Leadership Profile: Tim Wilson
The Osseo CTO’s willingness to experiment benefits teachers and students.
If Tim Wilson had a big, red button on his desk, it wouldn't say, "That was easy" when it was pushed; it would say, "Let's try it." That's because this phrase is the default answer when the chief technology officer for Minnesota's Osseo Area Schools gets a tech request from an educator.
"One of the things we talk about a lot," he says of his IT team, "is we're not in the saying ‘No' business, we're in the saying ‘Yes' business. I hear a lot of stories where that doesn't happen and the IT department is seen as an obstacle. More often than not, we'll say, ‘Let's figure out a way to do that.' "
A short list of the experiments Wilson and Osseo have initiated since he came to the district three years ago would include a mash-up of Google Apps and Moodle that makes collaboration seamless, creating a spot for staff and student blogs on the district's website, and starting a program that encourages students to use their personal technology in class. For these reasons, and for creating a robust PD for staff that is on the verge of getting a rare ISTE seal of approval, Wilson was chosen as this year's winner of CoSN's Withrow Award.
While this former high school science teacher appreciates the recognition from his peers, he knows staying in constant contact with his district's 1,500 teachers is a vital and never-ending task. "We're building the team mentality. That's not some declaration you make as a leader, but it's doing it every day. Before IT makes a decision, we check with people. Our customers are teachers, parents, and students. I think of it as a goodwill account. Every time something works the way you intend it to, you get a small deposit made in the IT department account. Our hope it to maintain a positive balance, because sometimes stuff happens. Networks go down, training doesn't turn out the way you want, and those are withdrawals."
One example of marrying his IT pragmatism to his openness to experiments was how he handled the question of teacher and student blogs. Wilson, whose Savvy Technologist blog was must-reading when he updated it regularly, always encouraged teachers to blog. As more staffers created blogs, using many different outside resources, Wilson realized creating an Osseo blog on the district server would help uniformity and make IT support easier. He did so using WordPress, and now even student blogs are stored in-house. "If a student post is inappropriate, it's much easier to delete it when it's on our own server," he says.
Last year, Wilson sensed the pressure to allow students in this eight-town district to bring their own technology into school and use it during classes. Although he was unsure what this type of experiment might look like, he green-lighted the idea in three schools. One year later, up to 80 classrooms are
participating. Wilson tells how some sixth graders ready to move into junior high buttonholed their principal-to-be about why he wouldn't allow their devices into his school. That summer, when Wilson held more PD around the initiative, the principal and several of his staff were present.
"This is coming," he says. While he admits allowing student devices could result in the district buying fewer computers, he says, "That's possible, but that's not the reason. It's about differentiated instruction and getting away from the idea that every student has to do it the same way."
Commitment to Training
Wilson has used ARRA money to broaden PD offerings and change the program's focus. He now concentrates on getting teachers to help one another and he has moved to align the courses with the exacting standards covered by the International Society for Technology in Education's NETS. The feedback from teachers is positive, he says. "It's really pushing them. They want to learn, and this offers opportunities for them to grow. I want to develop a culture that this is how we do things here. We use technology in real, effective ways."