendent’s office — essentially, “John, how can we get what you’ve got?”

In both departments, the need was the same: My colleagues wanted to provide a customer experience that was consistent, predictable and efficient. Have you reached out to your colleagues in human resources or transportation or student services or operations to see if they need help with their customer experience?

There are at least three non-negotiables to this work.

#1 Omni-channel inputs

For one, an omni-channel system is a must. Your stakeholders need to feel like they can reach you through the channels they’re comfortable using, while your staff need to be able to respond using those same channels. This could be a webform. It could be an email. Or a text message. Or a phone call. Or even social media. What matters is that the system works.

#2 Automation & workflows

Second, you need to provide automation and workflows. If a ticket comes in, you need a system to quickly distribute it, so that the person closest to the problem (or the one with the relationship) is the one providing the solution. Put a clock on it, so that you can effectively set expectations with your stakeholders around how long tickets should take to resolve.  

#3 Real-time dashboard reporting

Third, and perhaps most important, you need  some form of dashboard, a real-time read-out to help identify and prioritize potential issues, track progress and measure the impact of your service management efforts.

If some of this sounds familiar, it should. Many of the same principles mentioned here are part of the same ITSM framework that our internal IT teams have sworn by  for years, in building out processes, from helpdesk operations to ticketing functions. We’re simply expanding on that logic to explore how ITSM can be applied at scale to the benefit of other departments within the K-12 enterprise.

Of course, we also realize that schools are not businesses. They have a very unique set of needs and a cyclical pattern of activities that ebbs and flows in coordination with specific events. All the more reason to have a system and a process to provide targeted support and improve the experience, whether that focus is around testing, back to school, or re-opening physical school buildings and coordinating distance learning in the wake of a global pandemic.

If you’re looking for ideas on how you can add value to your colleagues in other departments, please join me and guest Derek Moore, CTO at Palo Alto Unified in Calif., March 18 at 2 pm EST for a candid conversation. We’ll talk about these challenges and share strategies specific to K-12 IT leaders. Plus, address your questions. Hope to see you there. Register here.