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Posted October 6, 2011

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Retirement: Tom Ryan

One of the most cherished possessions Dr. Tom Ryan will pack up later this month as he gets ready to retire is a painting of flying pigs – a reminder of just how far Albuquerque Public Schools has come technologically under his leadership.

When Ryan took over as chief information officer 11 years ago, the networking capability of the entire district wasn’t much more than what now powers a single home. Schools had 10- to 15-year old computers, email and other electronic communication was hit or miss, and principals had to beseech their legislators for money to pay for technology, creating inequity among schools.

In the decade that followed, the APS network has doubled in size every 18 months; all schools and administrative buildings have a wireless connection to high-speed Internet; the district has more than 80,000 state-of-the art computing devices (not just computers anymore but tablets, electronic white boards, iPods, smartphones and more); teachers, parents, students and staff are in constant touch via email, instant messaging, texts and social networking; and funding for instructional technology throughout the district has voter and legislative support.

Them pigs, they are a flyin’.

Ryan began his career in the classroom and on the sidelines of the football field more than three decades ago. He was an assistant principal at Cibola High and then principal at Del Norte High before becoming executive director of learning technologies, which evolved into chief information officer.

Not long after taking the job, Ryan remembers going before the APS Board of Education to convince members that funding for instructional technology should be included on the ballot along with the traditional brick and mortar projects. He brought with him a picture of an outhouse, comparing indoor plumbing a century ago to technology today.

“Schools would close down if the plumbing went out, and we’re approaching that dependence on technology as well,” he said, pointing to so many functions now performed electronically including attendance, grades, communication and payroll, not to mention much of the teaching and learning. “Networking has become the lifeblood of what we do.”

Ryan got the support he needed. In 2010, voters overwhelming approved a bond/mill levy package that included $120 million for instructional technology. That money has helped pay for a $17 million interactive whiteboard project, $52 million in technology improvements and $22 million in network upgrades.

Now, Ryan’s focus is on online education – not distance education, he’s quick to correct. “The real future in education is a blended model that combines face-to-face teaching and learning with resources that are available 24-7.”

That future is now.

More than 2,000 APS students are enrolled in online classes though eCADEMY, which replaced the traditional night school with a blended model where students learn in non-traditional, often virtual classrooms without rows of desks or bells or lectures. He’s witnessed an amazing transformation in the relationship between teachers and students and even parents. He said they are developing more personal relationships, working on project-based, real-world lessons, connecting more with others.

“We’ve networked our school district, and it’s developing into a teaching and learning environment that’s more inviting than the traditional classroom, more interactive,” he said. “I hope the district continues expanding its digital resources. We can do so much to support our diverse population of students: our English Language Learners, our special education students, our vulnerable students at risk of failing and our Advanced Placement students.”

If APS or any other school district needs help with this transformation, they can still seek Ryan’s expertise. He’ll be running a consulting firm called Emmersion Learning with a focus on blended education. Ryan uses two juxtaposed images to describe the role of his company. In the images, water represents access to educational resources. The first is of a student sipping a glass of water, the old model of education. The other is of a student immersed in a pool of water, supported by a floating device and an adult.

Said Ryan, “We’re totally transforming the model of education. There will be some resistance and misnomers, but many fears are based on unknowns.”

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