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It’s Not Just About AI. Schools Are Facing 5 Other Tech Challenges, Too

Generative artificial intelligence has taken up a lot of space in the minds of K-12 district technology leaders over the past two school years.

They’ve had to think about how the emerging and fast-changing technology will affect their districts’ networks, how it will change teaching and learning, and how they can leverage it for efficiency.

But AI isn’t the only challenge districts’ tech leaders are facing.

Their jobs are “like spinning plates on those sticks that you see at the circus,” said Diane Doersch, the board chair for the Consortium for School Networking and the senior director of information technology for Digital Promise. “As you put attention on one plate and get it spinning, other plates slow down and fall off.”

One of Doersch’s biggest concerns is that AI has garnered so much attention that other priorities might not be getting the attention they deserve.

Even so, despite all the hype AI is generating in K-12 circles, it is not the No. 1 priority for school district technology leaders, according to a CoSN report released last month. It is No. 4.

That result raises an important question: Other than AI, what is top of mind for district technology leaders?

Here are five other things they are putting high on their priority lists:

1. Cybersecurity

Schools have become the leading target for cybercriminals. That’s why cybersecurity continues to rank as the No. 1 priority for district tech leaders, according to the CoSN report, which surveyed 981 district tech leaders between Jan. 10 and Feb. 29.

Cybersecurity “touches everything,” said Sarah Radcliffe, the CoSN board secretary and the director of future-ready learning for the Altoona school district in Wisconsin. “Cybersecurity is not just keeping our desktop computers safe. It’s all systems, because so many systems are online. If it’s online, it’s hackable.”

Cyberattacks are financially costly and bad for teaching and learning. The loss of learning time after a cyberattack has ranged from three days to three weeks, and recovery time from the attack can take anywhere from two to nine months, according to a 2022 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. School districts have also lost between $50,000 and $1 million per cyberattack, the report found.

2. Data privacy and security

Data privacy and security ranked as the No. 2 priority for district tech leaders this year, one spot higher than in 2023. It’s an issue that’s connected to cybersecurity. Cybercriminals target schools because the data they have on students and staff are valuable.

Because more of the tools schools use daily are online, it’s more difficult to make sure all data are secured.

“It used to be that to keep student data secure, you had a locked file cabinet with student information in it,” Radcliffe said. Now, there is so much more data online, and “not everybody has a common understanding of how risky it is to have all that data. It falls on our shoulders to protect that data, but we’re not the only ones touching it. I think that’s what makes it tricky.”

This challenge has also caught the attention of federal and state policymakers, who are introducing and enacting data-privacy bills.

3. Staff recruitment and retention

Districts aren’t only dealing with teacher shortages; they’re also dealing with shortages in the technology department.

At least half of district tech leaders said they aren’t adequately staffed to provide instructional support around classroom tech use, provide remote support for students and families, and integrate technology into the classroom, according to the CoSN report.

This challenge has led districts to outsource some key tech-department functions. For instance, 57 percent of district tech leaders said they outsource cybersecurity monitoring, up from 23 percent last year, the report found.

4. Training

For district tech leaders and their employees, emerging technologies like AI and the demands of a modernized infrastructure require ongoing professional learning. It’s also their responsibility to train students and staff how to use any new digital tools the district uses and how to have good cybersecurity practices. However, there’s not always time dedicated to those opportunities.

“Helping our humans understand the dangers and know how to avoid things like phishing attacks” is important, Doersch said. “It would take time for your staff to do it, but look at the school districts who have had to stop learning because their systems have been compromised or have paid a lot of ransom to get their data back.”

5. Funding

Budget constraints and lack of resources make it difficult for districts to implement and sustain digital technology, according to district tech leaders. Federal emergency funds, which expire this year, made it easier for districts to implement 1-to-1 computing programs and buy new software for teaching and learning. Without those funds, district tech leaders are worried about sustaining those programs.

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