In my work with schools and districts throughout the world I often see a rush to add technology without a clearly thought out plan for doing so. Some schools rely on their local vendors for advice and others look to neighboring districts and emulate them. Vendors, while very often knowledgeable about their products have a clear profit motive. Emulating other districts makes the assumption that what works in situation A will also work in situation B. Technology purchases in a school or district are costly, but on the front end and over the life of the devices. Before adding new technologies to your school or district, it is prudent to address these six questions.
Question 1 – Why are we doing this?
This may sound obvious, but too often schools move into new or expanded technology initiatives without clearly defining the intended purpose of the initiative. Agree as a team on the specific problem you are intending to solve. Are you adding computers to the classroom to be prepared for assessments? Is the new technology intended to make teachers more efficient? Is the intent to increase student test scores – student engagement – student creativity?
Any of these reasons have merit and you might even say, “Yes, all of those and more.” Before you move forward it is imperative to clearly define your problem statement. Decide which one problem is the primary reason to add technology. Which one problem statement are you going to measure and use to determine the success of failure of the initiative? What will be the objective measurement data you will use to track the impact of technology?
Once you have identified the primary reason you are moving forward with a technology initiative and the objective measure of progress, collect baseline data so you have a clear picture of where you started.
Question 2 – How will we know if we are successful?
Once you have clearly defined the purpose of the technology expansion, how will you know if you are making progress and ultimately if you have been successful? What are the measurable targets, both quantitative and qualitative, that you will use to track and report on progress toward your goal?
For example, if your answer to Question 1 is, “We are adding technology to our classrooms to increase student engagement,” what are the measures you will track? What specifically do you mean by engagement. Does engagement translate into lower discipline referrals and higher attendance rates? Do you expect to see students working in a wider variety of grouping strategies? Are you going to use surveys and/or focus groups of students and parents? How will you collect, disaggregate, and report your data, as it will be different for different types of data.
What are you leading indicators? For example, if student achievement as measured by standardized assessments is your target, you should expect those data to be a lagging indicator. It will take time, even years to see those data change in a significant manner. Still, there are leading indicators that might include formative assessments, classroom observations, focus groups, etc. that will show if you are moving in the right direction, or even moving at all. Identifying these various data sources on the front end of the initiative will give all stakeholders a shared understanding of the intended target and progress toward goal.
Question 3 – Are our teachers ready for this?
Have you done an assessment of staff readiness for the change you are proposing? Do you know where teachers are both as a group and individually using the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition Model (SAMR) or Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge (TPAK) model? What are your teachers’ perceptions of their technology skills? What are their perceptions of their students’ technology skills? What technology-related professional development have they taken part in over the past three years? Do you have data on how is technology currently being used in the classroom by both teachers and students?
In addition to the technology aspects of this question, there is the purely instructional aspect. Is there a common understanding and implementation of “best practice” instruction. Is there a common vocabulary for instruction? Do teachers plan collaboratively?
If the technology initiative you are considering involves a one-to-one or a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program, how are students typically grouped for instruction? One district was considering providing laptops for all high school students, but when they had an independent audit of their program they found that a significant majority of instruction occurred in whole-group settings. Teachers were very comfortable with lecture style teaching and had very little professional development in cooperative/collaborative learning strategies. Moving that staff over the course of summer break from a very traditional style to a one-to-one environment would be a very heavy lift indeed. The district looked at their data and made the wise decision to begin their laptop program at the middle level where students were already working collaboratively on a frequent basis.
Question 4 – Is our building ready for this?
Adding new technologies to a building will change the physical requirements as well as the instruction. If you are adding new computer labs, what will students be doing in those labs? If you intend to have students creating video, animations, and using 3D printers, is there sufficient bandwidth for not only more computers, but also more computers doing more network intensive tasks? Are you going to need to add storage space or use a cloud service? Don’t forget to factor in all of the building printers operating over the wireless network. The internal wiring in a building might be sufficient for the additional load, but how about the pipeline leading from the school to the ISP? If there are currently network bottlenecks, what issues might the additional demands of the new technologies cause?
