In their words: Instructors describe CeCTO experience

Offered through a partnership between the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, UNC School of Government’s Center for Public Technology and MCNC, the Certified Educational Chief Technology Officer (CeCTO) program is one of the nation’s first technology-centered certification programs for educational technology leaders. This 10-month program helps establish the core competencies IT leaders need in today’s education environment.

Instruction provides invaluable education and training for superintendents and technology directors to effectively use and manage technology in schools. The program features two components – one designed for superintendents and the other for technology directors. Superintendents participate in The Leaders for the 21st Century track – a 20-hour instructional course supplemented with required collaborative sessions with CeCTO candidates. Technology directors participate in 240 hours of instruction.

Currently, there are 13 participants in the 2015 CeCTO program (the fifth cohort since inception).

Shannon Tufts, Assistant Professor of Public Law and Government and Director of UNC School of Government's Center for Public Technology, and Maurice Ferrell, Assistant Director at the Center for Public Technology, provide lead instruction for the course. Shannon designed and implemented the first Local Government CIO Certification program in the nation and continues to run CIO certification programs for local and state government IT professionals. She also created a National Certified Government Chief Information Officer program in 2007 in order to serve the growing needs of public sector IT professionals. Before joining UNC in February 2009, Maurice served as chief information officer at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, Va., and was IT director for the Danville Public School System.

Shannon and Maurice spent a few minutes discussing CeCTO and its success over the last five years …

The program initially was created based on the local government CIO program, correct? How difficult was it to transition from that setting to education technology?

Shannon: To me, it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. Once we got in the first class, we realized how similar both were; they face similar challenges with the same resource constraints, the same lack of understanding of what strategic IT investments are from their leadership, etc. But, being good public servants is the underlying theme that we operate under, and that's how we talk about leadership as a public service. It's surprising how similar the programs actually are because each group has their own set of challenges and the laws are different, but the day-to-day challenges are very comparable except that K-12 supports almost 10 times the amount of employees, students and devices than any other local government I can compare them to.

Maurice: The other part is if we're looking at local government in conjunction with the CeCTO program, I think one of the beauties of it is that we really focus on good, solid technology leadership. Technology is in almost everything we do. From that perspective, it's very similar to the local government group because we're still talking about good technology leadership regardless of what sector they may be in. And, if you use the principles and framework we provide, then you will have a wonderful opportunity to have success.

What has been the biggest surprise in this course?

Maurice: I guess for me the biggest surprise was that there wasn’t a surprise. I was an IT director in the late 90s and the same challenges we faced then as an IT director I still see today as it relates to ensuring the right type of technology is being used to complement instruction and not necessarily having instructional individuals on staff that are capable of vetting those processes. They all know technology is important, but just how do you use it is still a challenge. An interesting thing is that superintendents still see technology as being a silver bullet to solve problems, and it's not. It's important that we give tech directors the leadership skills and the wherewithal to make the best decisions not just from a technical standpoint but from an organizational standpoint. In this sense, we really do try to push the envelope in getting participants to think holistically and not just from a technological standpoint.

Shannon: When I compare CeCTOs to local government or state agencies, we tend to see leadership at the LEA level not understand why technology investments are important or how to be strategic about those investments. It's not the CeCTOs; it’s really the school boards and superintendents. We have some shining examples of those who do great jobs, but by and large they are underinvesting in what I consider to be a holistic, strategic IT approach. This goes back to what Maurice was talking about ... they want the technology and believe it's a silver bullet, so they buy the technology but they don't plan for replacement cycles or they don't plan for training for the teachers on how to use it. It’s the sort of thinking that if we buy it, they'll just figure it out. I would have liked to have seen that change over the last five years, but I don't know if we really have seen that transition really happen in the K-12 space like we have seen in local government. I also think that the expectations placed on CeCTOs now are a bit unrealistic. Most seem to believe the CeCTO is the person who should know everything about anything that involves technology – from the law to training to procurement. We want to make sure we can give CeCTOs a solid toolkit so they can answer questions or at least point people in the right direction.

Does the size of school district matter?

Shannon: I don't think size matters as much as maybe what type of training they've had, where they come from and if they have been in the classroom and then gone into administration ... those are amazing assets in my opinion because they understand what it means to be an instructor.

Maurice: I agree with Shannon and add that a lot of times the profile for the K-12 technology leader is very interesting ... some were media center specialists, some maybe were technology classroom teachers, some were principals, and then we have those who come from the private sector with a technology background. So, you really run the gamut on how some actually became a technology leader in schools. And, that brings in a different level of understanding of what it takes to organizationally lead a technology department. To me, that's a challenge in the class, but that is still the same as it was coming into this as a technology director.

Shannon: More positively, I would add that some of the more creative ideas are coming from the K-12 space today. It's exciting to see in particular how many are sharing scarce resources to the benefit of their students and their schools.

From your perspective, how has this program made an impact in North Carolina?

Maurice: We definitely have raised the profile of the CeCTO in the K-12 space. We have seen some of our tech directors become superintendents. We have seen some getting more leadership roles within their LEA. And, even now we are being contacted to come out to districts more often to do onsite workshops.

Shannon: I think of the School of Government as a broker of knowledge. One of the things I'm most proud of is the correspondence I still receive from participants who have taken the course over the years who might need an answer to a question or a connection with a peer who might have a specific specialty, or simply just need some advice. It's really about providing a resource network to them so they can receive constant reinforcement of what they might have learned during the course. That's what I see as a real success mark for the program – many do keep coming back and they know we are a resource to help them get the right answer.

What do think could be different with the program going forward?

Maurice: We always look to add specific leadership topics that correspond with technology trends that impact the CeCTO role, but as it is, I think we have a great curriculum and we want to keep the spirit going on why we started this program.

Shannon: I don't think we've ever really had the same content year to year. At the beginning of each class, we asked participants what their pain points are. One year it was social media. The next was BYOD (bring your own device). It changes every year just like technology does, so we try to adjust our offerings with the changes. It's always evolving and we try to provide a learning experience that CeCTOs really need based on the hot topics of the day.

So, as you look to graduate your fifth cohort in June and reflect back on previous years of the course, how would you summarize your experience leading a class like this over the years?

Shannon: The students and the work they do really get us excited. It also gives us positive reinforcement that we're doing the right thing. We do see the impact they are having, and we see what they can bring into the classroom. We feel really good at the end of the day when we teach this group because they are highly motivated, highly passionate, very talented, and most times don't get the recognition they deserve. We're really glad that we can participate and help them, but at the same time it reinforces our mission here at the School of Government because they give us that reminder of what public servants do and how important they are.

Maurice: The CeCTO program has been an awesome experience. I feel like education is an area that will always be important because of the product (our children) that comes from this sector. K-12 has an impact with how local governments operate as far as economic development opportunities, having a strong workforce, and good citizen engagement. To go even further, technology has become a way of life for most of us – especially our young people. It really puts a significant challenge on our school systems and our technology leaders. So, having programs like this to help them lead appropriately, invest into technology appropriately, having a plan that has positive impact – this program offers that opportunity and we already have an great collection of graduates doing impressive work throughout the state.