District Tech Chief Weighs Options in Choosing Among K-12 Tech Titans

Managing Editor

Orlando, Fla.

Three global tech companies – Apple, Google, and Microsoft – are battling to win over school district leaders, who must weigh the cost, reliability, and functionality of those vendors’ devices and platforms. And a fourth, huge provider, the online retailer Amazon, is a relative newcomer to K-12 but making big inroads.

So what’s the decisionmaking process like for a school administrator trying to choose among those companies?

For answers, I spoke with Nathan Byler, the director of technology in the 1,500-student Annville-Cleona school district in central Pennsylvania. Byler is attending the Future of Education Technology Conference being held in Orlando this week. He sat in on a session on Tuesday where I presented results from an EdWeek Market Brief story and nationwide survey released last year about how the companies are perceived by teachers and administrators. I was joined on a panel by Emily Brown, a reporter for Education Daily, and Bruce Umpstead, the managing partner of ScaleUp Education Partners.

EdWeek Market Brief’s survey results found that K-12-officials favored Google’s Chromebooks and classroom productivity suite over products from Microsoft and Apple on metrics such as ease of use and affordability. The other companies earned positive reviews by some metrics, however, such as engaging students.

After the session, I caught up with Byler, who took me though his district’s tech landscape and how it’s made decisions on evaluating the four tech companies:

Annville-Cleona is currently using Chromebooks for grades 2-12, and Apple iPads for the youngest children.

The district will soon begin using Chromebooks for all grades, however, because of improvements Google has made that allow new functions that will better serve the youngest students, he said.

The district also uses Microsoft for some back-end infrastructure, as well as for some teacher devices. And it relies on Apple products for “niche” functions, such as student broadcasting lessons and music classes, he said.

“Wherever the device fits best is where we use it. But for mainstream [lessons] it’s Chrome and Google,” Byler said.

“It’s super easy to use, and the cost associated with it, and the management of it [are positive]….It works. They provide an easy-to-use interface that gives you the granularity of control you need, with tools that allow teachers to drive instruction.”

Microsoft recently announced lower-cost devices and upgrades to Office 365 for education. Some attendees at the FETC session said they were impressed with those improvements. But Byler said he’s not likely to leave Google.

Byler recalls being “deep into” early iterations of Microsoft classroom productivity suites years ago. He was not impressed with the functionality of the product back then.

“It would be hard for me to go back,” he said.

Like many chief technology officers in relatively small school systems, Byler juggles many duties – from managerial and strategic tasks to fix-ups throughout the district.

He says he’s learned to embrace the myriad assignments.

“My biggest challenge — which is also what I love about it — is that I have to manage every aspect,” he said. “Some CTOs spend a lot of time on policy and maybe managing staff. I go out and do tickets, as well as help generate policies.”

In a district like Annville-Cleona, “I have to wear multiple hats,” he explained. “Every day is different.”

Education Week has reported on the many duties that many of the nation’s chief technology officers are expected to handle.

Roughly half of the nation’s school districts go without a full-time chief technology officer, recent federal data have shown. Only 42 percent of districts with fewer than 2,500 students have a full-time CTO. (A strong majority of the nation’s K-12 systems, 70 percent, have 2,500 or fewer students.)

Many districts are purchasing Amazon Web Services for cloud-based storage, and moving away from physical servers. Byler’s district, which he says has a yearly tech budget of about $750,000, has yet to make that leap.

“We’ve looked at it, and we’ve looked at Azure, and it’s just very confusing” to us,” he explained. Right now, “it just doesn’t seem cost effective.”

The district currently uses physical servers and storage for students through Google. In the future, he said, it may go to AWS for storage.

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