If you are considering new devices to meet the needs of mandatory assessments, are you clear on the technical requirements for those devices, not just for the coming year, but the needs predicted three to five years forward? Consider the ramifications of going back to your school board two years after the initial purchase and explaining that your relatively new devices no longer met the needs of the testing agency and need to be replaced.
Testing takes place in a limited time window. Will your network support all of those devices doing the same types of tasks at the same time? Consider not just the network inside the building, but the pipeline the building network is flowing into. Having fiber optic connectivity inside a school is fantastic, but all of that traffic flows from the building to the district. Is the district pipeline from school to district to ISP robust enough to accommodate the increased data from all schools in a concentrated period?
If you are considering a one-to-one program, have you evaluated the number of electrical outlets available in the classroom? Can you plug all of the needed charging carts into the wall at the same time? Regardless of manufacturer claims, laptops will need charging during the school day, if not initially, over time as batteries age. Will a building’s electrical system sustain all carts in a building being plugged in and fully loaded over the lunch period? I have been in a number of buildings where teachers know they can only use one microwave at a time in the teachers’ lounge.
If you are moving to a BYOD program, what accommodations will you need to make to allow for charging a variety of devices into wall outlets? Do you have both 110V plugs and USB ports?
Question 5 – How will you support your staff in this change initiative?
Looking at your identified problem statement, what professional development have teachers experienced in the past three years that is directly related to that problem? Is there an accurate record of that PD? If professional development was offered, did all staff take advantage of it? If your initiative is focused on technology integration in the classroom, is the PD teachers receive focused on pedagogy or on the mechanics of using software programs. Has the PD provided in the past made a difference in instruction? What is your data to support that? What is the professional development support plan to help staff move from the current to the ideal? How much will adequate and appropriate PD cost, both in expert time and in time away from the classroom?
It is important to look at the individual expertise of teachers. Some teachers will see the move to more technology as a first-order change. In a first-order change, teachers will view the initiative as an extension of what they have already been doing, consistent with the current norms and values and mostly within their existing knowledge and skills.
Others may see the change as a second-order change. In this time of a scenario the implementation is viewed as a break from the current and conflicted with existing norms and values. Second-order change requires teachers to learn new skills and practices to be successful.
In almost any teaching staff you will likely find some teachers who see a new implementation as first-order and another group viewing it as second-order. The PD and support for one group will not be appropriate for the other. How will you bring both groups of teachers along?
Question 6 – What is your sustainability plan?
Unlike buildings and furniture, technology has a limited and defined useful life. In most cases you should plan on renewing hardware and software on at least a five-year basis. That desktop computer you purchased in 2010 likely does not meet today’s PAARC or Smarter Balanced technology requirements. Assume the same for 2018. If you are using grant money to purchase technology today, where will the future funding come from?
As with hardware, professional development should be planned out over time. What are your plans to onboard new staff? How will you continue to develop your current staff? As technology changes – and you can count on it changing – how will you keep staff current?
In addition to replacing older computers, what is your plan for repair and maintenance? Are you going to rely on manufacturer extended warranties? Do you have qualified in-house staff certified to take care of repairs? What about loaner technology for teachers and students while their devices are being repaired? PD shouldn’t be a “one and done” experience. It should be ongoing and job embedded.
One important step all too many districts skip is a comprehensive technology audit. An experienced outside expert can help a district avoid costly mistakes and provide a clear picture of a district’s current state compared to national and international standards. Districts are accustomed to bringing in outside financial auditors to make sure best practices in accounting are being followed. The same independent view should occur for technology and curriculum processes as well.
Launching into a new technology initiative or purchase without taking the time to attend to these six questions can lead to squandered financial and political capital and lost educational opportunities for students. It only takes a short search through the pages of this publication and others to find very public examples of districts that launched before they looked. That’s the kind of publicity school leaders want to avoid.
Howard Pitler is a dynamic facilitator, speaker, technologist, and instructional coach with a proven record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Dr. Pitler at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, or on his website.