School technology chiefs battle host of challenges

Chief technology officers from Washington, Texas and Massachusetts described challenges they face when creating wireless networks in fast-expanding schools.

Limited budgets. Inadequate teacher training. Overloaded networks. Too few vendor options.

Those are just some of the challenges that chief technology officers say they face as they try to scale up their wireless and technology offerings to meet the exploding demand of personalized learning instruction in schools across the country.

Sometimes, showing a parent or community member why technology is so important is most of the battle.

“The biggest challenge I face is perception, that technology is ‘extra,’” said Karen McGonigle, director of technology for Nantucket Public Schools. “It should be viewed as an essential service, as critical to running a school as electricity and heat.”


McGonigle, along with technology officers from Washington State and Texas, shared best practices and challenges Tuesday as part of an event hosted by Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit organization for school technology leaders.

All the leaders said they are experiencing significant growth in their school districts, which means they have to figure out how to make sure their wireless networks are strong enough to keep up with the capacity.

“We are seeing exponential demands on the network infrastructure, specifically the wireless,” said McGonigle, adding that students now bring more than 800 devices to school than they did about five years ago.

Mark Finstrom, CTO of the Highline School District in Burien, Wash., a suburb south of Seattle, said kids and teachers use about 10,000 mobile devices in schools. About half of the devices students learn with are more than five years old, “primarily due to lack of funding,” he said.

Still, he said, “We are looking to move to a high video-audio-online environment. We expect students are going to be driving all this.


“We’re not looking at what the teachers are doing, we’re looking at what the students are doing and trying to keep ahead of them.”

Finstrom said his district is in the middle of an infrastructure upgrade on its fiber network, and he – like many CTOs – depends on funding from the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program to help with the new installations.

“E-rate is our primary way of funding these resources,” he said.

Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, right outside of Houston and the third-largest school district in the state, has a mammoth, five-year technology plan to accommodate about 113,000 students and the 17,000 devices they use.

The district’s CTO, Frankie Jackson, said $126 million has been allocated for instructional technology in classrooms.


“I feel fortunate to work in a district that spends money to make this type of transformation,” she said. “We’re planning for capacity growth and expanding the number of devices we have on the network.”

She said more and more students are being encouraged to include smartphones, tablets, laptops and wearable technology as part of the “Bring Your Own Technology” program that can be supported on the network.

“We wanted to build a network that is robust and can handle that number of devices,” Jackson said.

Imperative to access materials

Besides building their own wireless infrastructures that can support thousands of devices, CTOs are also charged with ensuring that students can still access online educational materials and apps outside of the classroom.


Many schools use Google Apps for Education or cloud computing to provide access to the school’s network.

Schools also include wifi access points outside the buildings so community members and students can connect to the Internet during certain times of the day and after school.

“There is still a certain population that either doesn’t have access at all, or may have a slower line, or their parents may not let them use the Internet,” said McGonigle.

“For those students, we’re considering purchasing devices with data service capability, and we would pay for that,” she said, adding that the purchase would be a driver for equity.

At Highline schools, Finstrom is working with vendors to deliver service to students who are at home and may not have access to the Internet.


The district piloted a program this year allowing about 1,000 students to take home school devices, and monitored them to make sure they were using the digital tools for educational purposes.

“We can deliver only the content we want to deliver,” he said. “If (students) want to use it for other things, we can control that.”

As CTOs try to keep up with an increasing number of schools switching over to 1:1 programs, in which students use devices for personalized learning, supporting rapid expansion in enrollment continues to be a main concern.

“Our 14 buildings are now all over capacity,” said Finstrom. “We have one school with a 600-student capacity, and it has 840 kids.”

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