The Grill: Tom Ryan

Albuquerque Public Schools CIO Tom Ryan believes IT can do more than help teachers and administrators; he says technology has the power to actually transform how schools teach and how students learn. A former teacher and principal, Ryan is putting that belief into practice. As CIO of the largest K-12 district in New Mexico, with 139 schools and nearly 90,000 students, Ryan delivers IT services to the district's administration and teachers. He advocates for an education system where technology doesn't merely deliver content electronically but creates a new standard of individualized learning available 24/7 to teachers as well as students, their families, guardians and mentors.

Tom Ryan

Favorite technology: I'm really intrigued with iPad-esque devices and what they can do.

What were your favorite subjects in high school? Football and wrestling. I came from one of those disadvantaged families where school was more of a social thing rather than a place to get to the next level.

Organization: Organization goes here

What's your favorite thing about students today? I see kids who do some remarkable things. They're so in touch with the technology. They use the tools in ways that don't even occur to me.

If you could have only one computerized device, what would it be? Probably my laptop. There's more functionality on my laptop than on most of my other devices.

What are your key responsibilities as CIO of a school district? My primary job is to help support the core mission of education: to improve teaching and learning for all kids. And I run the business systems for the district. We run operations, security, computer repair. I'm also responsible for online learning and the tools that we use to support training.

It's also the CIO's responsibility to understand how the business transforms itself through the use of technology and not [have] the functionality side of the business telling IT what it needs. My teachers' and principals' job is teaching kids, not going out to look at technology. That's my job.

How did you build your team? Since I have a background on the education side and understand some of the needs we're trying to fulfill, I make sure I have direct reports who have expertise in networking, data center operations and the other IT-related business functions we're trying to support. And typically the people who come into education do so because they have a passion about doing something significant, leaving a legacy, benefiting a community. And those values drive people to do great things. The people I have are dedicated to the work we do and the value we bring to the community.

What technologies make online learning successful? Technology doesn't make education successful. We went through a period of education 10 or so years ago where there was a "build it, and they will come" mentality. But good teaching increases education achievement, and if we come at it from that perspective, then we can provide resources to help assist teachers and administrators to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently.

So what we've found is, the best technology can increase student access to high-quality teaching and learning resources. In a traditional school, a brick-and-mortar school, it's open about 180 days a year for about seven hours. I think that's a legacy model school. We need to open up access to resources 24/7. We have that ability through technology. Not that technology will teach you, but access -- access to resources, access by parents to help you -- will help improve student learning.

What's the hardest part of providing technologies for a range of ages and aptitudes? The biggest challenge I have is understanding what a teacher's need is and providing the right transformative technology. And when we find those things, it's helping them find the value. The next challenge is bridging where they are now to where they could be if they use the technology well. You don't want to pull them out of their time with kids, so finding the time to get them really skilled at these technologies is a challenge.

How do you manage those challenges? We just passed a $130 million capital investment by our community back in February, and we really emphasized that any technology we're purchasing and that teachers will be using has to be aligned with an intensive, integrated professional development program to make sure the investment in the technology isn't wasted because it's not being used.

How do you ensure that adoption? There's always a core group of innovators willing to lead a little bit on those initiatives. Some might call it a pilot group. What we've learned is to invest in that group, because they're really doing the work. With our interactive whiteboards, we first delivered 500. You could apply to be one of the 500, but if you're going to be part of this, you're going to have to give up two days for professional development. So you build up some momentum from that first 500, and then when we deploy the next 500, you still have some momentum. We try to build the desire to have these systems and improvements versus putting the investment across to everyone and having to deal with the resistance.

Do you find that the resistance is gone by the end of a rollout? No, there's always a group of people who don't want to change. That's probably healthy -- you don't want to jump on every new thing, and those people keep you from doing that.

What's the future of technology in education? As folks start to see that technology isn't replacing teachers -- that it's not delivering education -- we'll see the "disruptive class" idea, where students will take advantage of online courses, and resources are available all the time. But I'm not sure public education is up to the task, because the people who are most successful in the legacy model of education control it, and they don't want it to change. Those who are least successful in it are the poor and the people of color, and they have the least influence to change it.