If there’s tension between a school district’s ed-tech staff and IT department, it’s a tension between the pedagogical and the technical — between making sure technology serves students in a classroom and making sure it’s secure and functional at the enterprise level.

According to speakers at the California IT in Education Conference in Sacramento on Thursday, success at both is built on relationships, which are built on regular meetings and open communication.

Leading a session titled “IT and EdTech: Frenemies for Life,” Andrew Brooks, director of computer, network and telecommunications support for the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE), said teachers can be understandably frustrated when they ask for a website to be unblocked, or a new tool to be implemented, and are turned down by the IT department for reasons they don’t understand.

He said this problem became especially acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, given an influx of new devices, the scramble to support online programs and connections, the scarcity of designated ed-tech coordinators, and so many students and staff suddenly having to acquire digital skills while not necessarily having equitable access to high-speed Internet.

For those not doing it already, Brooks recommended that IT leaders start holding regular standing meetings with ed-tech staff, who are focused on pedagogy, to reduce this friction.

“Do you have standing meetings with finance, with personnel, things like that? How often do you have that same type of meeting with the educational technology folks? So that’s one of the things that’s missing for us. We have standing monthly meetings with all of the larger departments within our organization, but because we didn’t really have a point person for so long on the educational technology side, that connection was missing,” he said. “It’s one of the things we really focused on, is recurring meetings at a regular cadence, and everybody is aware of what’s happening, so we’re all on the same page.”

Having recently gone through a process of building that connection between IT and ed tech in Sacramento County, Brooks offered several recommendations for how to do it. One was to begin meetings by focusing on projects and ideas where both sides are in broad agreement, since some ideas will inevitably be contentious. Another was not to underestimate the need for communicating even the simplest things, like the IT department’s direct email and phone number, and to make sure teachers know them.

As an example, Brooks mentioned his team’s work with El Centro Jr./Sr. High Juvenile Court School after the pandemic, which entailed building new systems to track, update and standardize personal devices; building a collaborative team with the input and perspective of teachers and administrators at El Centro; hiring an ed-tech coordinator; and training teachers on the 21st-century skills they’re now expected to impart upon students.

He said when teachers asked for new Wi-Fi access points at the school that students could use outside of regular hours, conversations with IT led them to realize it wasn’t doable because of the school’s particular restrictions on unsupervised use of its network and devices. But because IT had open lines of communication with the school’s teachers and staff, they understood the problem and it didn’t turn into a fight.

Co-leading the session with Brooks, SCOE’s Director of Computer Science and Digital Learning Jared Amalong said one of his strategies for building such relationships is to assume best intentions and remember everyone has a common purpose: to help students.

“What I’ve learned through this work is that Andrew and his team are right here alongside our teachers, our paraeducators, our counselors, our administrators, our ed-tech staff, for the same very reason,” he said. “We’re here to do good things for students, and when you bring that mental model, even when those conversations are tough, we’re able to find resolution and what’s good for students.”

Andrew Westrope

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.

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