Innovators in the CLO realm long have touted technology as a supreme enabler for learning. New methods such as e-learning and Web conferencing bring learning to disparate populations when needed without significant restrictions, and simulations and other technology-based learning tools offer creativity and interactivity in delivery that incite higher levels of engagement than ever.
Equally important, technology has helped trim already slim learning budgets by creating administrative efficiencies that streamline learning costs and, with a bit of foresight, can force the function to meet targeted, established business needs.
The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, one of the largest employers in Illinois, has internalized the idea of learning and technology as a definitive development combination. Using instructor-led, self-paced and blended learning, CPS makes extensive use of interactive thinking tools, media distribution systems, video conferencing, wikis, blogs, social networking (or professional learning communities), first-class e-mail with document collaboration and podcasting to build skills and competencies. It also offers ready access to tools and resources that build job effectiveness.
At the helm of this abundance of learning technology is Sharnell Jackson, the system’s first chief e-learning officer. As with many CLOs, Jackson began her career as an educator — although she has been in her current position for the past five years, she has been with the district for more than 30 years.
Her career began in a kindergarten classroom on Chicago’s South Side and since then, Jackson has taught every subject from kindergarten through eighth grade. Her career path is a mix of specialist work for math, science, reading and writing, among other subjects, and positions such as technology coordinator and school improvement coordinator. Moving up through the CPS system, her duties became even more technical via roles such as manager of online learning for the district, assistant director of instructional technology and director of the state learning technology center.
Jackson is the first e-learning officer to work side by side with the chief education officer, as well as all of CPS’ different business functions. Before she assumed her current position, many of her duties centered on curriculum instruction.
Now that she is within the CPS’ Office of Technology Services, Jackson’s responsibilities have evolved to include the effective use of technology for professional purposes, leadership, teaching, student learning and parent communications. Essentially, she works to support everyone in the organization, and all her learning and technology solutions must be aligned to the CPS theory of change and its core strategies.
“Those core strategies are everything that I do to support the district in terms of effective technology use,” Jackson explained. “Core strategies focus on human capital, improving the quality of teachers, employees and principals (which includes recruiting from better colleges and hiring in the early years) and creating more learning opportunities, which includes expanded preschool and summer school programs, all of which have grown year after year.”
Technology — particularly innovations in the learning space that facilitate processes or enable collaboration — does not come cheap. Thus, it’s not surprising Jackson marked her greatest job challenge as CPS’ fluctuating yearly funding levels, which makes it difficult to keep talented employees and create sustainable learning programs.
“For example, we had a vision moving forward of using online Web-based systems throughout the district for budgeting, instruction for all of the functions that we have in terms of supporting the schools,” Jackson said. “We hired consultant trainers from the outside to do that training. Their rate was somewhere around $75 to $125 an hour. I looked at the cost, which was pretty expensive, and decided to go to Web-based training, a blended solution of face-to-face and online. Instead of hiring consultants on the outside, we trained people on staff, which minimized costs and built the capacity of other employees in schools and the central office to deliver that training. I cut my costs more than half and institutionalized a support model to actually build people’s capacity to support themselves using the ‘train the trainer’ model.
“I started off with a staff of 48. Now, I have a staff of 29, including myself. I can’t do more with less, but I can be more effective and efficient in the way that I actually deliver support to employees. With the declining numbers of fluctuating funding, I had to find a more effective and efficient way of delivering that kind of training and support.”
Jackson said one of her greatest successes as chief e-learning officer has been creating some of the Web-based training modules used to support CPS. For instance, the system now offers a new-student information system, which also provides employee skill information at various levels.
For those who are more proficient, there are Web-based training modules available that allow users to go in and play around with the application before going through the official training. Jackson said this creates a more efficient learning process.
“My greatest success is in creating innovative solutions for inefficient processes; creating nationally recognized assessments, curriculum and special development learning opportunities for administrators, teachers, students and career service employees; identifying that type of training and looking at their particular needs,” Jackson said. “First, always ask, ‘What are their needs?’ Use data or gather information to identify what the particular needs are, then find a solution to fit that need. I’m also proud of the way we’ve managed the implementation of assessments in the district for all of the teachers from kindergarten through eighth grade who administer assessments to their students.”
Jackson said the district uses technology such as PDAs to administer assessments, which provides trend data that help pinpoint what professional development needs should be offered to teachers and other district employees.
Identifying innovative technology solutions and Web-based applications for training is Jackson’s usual mode of operation to provide learning for CPS’ nearly 40,000 teachers and other employees districtwide. For instance, to facilitate online meetings and create some professional development offerings, she introduced CPS to Macromedia Breeze.
“Instead of having someone that you need to pay $15,000 to come to the district to offer some kind of professional development face to face, you can pay them a lot less by having this online, using a projector in a room with participants and have the interactivity go back and forth throughout the session,” she said. “Chicago is a large urban city, and there’s major construction going on with our transit system. The challenge of getting people back and forth to locations for training and meetings was huge. There are more than 632 schools spread out from the border of Evanston to Calumet City. Having people come to locations for training or meetings is very inconvenient, especially when they’re faced with the obstacle of construction and/or inclement weather. Technology such as Breeze creates a more effective way to deliver professional development, as well as cost savings, in terms of having people move to locations and saving their gas money and their time.”
Jackson said technology offers CPS the opportunity to more efficiently and effectively track learning and generate data to determine whether training is effective, and if it is not, what improvements are needed. It also can identify what kind of professional development opportunities the system can afford and how to offer those in a variety of methodologies.
“With face-to-face training, we’re limited as to location and space — there’s no one facility here that’s totally devoted to training. The Medill Training and Professional Development Center and the Elizabeth Training Facility are the only training facilities for Chicago Public Schools, and they’re not totally devoted to training,” she said. “So, how do you offer training 24×7 to employees across the district? If you offer it in schools, it’s limited by the hours that the schools are open. If they’re not open, you have to pay a security guard and someone on staff to be available on site while that facility is being used. The more efficient way of doing that is to offer a variety, which means face-to-face and online learning 24×7.”
CPS’ use of technology as a learning enabler includes a fairly stringent focus on metrics gathered from pre- and post-assessments, evaluations and completed training modules. Jackson said the data these metrics provide act as a kind of window to help determine staff professional development needs.
“We have online registration systems, so you can actually track when somebody registers, how many people you have available to do training at a particular site and how many people are actually applying for that particular session,” Jackson said. “You can track whether they completed the pre- and post-assessments in a particular session. I can also track usage logs — how much they’re using the system and what particular modules. I can get 20,000 hits on one module or one particular application in the media distribution system, which lets me know that people think that particular course or content is valuable. Then, you identify what particular content they’re really using, as it relates to their particular needs, and you create packages of content and only package or purchase those particular items, which is a more cost-effective way of purchasing content to fit their needs.”
– Kellye Whitney, email@example.com
NAME: Sharnell Jackson
TITLE: Chief E-Learning Officer
COMPANY: Chicago Public Schools
Learning Philosophy: “Confronting a never-ending supply of digital devices and overwhelming amounts of information, individuals in today’s society must be proficient in a variety of 21st-century technology skills and strategies that were not critical for their grandparents’ success. In a globally integrated economy, our employees will get paid a premium only if they or their departments offer an innovative product or service, which demands technology skills to conceive, design, market, manufacture, manage and communicate with an educated, skilled labor force. We cannot afford to go on lagging behind other major economies in aptitude tests and every ranking of Internet and technology skill-use penetration and think that we’re going to field a workforce able to command premium wages. A workforce without skills, rigor and competence will take us only so far in a global knowledge economy.”