"I get asked about that a lot," said Williams. "The Canadian statistics for home computers are pretty high -- around 90 to 95 percent of households have a computer. What we find is the differentiator is the type of Internet access they have. Some households might have really high-end Internet access while others may have little or no Internet access."
Because MyClass is document-driven, it's fairly accessible with low-speed access. The Board also publishes software-based Microsoft viewers, which are free, so that households that don't have Microsoft software suites can still look at the documents.
The IT team at Peel District School Board has its sights set on delivering even more technology tools in the near future. "Our next focus will be what we call teacher-to-teacher," said Williams. "We want to increase the level of spontaneous sharing among teachers, and to do that we'll be creating an internal SharePoint application that will improve teachers' ability to share resources. With some help from our library people, we're now figuring out how to tag resources so that people will know where to find them."
A prototype for the teacher-to-teacher application has already been developed and several teachers are already fairly actively using it. The IT department will take the feedback from this and figure out how to improve the application. The department has already been told that the tagging needs to be done differently, so this will be remedied before the application is released more broadly this fall.
Another major project on the books for the IT team is the delivery of a Video-on-Demand server. "We're moving off of physical media so that we can deliver video into the classroom online. It'll be like Rogers on Demand but within our walls and for education," said Williams. The Board will buy the digital rights to educational videos and make them available electronically to classrooms throughout the district. This will eliminate the inconvenience of having only one physical copy of a video and will enable simultaneous broadcast to many classes at the same time. As well, videos can be bookmarked so that shorter clips can be shown. With Video on Demand, perhaps the Board will even screen some old movies, showing kids what schools were like when their parents' and grandparents were young -- back in the Dark Ages, before technology came to the classroom.
At just about any IT management conference these days you'll hear talk about the changing role of the CIO. And there's one question that's often raised: Does the CIO need to be part of the business? We asked Peel District School Board CIO Laura Williams to weigh in on this question, and her answer was unequivocal.
"I believe the answer is yes," she said. "In my role, I need to absolutely understand how schools work. I need to understand the teaching and learning process, which means the teacher teaching and the student, hopefully, learning.
"We hear a lot about how the CIO role is changing -- that it's not about being the senior-most technical person. And my personal challenge is letting go of some of that, because I love technology, I think it's fascinating. But you only have so much time and you need to spend that time really understanding what's important to the business and what's going to make a difference."
Williams believes that projects don't have to be technically difficult or sophisticated to be of high value. The challenge for the CIO is to knowing which projects are going to have the highest impact, regardless of their complexity.
"Around here we're always saying: How is life going to be different for a student? How is life going to be different for a teacher? These are key considerations affecting our technology decisions," she said. "Take, for example, vendor-driven upgrades. We've taken the stance that we're not going to do them unless it's going to make a difference to the school administrators, teachers or students. We've pushed back on a number of such upgrades because we don't see the value to our organization."
Williams said she's probably an example of how the CIO role is changing. "I spend a lot of time going to different schools and to board meetings, education conferences, workshops and things like that to really understand this business I'm in. The education sector has a language of its own. It's a people business, so it's more subtle than understanding something like manufacturing. A lot more subtle."
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