Are Your Ill-Informed Policies Widening The Digital Divide?

K12 CIOs, and in fact all CIOs, must embrace the power of social media and leverage it -- not just for their personal benefit, but for the sake of the organizations you serve.
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"Don't limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time." - Rabindranath Tagore

The words above were brought to my attention by Susan Bearden, CIO at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy and one of The 50 Most Social CIOs on Twitter. Susan took to the podium at the Consortium for School Networking annual conference to implore K-12 CIOs, CTOs, and Technology Directors to tap the power of social media. Of all the compelling reasons Susan spoke about, two warrant special emphasis, not only for K-12 CIOs, but for everyone involved in IT management: 1. You must thoroughly understand your organization's business needs before you make technology decisions, and 2. Never create policies about technologies you don't understand.

Many K-12 IT departments today make decisions and write policies about blocking and filtering social media and other Web 2.0 technologies without actually understanding how these tools work and how they can be leveraged to improve educational outcomes. Yet, as an IT professional you would never make significant enterprise hardware decisions without an in-depth understanding of the underlying technology. So before you decide to block access to social media, you need to apply that same conscientious level of analysis. The learning benefits of social media are far too great to restrict it out of hand by applying a conservative interpretation of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Instead, do your homework; gather data by talking with teachers, and test it first-hand.

Bridging the disconnect between IT leadership and teachers is one of the primary reasons that K-12 CIOs need to get active on social media. Social media provides senior technology leaders with the opportunity to better understand the organization's business needs by interacting with educators and learning how teachers leverage the technology to improve learning outcomes. Since many of the technologies that districts consider blocking are social media tools themselves, having an active social media presence better positions you as a technology leader to evaluate first-hand the benefits and risks associated with a particular platform. If a teacher wants to use Twitter in the classroom, but you don't know a tweet from a hashtag, how can you properly assess the potential benefits and risks?

Far too often, K-12 CIOs make knee-jerk assumptions about web-based tools and technologies and take an easy path instead of basing decisions on student needs. Yes, it is easier to block everything with no exceptions. Social media in particular is perceived as fraught with risk; and CIOs have a natural aversion to risk. Learning how to use social media and developing thoughtful and practical policies to address inappropriate behavior takes much more work. For IT leaders with an old school "block and control" mindset, this is a major paradigm shift. But your job as CIO is to manage and mitigate risk while advancing the business need. To be successful, step outside your comfort zone and better appreciate the teacher and student needs; make informed decisions, not reflexive ones.

Today, some of the most talented students are being actively recruited via social networks. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, I shared our strictly social recruiting process via Twitter, while accepting no resumes. Students who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, as a result of administrative policies, will be at a disadvantage in today's hyper connect and knowledge sharing social era.

In this era of rapid technological change, technology leadership goes far beyond the traditional responsibility of simply keeping the network up and running. K12 CIOs, and in fact all CIOs, must embrace the power of social media and leverage it - not just for their personal benefit, but for the sake of the organizations you serve.

This post was co-authored by Susan Bearden, CIO at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy, and Robert Nilsson, Director of Marketing, Enterasys.

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