Carl Fong – Orange County Department of Education
Getting technology to students at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge many school districts faced.
Some created pick-up stations for parents, others sent laptops and hotspots home with students, and some coordinated home drop offs. For the 28 school districts in Orange County, California, which have about 500,000 students, and the Orange County Department of Education, this was a large undertaking.
When the schools switched to learning remotely or hybrid learning in 2020, Carl Fong, OCDE’s chief technology officer, collaborated with district IT leaders to get devices to students. This included the OCDE’s Alternative Education program that serves approximately 13,000 students, many of whom are taking a nontraditional path or have less resources or support outside of school.
“The pandemic has sparked innovation in technology in a way that may otherwise not have happened, but it’s also shown how crucial it is that we close the digital divide,” Fong says. “We need to make sure that as we’re moving forward—we’re not leaving kids behind.”
Fong says the pandemic has made him think more creatively about how to address the digital divide, or the gap between those who can access digital tools and those who can’t.
He worked closely with the Alternative Education division, known as ACCESS, which serves students from “transitional kindergarten” to adults seeking to finish their high school education. He says ACCESS made sure all students, regardless of how or where they were learning, were trained on how to use the program’s online learning platform. ACCESS also led trainings for teachers and made sure everyone was educated on cybersecurity practices.
To further engage students during the pandemic, Fong has worked with Vern Burton, the assistant superintendent of ACCESS, to develop a class on the use of virtual reality and esports to get students inspired to continue their education. Fong says virtual reality could also be used for students with limited physical disabilities because it could aid with mobility and muscle movement.
“I’ve always appreciated that OCDE and the county superintendent have allowed me to present my ideas and try new things,” he says. “You can’t always predict whether the technology will be the right fit, but I like to bring in the best for the students, teachers, principals, support staff and administrators.”
Passion to learn
When hiring for the IT department, Fong looks for people who share his interest in trying new things and being innovative. He says this mindset is often more important than technical skills, although those are important, too.
“When I’m interviewing people, I’m looking for the person with passion,” he says. “They may not know everything—I didn’t when I started here—but they need to be passionate and want to learn.”
Fong is responsible for 42 employees within the IT division. He says he enjoys mentoring them and helping them develop in their careers, while also giving them the leeway to own projects and take the lead.
“I like knowing that if I’m out of the office that my staff will be more than OK without me,” he says.
Much of the IT staff is young, which Fong says is encouraging for the future of the industry. In working to close the digital divide, he’s also been working to show students that technology provides many career paths.
“I am here for a reason, and that’s to help the future generation of technologists,” he says. “Anyone can do it and I want to help them get there.”
At the end of 2021, Fong was asked to join the board of the Aaron Barnett Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships to students interested in pursuing a career in cybersecurity. Barnett, who passed away from cancer, was an IT colleague of Fong’s who shared his passion for supporting the next generation. In 2022, the foundation created a new scholarship for young women.
“It’s important to me that we make this field more inclusive and equitable,” Fong says. “I also want to make sure that all individuals have the same opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to have.”
Fong has been interested in technology since he was a child and studied data processing and information systems at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. From there, he earned an MBA from the University of La Verne and a doctorate in business/technology from Southern California University for Professional Studies.
He joined OCDE in 1985 as a level one programmer, receiving promotions over the years, including to CTO in 2002.
“I wouldn’t be here for close to 37 years if I didn’t love what I do,” Fong says. “We’re here to give students what they need to be who they want to be.”
View this feature in the Spring I 2022 Edition here.
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