Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Technology Plan? Bah Humbug!

When accreditation teams come to a school, they often look for “technology plans.” By this, they usually mean a broad, comprehensive program that lays out the school’s over-arching goals for the curriculum, the necessary tech tools to achieve these goals, and a three year purchasing plan (similar to the process to the right). Usually these plans are created by “technology committees” that include faculty, administration and in some cases, parents and students.  The plan is then disseminated to all constituencies for implementation.

Having created such plans over the last twenty five years, I've slowly come to a rather startling conclusion: They're a waste of time!  First, the world of technology is changing too quickly for plodding plans that take a year or so to develop and many more years to implement. No sooner are these plans finalized than they become out-dated. As an example, I believe it's increasingly clear that many schools that have adopted "one to one" programs in technology  (a laptop or tablet for every student) have wasted their money.  An overwhelming majority of students in independent schools now own smart phones with computing power far beyond the average user’s needs.  Could we have predicted that even three years ago?

Second, technology plans are top-down, institution-driven initiatives that misunderstand the non-linear, paradigm-changing, disruptive nature of technology itself. Tech innovation occurs at the user-end level, as individuals begin to play with technology and customize usage to achieve their ends. As these individuals use these technologies, new possibilities emerge from which may spring new ideas and new initiatives. Top-down plans stifle or bore the institution’s most sophisticated users--the very innovators who can truly affect institutional change by their excitement and their willingness to show colleagues a better way.

Instead of a "plan," then, I advocate that schools operate according to the following set of flexible principles: 

First, best instructional practices and good curriculum should lead. Technology is a tool for good teaching, not an end in itself, nor a marketing gimmick to sell to prospective families. Schools are in the business of teaching and learning. 

Second, schools should promote gradualism instead of sweeping, top-down directives. We become technologically savvy by learning a skill that helps us do our current tasks more efficiently, but as we become more skilled in these technologies, new ways of doing things become apparent to us. Small things lead to bigger things. Institutional change happens more effectively at the grass roots level, as individual competencies improve and the culture is elevated to embrace innovation.

Third, schools purchasing technology should try to walk a middle position between being “early adopters” and technological luddites.  We should not allow ourselves to become “beta-testers” for tech companies. Schools that jumped early onto the “digital textbooks for all students” bandwagon have faced myriad problems, both in terms of getting textbooks onto the student devices (there is as of yet no digital clearinghouse to assemble and disseminate content from multiple publishers) and infra-structure capacity to handle the demand.  Those issues will be worked out, and we should be open to digital textbooks, but in a careful, measured way.

Fourth, we should prioritize equipping our most active users with the best and latest technology.  Equipping all users at the same time with equal technology is wasteful in that it gives some folks technology that is far beyond their abilities and needs, while limiting others who could serve as innovators and change agents for the institution.

Fifth, we should purchase technology incrementally, rather than making a large technology investment every 3-4 years. This allows us to continue to equip our best users with the latest technology and protects us from sudden innovation that makes existing technology dated or irrelevant, much like “dollar-cost averaging” protects investors in the stock market.  We don't want a school full of “beta-maxes” or “digital disc” devices, but we do want to preserve the means to move toward promising technologies as they emerge.

Sixth, we should create professional learning communities where new technologies are discussed, shared and taught to others.  The best professional development is always practitioners speaking to practitioners, showing each other a better way. We should work to create an environment where our most active and enthusiastic technology users share their ideas with less active users. Innovation thrives in such communities. We should prioritize these opportunities in our annual professional development planning. 

Seventh, schools should invest in classroom tech specialists. With more and more services now hosted "on the cloud," there is less need for true techies trained in information management and server maintenance, and more need for teachers who can champion technology with other teachers, meeting them at their level, introducing new tech tools, hosting 30 minute tech workshops after school, teaching, mentoring and advocating. Technological innovation doesn't come from "on high", but schools need champions who can support and mentor teachers on the one to one level if they want to truly germinate innovation from the ground up. 

No comments: