The early 1990’s were enormous growth years for instructional/educational technology in the K12 public education space. It was very common to see a math or science teacher leading the efforts as the Supervisor of Information Technology (IT). It made sense – computers were about numbers and doing “science” stuff. Who better to lead the effort? But, like so many areas in public education, using educators for non-instructional endeavors does not always lead to the best outcome. Educators are great at educating students just as in baseball; power hitters are great at hitting home runs. But, they are not necessarily the best choice for laying down a bunt or stealing a base.
Today, technology in education is an enterprise IT operation. It demands IT professionals to lead and staff this complex function. So, while the days of moving a great math or science teacher into the leadership position in the K12 technology operation have passed (for the most part), there still exists a reluctance to fully embrace IT in public education for what it really is – an integral instructional AND business function that requires expertise of trained IT professionals.
Public education is not always the best place to see examples of optimal business and management practices in action. The argument is often made that education is not a business and therefore, cannot be run like a business. While it is true that the instructional aspects are quite unique, the same principles can be applied from an operational standpoint. Public education is best served by insuring that qualified experts lead the relevant professional disciplines.
Over the last 50 years in the United States we witnessed the evolution of a manufacturing base that has segued into a services dominant economy. The differences between the two are significant but it does not alter the need for the adaptation of solid management techniques to the specific needs of these evolved industries. The fact is, student learning is the product of public education. Education principles related to instruction are distinct and unique to the business of education. It is true that business practices and decisions cannot be allowed to interfere with good instruction. However, as in any endeavor, good business and IT techniques are built as a support mechanism and not the driving force. Technology is a tool to support good instruction and create operational efficiencies. Instruction should never be about technology for the sake of technology. Understanding that IT is a support enterprise in education is exactly why having professional IT is so important.
We witness too often in public education that basic business principles are completely ignored or only marginally understood. The concepts of Return-On-Investment (ROI), total-cost-of-ownership, standardization, and the need for and enforcement of basic procedures are often nonexistent. There are countless examples of huge technology integration projects being implemented without any thought beyond the initial purchase of the “stuff”. Support requirements, maintenance fees, as well as sustainability, through the budgeting of a replacement cycle are often neglected. Utilizing technology appropriately should always start with questions of what the user is trying to accomplish. IT professionals understand the requirements gathering process as well as the development life cycle principles that allow technology to be used and supported to meet the needs of instruction.
“IT in public education is a comprehensive operation that requires expertise in more IT disciplines than the average business enterprise”
IT in public education is a comprehensive operation that requires expertise in more IT disciplines than the average business enterprise. Network engineering skills are unique to create and maintain a Wide-Area- Network (WAN) that spans many square miles at numerous locations. The WAN supports many isolated and unique Local-Area-Networks (LANs) that are segmented for security and traffic purposes. A full–coverage enterprise wireless network operates as an augmentation for both secure and guest networks. At the same time, the network operations are segmented into administrative, instructional, development, test, and business environments. High level network security skills are required due to the stringent standards of federal, state, and local laws and requirements such as FERPA, CIPA, and COPPA. Student data security is also an extremely serious issue that requires professional attention.
Beyond network engineering skills, public education IT require high-end Help Desk operations to support a disparate end-user base that includes faculty, staff, students, parents, and the general public. The Help Desk function includes everything from basic hardware and application support to the management of replacement cycles and volume licensing. Mission critical enterprise financial systems as well as student information systems require system expertise. Many school systems augment this with their own (or outsourced) full software development operations. The database environment is complex and exists in the multi-faceted environment of administration and instruction. Behind all of these operations are full enterprise Data Centers that are often, beyond large scale business and government operations, the largest and most sophisticated operations in their communities.
A full enterprise IT environment requires IT professionals that are often paid on a salary scale that is commensurate with others in that school system. Comparability of salary is often limited to other school systems rather than the general IT staffing market. This creates enormous challenges with attracting and maintaining qualified and highly competent staff.
The argument is often made that education cannot be handled like a business. While it is true that the instructional aspects are quite unique, the same principles can be applied from an operational standpoint. Again, the fact is that many public school systems house some of the most complex enterprise IT operations with the most widespread requirements of any others in their area. The skill-sets required to operate this environment touch all of the major areas of modern IT. It would serve public education and those government entities that support it to understand this fact and insure that steps are taken to fully staff the IT operation with highly competent IT professionals.