There are a lot of differences between education and businesses. There are also a lot of similarities. Too often educators don’t think about schools using cost-benefit analysis. If they did, especially when it came to technology purchases, schools would be in much better shape. For example, should a school purchase a computer lab for teachers to use with their classes during the day? It’s easier to gauge the cost–most educational leaders usually just look at the dollar amount. They don’t take into consideration installation, maintenance, upgrade and replacement costs. This doesn’t include software costs either. These factors all need to be taken into account when making hardware purchases. What’s the benefit of the lab? What about the benefit of installing two labs? It’s difficult to quantify benefits often in education but experienced educators can make some fairly accurate predictions. Some educators just buy technology hoping teachers and students will use it. The reality is that technology needs to fit the vision and purpose of the school. Technology for technology’s sake is a waste.
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I just attended the FETC 2009 Virtual Conference for educational technology. The keynote speaker Calvin Baker from Vail, Arizona talked about how his district is using technology to promote teacher creativity. At first I thought it would be a talk about how technology can help teachers create “new media” to “wow” their students out of their stereotypical slumber. As you can tell, I dislike the notion that I need to use technology to entertain my students. Luckily, I was completely wrong. This was a great presentation because what he said made a lot of sense. Here are some poignant highlights.
Districts need to get new technology into the hands of the teachers first. If you do, then they learn how to use it and incorporate it into the classroom. Bravo! Another thing Calvin talked about was that there needs to be accountability and structure when using new technology. It’s not a free-for-all. Many promoters of new technology want to throw any and everything against the wall to see what sticks. That’s irresponsible in education. Calvin explained a web tool they developed called “Beyond Textbooks.” It’s basically a way to connect teachers together in meaningful ways–in departments, within schools, across the district and even across the state. Too much of teaching is a solitary activity–to the detriment of the profession and to students. This tool includes shared calendars so a teacher can see what other teachers are doing and when. I like this type of sharing and accountability. An open learning environment benefits all. Too many teachers don’t do what they need to do and no one ever knows about it. A shared calendar is a step in the right direction.
Another aspect of Beyond Textbooks is the sharing of lesson plans. A colleague and I have been talking about this for years. There’s no reason a new teacher should have to spend years developing solid lessons when there are great lessons already available: they are in the filling cabinets of most veteran teachers. What Beyond Textbooks does it help pool all of the great lessons from across the district and make them available for all to use. My district has been working towards something like this but it’s a huge undertaking and we haven’t been able to get it off the ground. Because the lessons are seen and used by other professionals, the quality of the products is very high. When there is an audience, people tend to perform better. Plus it gives teachers the opportunity for others to see what great stuff they’ve created. OpenEducation.org and THE Journal wrote about this initiative. Open up education–what a great idea!
There is a forum attached to each teaching resource so that teachers can connect to other teachers in a meaningful and timely way. Too many websites offer to “connect teachers” but they don’t have any real meaning. As a result, teachers join social networks and then never visit them again. The Beyond Textbook repository is key to the daily life of teachers: specific lessons tied to their specific state standards in their district. The forums allow teachers to comment and give feedback on the lessons thus improving the lessons. This technology can also give teachers the intrinsic rewards that we all crave.
Teachers love to create and share the things that improve instruction. That’s why a great many teachers are in this business. Technology like Beyond Textbooks can help these creative individuals have even greater impact. I wish my state had something like this.
The driving force behind technology use at any organization is often hidden. Sure, technology happens but when it does, it’s difficult to know exactly how or why. Schools are no different than other organizations. Lots of people talk about what technology–what they want, what would be nice to have, how much time they’d save, etc. But many times, no one really knows how or why technology get purchased and integrated–or in most cases not.
Educational leaders need to open this process up. Examine the structure of the technology support team and how they relate to the end users. Educators need to ask a lot of questions. How is the tech support staff structured? What are their mandates and goals? How does the tech support staff respond to end-user needs? How do end-users utilize the services of the tech support staff? Who is leading the way in terms of technology adoption and integration? Does it come from the end-users? or the tech support staff? or from the educational leaders? What drives technology? Are the software folks talking to the hardware folks so that everyone has a shared vision?
What I’m saying is that there are a lot of disconnects. Many useful technologies don’t get adopted because there isn’t someone with foresight and vision in charge. Sometimes technologies don’t get implemented because no one is looking at the process. Other times technology gets purchased and it sits because there isn’t any follow through.
Without a clear vision for technology, the tech support staff can get trapped in a “fighting fires” mentally. They wait until something breaks and then fix it. Crisis management isn’t a bad thing–unless this is the way an organization always functions. It’s no way to run a top-performing school. There are so many great things that can be accomplished with insight and planning.
So take a look at YOUR school and ask yourself what’s driving technology integration. It needs to be committed individuals with vision, planning and follow through.