Taking MCPS technology to the 21st century and beyond

2010-10-23T23:00:00Z Taking MCPS technology to the 21st century and beyondBy JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
October 23, 2010 11:00 pm  • 

The man leading Missoula’s schools into the technological future occupies a basement room down squeaky stairs in an old building with exposed heating ducts.

It’s in the belly of the Missoula County Public Schools Administration Building that you’ll find Matt Clausen’s office, which looks nothing like you might expect.

No thick, tangled snakes of black cables. No stacks of servers with blinking green lights. No piles of manuals for information systems and software.

Just a couple of tables, a couple of desks, a computer monitor, some pleasant wall art and a young man who’s the new boss of technology in education for 8,400 children and their teachers.

“I’m excited and a little petrified,” said Clausen.

The MCPS board of trustees approved Clausen’s new position on Oct. 12.

“Excited and a little petrified” seems a hyperbolic conceit, until you learn what Clausen’s new title is.

After all, how would you like to be the new director of creativity, innovation and technology?

That he is, a position established by MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle in the district’s aggressive pursuit of the “21st century education” model.

“I believe that Matt’s expertise and experience will really help us be on the cutting edge,” Apostle told the board. “Not being on the cutting edge would be a mistake.”

Clausen, formerly known as the instructional technology coordinator, has been given more authority and independence to develop an “all-encompassing vision” for technology in Missoula’s schools – from its implementation to teacher training to how it will help the district meet state and national educational targets.

Employed by the district since 1999, Clausen is a former English teacher at Willard School who steered his love of computers into a master’s degree in instructional technology. He moved to the Administration Building in 2006.

For a man so enamored with technology and its educational potential, Clausen scarcely utters a word about computers, iPads, smartphones, 3G networks or any of the latest techno-gadgets.

People, he said, tend to get too hung up on the “nouns” of technology.

“When you say ‘technology,’ people think about the wires and the boxes,” he said. “But what really matters are the verbs. You can have all the technology in the world, but the question is, ‘What are they doing with it?’ ”

And that’s why it was important, said Apostle, to hire somebody who has been on the teaching end of education, and is not just a really smart tech geek.

“Matt and his colleagues are going to do everything possible to create an environment in our district to encourage people to think out of the box in terms of 21st century teaching and learning,” he said.

*****

MCPS already has a lot of technology, and even technology curriculum standards, which are currently being updated.

But it has never had a grand vision, said Clausen.

Instead, the educational technology assets that do exist are found in “pockets of excellence” in various classrooms.

“Now, the question is how do we generalize that excellence?” he said. “We’re just getting our heads around 21st century education.”

Part of Clausen’s job is to chair a committee made up of representatives of every school within MCPS. That committee meets regularly to discuss school-specific technology issues, as well as the overall picture of technology in MCPS.

At Hawthorne Elementary, that person is Michele Nokleby, who has been the librarian at the school for more than a decade.

For too long, teachers have had to deal with a “technological bureaucracy,” making the implementation of new tech tools difficult at best.

“I’m very hopeful this will be the harbinger of good things to come,” said Nokleby.

Librarians are at the center of any school’s technology assets, so many of the technology committee’s representatives hold that position.

“Librarians of the district are increasingly responsible for the technology in their buildings, so he works with us very closely,” said Nokleby.

One thing that changed immediately with Clausen’s new position is that teachers and staff now have access to various Web services they didn’t have before, such as Gmail. And Nokleby is looking forward to more “loosening of the restraints” on sites that can be used educationally, like the photo-sharing site Flickr.

Yes, said Clausen: District policy guidelines on the use of technology will be a big part of the process.

More importantly, however, is that the district’s teachers – all of them – are trained in new instructional techniques as the technology makes its way into the classroom.

Without teachers who know how to effectively use the technology, and teach their students to use it as well, “you just have a lot of expensive equipment laying around.”

And expense is a big question mark.

How much will all of this cost – the gadgets, the hardware, the software, the teacher training?

By 2012, MCPS estimates the cost of all its technology – hardware, software, networking and the people who run it – will fall just shy of $3 million annually.

Whatever the total, much of that money will come from future levies.

“Based on that vision, I imagine there will be some costs there,” said Clausen. “But we have to show the public how much better and more powerful this will be.”

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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