How one CIO leverages technology to transform education

IT leaders are helping school systems across the country change the way children learn by incorporating technology in classrooms. Here's how Serena Sacks, CIO for the Fulton County School System, leads the charge.

kids mobile devices study school learning

The digital revolution is upon us. Consumers are demanding improved services, and technology enables this. With just a few clicks on our smartphone or tablet we can shop online, check out restaurants, text our pizza orders, deposit checks, and request cabs.

Educators are beginning to see the benefit of incorporating technology in the classroom as well. One CIO leading the charge is Serena Sacks from the Fulton County School (FCS) System in Atlanta. With 14,000 employees, the school system provides K-12 education for over 96,000 students in 101 schools across 13 cities. Sacks and her team have made tremendous strides in accomplishing their No. 1 goal: help students learn to their full potential. To do that, they're leveraging technology in innovative ways.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the school system's technology strategy in a video interview with Serena. Here's an excerpt from our conversation.

Phil Weinzimer: You have a very interesting background. You started your career at IBM. Can you share your background with our viewers?

Serena Sacks: I started my career at IBM in New York City focusing on process automation and emerging technology. I leveraged my consulting experience at Disney World leading the IT organization. I always had a passion for improving childhood education by leveraging technology and after spending 25 years in the private sector found my passion in educational technology at Florida Virtual School under Julie Young's leadership. The main challenge was supporting 20 percent to 40 percent annual growth. When I departed, we had 400,000 students — some in every state and 65 countries!

I joined FCS about a year ago, after asking industry experts which district was best poised to transform education through personalized learning. It's been amazing being a part of such a strong leadership team with the vision and fortitude to execute. The board alignment and support are also critical success factors. Fortunately, I have inherited an excellent IT staff, too.

What role do information and technology play in educating students today, and how have you leveraged those to improve education?

Today more than ever, information and technology are becoming mission critical to teaching and learning. Kids today are born as digital natives. They interact with technology and the cyberworld seamlessly with the real, tangible world. They expect to be presented with information, content, dialogue, interactivity, and even entertainment. Anything less is boring for most kids, and if they are bored, they aren't learning.

The challenge is to keep kids engaged and moving forward in their learning paths. The answer is more personal ownership and access to rich, engaging standards-based content. This is accomplished through a combination of data, interpersonal interactions, problem-solving scenarios, collaboration, and digital content and personal devices. Nothing can replace a good teacher in the classroom. They remain the best means to ensure learning.

Most students learn best in one or more of these modalities: visual, audio, and kinesthetic. Instructor-led teaching is often dry because it does not engage students in multiple modes.   Technology (projection, tablets, PCs, etc.) makes this possible — as a class, in small groups, or individually. Content can be provided through video, interactive exercises, and many other formats. When used in a 1:1, mobile-device environment, students can move at their own pace. If they can bring the device home, they can review lessons and use online resources for supplemental learning, to catch up or move ahead faster.

It's important to understand that technology alone cannot transform education. We need to emphasize it's not about the device — it's about people, especially teachers, using tools to enhance the learning process for students. The instructional model, facilities, evaluation metrics and many other factors play a great role in learning success than a device ever could. At Fulton County Schools, we use a student-centered approach to learning.

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Our tools in the classroom include interactive projectors and flat panels, mobile devices, digital content and curriculum, games, videos, graphics, assessments and analysis. Behind all of those things we can see, there's a robust wide-area network and wireless access points, managed through a modern datacenter equipped with monitoring and protective layers.

Students at Centennial High School are the best representation of how they use technology to personalize learning and get the most out of school.

What advice would you provide to parents to supplement their child's education?  

Learn to code. Every student today should learn to code. It has become a 21st century required skill. When kids in school today graduate, every job will require some use of technology. Good jobs will require at least simple coding — website development, scripts, or other coding — and many jobs will require sophisticated technology skills. Encourage your child to learn about how technology works so they are interested in more than just using it. Think about how fast our world has changed in the past 15 years. Now imagine increased speed of change and technology development by the year 2030, when your 15-year-old today is 30!

Teach good digital citizenship. Children need to understand digital citizenship — how to be safe online and treat others with respect. Too many kids (and adults) forget that words and pictures on a screen can hurt. When they are behind the keyboard, they take on alternative personas without the normal filters in place for face-to-face communication. Remember, everything that is said or posted online leaves a digital footprint that a potential friend, partner or employer can see and evaluate.

Use online supplemental resources. There are so many resources available online to help students succeed. Kahn Academy is perhaps the best publicized supplemental resource, but don't stop there! Search the topic your child is interested in, or would like to learn more about, and enjoy exploring the results. Remember, learning can happen anywhere, at any time, not just in the classroom.

Be involved in your child's education. Many schools and districts have a parent portal or online tool to see your kids' lesson plans, assignments, grades and sometimes even recorded lessons. Make sure you know your login credentials, and check in often to be familiar with their work and progress. Ask questions, watch lessons with your child and let them teach you what they are learning. The best way to ensure learning "sticks" is to share it with someone. If your school isn't personalizing learning, get involved and encourage them to read Michael Horn's book Blended. It takes years to transform education, so start now!

Serena and her team have big plans for FCS. Watch my full video interview below to find out more about how Serena and her team leverage technology to change the way children learn.

Serena Sacks

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