The New York City Department of Education meets school needs with effective, affordable IT

Nov. 17, 2014    |    Hal Friedlander

Part of what makes New York City unique is its diversity. Each of the five boroughs has a rich mix of people and cultures, which is reflected across the more than 1 million students at over 1,800 schools. While some see this variety and scale as a challenge in offering technology for schools, I see it as a benefit. In NYC, we have more schools innovating, more schools piloting technology and more schools leading the charge in finding the right tools for teachers and students.

At their core, schools are learning organizations. Teachers learn something new then help their kids learn it; they’re professional learners. And they know what they need much better than I do as an administrator. The Division of Instructional and Informational Technology (DIIT) team at the Department of Education listens to what educators want, understands what drives these asks, and then translates their needs into technology requirements and an IT strategy that helps students learn.

We take the same approach here in NYC as I did in my years working in the private sector — we use the customer engagement model. We treat schools as customers and engage them as advocates of the technology. The educators who live in the community and teach students every day have the best ideas about what they need in technology, not a guy like me who works at the 30,000-foot view. The job of my team is to support technology choices that will help the schools.

Over the last year, we saw more and more schools using Google Apps for Education. After evaluating it centrally we decided to add Google Apps to our list of approved and supported tools for NYC schools this year. A number of factors drove this decision. First, a number of schools were already using Google Apps for Education. Second, since Google Apps doesn’t require special technical skills, schools were able to customize the tools to meet their specific needs. This included everything from fostering parent engagement, to managing classrooms, to creating and sharing online curricula. Administrators told us they liked Google Apps because they could be as open or restrictive as they wanted in terms of how much communication they allowed beyond the school domain.

From a central office perspective, we authorized Google Apps because it integrates easily with our existing systems and we find it very easy to manage. This means tasks like setting up student sign-on for identity management are straightforward, and we don’t have to spend a lot of resources to manage domains. The tools are intuitive, so we haven’t had to offer much training. We created a NYC DoE Google Apps for Education Resource Center to help people get off and running.

We take the same approach to evaluating devices as we do to evaluating other tools. We saw that many schools wanted to use Chromebooks, and in our assessments, found them to be an affordable, manageable option for learning. So we worked with the OEMs to ensure Chromebooks met all our specifications, and added them to our list of approved school devices. We want the schools to have choices — whether it is a laptop or a tablet or both — across price range and functionality.

People say that things can’t move quickly in the public sector, but I don’t believe that. If you’re committed to listening to the schools, finding out what they need and setting goals against getting it done, you’ll make things happen.