Guest Contributor: Dean Folkers, CIO, Nebraska DOE

In my experience as CIO of the Nebraska Department of Education, approaches to leadership in educational technology and data management/usage vary widely among agencies nationwide. Some emphasize a narrowly-focused administration of IT, while others assume broad strategic leadership roles. Most commonly, though, I see some combination of roles and responsibilities – a combination that impacts nearly every aspect of the agency’s initiatives, programs and operations.

Education CIOs and others in similar leadership positions stand firmly in the eye of the storm of decisions whirling through their organizations. Not only must they coordinate the various instructional tools that support a personalized or blended learning environment, but they must also connect the data from those tools with various operational systems, from food service to transportation.

A recent Market Pulse white paper made some points that I found extremely interesting and relevant. This paper, “CIOs at a Technology and Cultural Crossroads,” describes the need for companies to view IT as a full partner in driving business strategies, contributing to the big picture, rather than simply focusing on daily data-sharing headaches. I see direct parallels between the challenges faced by the corporate world and many of the challenges facing education CIOs – challenges that the Ed-Fi community and Ed-Fi technology can help solve.

As educators, administrators and other staff make use of more and more proprietary systems to handle tasks, the IT leaders are charged with making all these systems work together. This has CIOs scrambling around “putting out fires” instead of contributing to high-level technology strategies, initiatives and guidance. The hunger for new apps and tools versus the need for global availability of data can create tension, to say the least.

If you’re at center of this delicate balancing act, forging strong relationships with instructional and program staff will help reduce unnecessary burdens while supporting the effective and appropriate use of data. Effective communication between technical leadership and instructional staff can pay big dividends. Allow me to suggest four helpful strategies:

  1. Be proactive and establish a direct line of communication. Think ahead and prepare talking points that can serve as a quick way to align on important topics in passing.
  2. Be transparent and explain the strategic thinking behind decisions and actions of your team in order to build rapport and trust.
  3. Listen carefully and understand others’ motivations. The lines between business leadership and technology leadership functions have grown blurred. Education CIOs must try to think like teachers and administrators who use the technology, while users must think in terms of broader, more long-term technological solution to their needs. Find common ground on goals for improving student achievement that all parties can get behind.
  4. Identify opportunities to evaluate business relationships and make adjustments that can strengthen communication. Milestones, obstacles, and challenges serve as an ideal checkpoint for this exercise.

I think it’s important to note that third-party solutions can free CIOs and IT executives from tedious maintenance issues so they can focus on high-level strategies. The Ed-Fi data standard and technology suite can greatly facilitate data sharing across multiple functions and operations, giving CIOs more time to spend on genuine leadership and innovation. This unified framework scales easily across a wide range of data applications, helping CIOs better serve their “customers,” regardless of which apps are being used. Many business CIOs are now integrating and coordinating data systems, as opposed to creating them from scratch. Ed-Fi technology makes that possible by giving education CIOs a “ready-made” solution.

In my opinion, we need to arm CIOs with an integrated, scalable, standardized data infrastructure that makes it easy for every educator to get the very best out of their students – exactly the sort of thing that the Ed-Fi Alliance strives to achieve. By combining these keys with strong business relationships among technical and instructional staff, we can all make a tremendous step toward that goal.