Where’s the Education Leadership on Technology in Schools?

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In 1988, Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) reported the “most promising current uses  and demonstrations” (pp.12-13) for computers:

  • Drill and practice to master basic skills.
  • Development of writing skills.
  • Problem solving
  • Understanding abstract mathematics and science concepts.
  • Simulation in science, mathematics and social studies.
  • Manipulation of data.
  • Acquisition of computer skills for general purposes, and for business and vocational training.
  • Access and communication traditionally unserved populations of students
  • Access and communications for teachers and students in remote locations
  • Individualized learning
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Management of classroom activities and record keeping (pp. 12-14)

Looking at the list, the last — Record keeping:  student information systems, payroll systems, business functions, human resources systems, and the like have been implemented in many schools.  We have implemented technology to handle the mundane.  The other applications have spotty implementation and without significant transformation.

In Technopoly, technology and cultural critic Neil Postman states that

“[T]he main characteristic of all tool-using cultures is that their  tools were largely invented to do two things:  To solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as water power, wind mills, and the heavy wheeled plow; or to serve the symbolic world of art politics, ritual, and religion, as the construction of castles and cathedrals. . .” (p. 23).

Considering this view with schools, school leaders are largely tool thinkers:  “Technology is a tool.”  So the focus becomes those  issues not directly related to teaching learning:  mundane management things (recording keeping, paying bills).  Yes, states are requiring data and so school leaders respond to the “urgent” demands of regulators.

Further some school leaders contend that their teachers “integrate” technology.  This is not much beyond the tool user.  Hardware and software are purchased independently of their curricular design and use.  Teachers are herded into a room shown the new gizmo and told to “integrate” it into their curriculum.   This is a recipe for failure.  Teachers have no direction, support, or encouragement to succeed.  It’s up to them to find ways to use stuff with their kids.  Just another thing to do.

School transformation occurs when school leaders insist that hardware and software are part of the curricular design and focuses on learning.  It’s time school leaders realize the potential and implement it in their classrooms.  Otherwise the other ideas that OTA identified in 1988 will continue to be on somebody’s list of promising practices.

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Innovation and Democracy

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Is innovation a democratic process?

Innovate:  to introduce something new; make changes in anything established. (reference)

In Disrupting Class, author Clayton Christen informs school boards that introducing digital learning into schools may be hampered by purposeful democratic processes that are part of schools’ cultures.  Cooperative tools like “financial incentives, negotiations, vision statements, training, performance metrics, and even litigation . . . don’t work most of the time. . . . [L]eaders often waste their credibility, energy, and resources when implementing change.  The efficacy of any tools in eliciting the cooperation needed to march in a new direction depends in two variables:  the extent to which the concerned parties agree on what they want, and the extent of their agreement on how to get it.  We have concluded from examining school through this lens that democracy itself — as practiced in most school boards — is a fundamental barrier that will block implementation of many of the changes [needed for successful digital learning] unless leaders deal with it correctly (p. 227).

Reflect on this question:  When was the last time  innovative emerged from a school committee?  I am referencing issues that really improved (changed) learning for kids?  Never seen it happen in a curriculum committee and certainly never in a “technology committee.”  Legislative mandates force certain changes upon schools.  Innovation in schools does not happen from within the established system.

Real innovation occurs with through a visionary leader who gathers like minded supporters that are committed to helping the vision become reality.  Look at the picture at the top of this posting.  Was the light bulb developed by a committee?

Many of us can name innovators  of goods and services from the past two decades.  Can you name a educational leader who really changed learning in schools in the past two decades?   Not one.  Most are historic figures from the early 20th century.  (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have not innovated education.  They provided “tools” that allow teachers to do the same things electronically.  The delivery, the context, and the result are from the early 20th Century.)

As schools consider new ways to bring digital learning opportunities to their students, they need strong leadership and perhaps undemocratic methods to make this a reality.  Otherwise are kids will remain early 20th Century learners.

Good Advice for School Technology Leaders

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In the May 21 issue of Forbes, the article “Thrifty Does It,” describes how Christian Gheorghe Hates started a billion dollar company with a shoestring budget.  School leaders tell their communities that they must do more with less.

Hates’ strategies show how he cut costs nearly 90% while he was able to deliver quality technical services.  Here’s what he did:

  • Replaced server purchases with leased server space in the cloud.
  • Replaced licensed email products with Gmail.
  • Replaced productivity software with google docs.
  • Replaced database software with databases purchased in the cloud.
  • Replaced telco services with VOIP services for phones.
  • Replaced internal file sharing hardware with box.com.
  • Replaced system testing software with open source.

While school technology departments may not be considering using alternative services and may be against specific brand names that Hates uses, he is successful at dumping expensive licensing and using free or inexpensive services to run the technical services of his company.  There’s a lesson here for school technology leaders.

With Technology in Schools Nothing Has Changed

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With technology in schools nothing has changed.  Several years ago, I performed some original research about technology in schools (reference).

While this study occurred in a limited scope with a few school districts and I stated it could not be generalized, the results appear to be similar to what is appearing in popular media today.  The results:

(a) educational technology policy formulation focused on collecting the objects of technology, such as computers, modems, networks, and the like, rather than viewing educational technology as a systematic process of achieving goals;

(b) active leadership from a superintendent was essential in each school district, formulation of the plans was more than an empowered committee or executive blessing, and it required active participation by a superintendent;

(c) school districts developed educational technology policies regardless of their financial state;

(d) educational technology policy formulation occurred without regard for student demographics;

(e) applied technology or technology education–including electronics, robotics, video production, industrial technology, and metals technology–was part of educational technology policy formulation in two of the three school districts;

(f) while planning focused on the objects of educational technology, planners took little action on other elements of educational technology planning, such as staff development, finance, evaluation, and school cultural issues;

(g) technology planners did little to communicate aspects of their educational technology plan to their school communities;

(h) educational technology policy was a political process. Whether it was a new superintendent pushing his technology agenda or a teacher influencing a computer purchase, politics were part of the process; and

(i) the planning committees were not representative of the school community.

Looking at today’s social media posts in a very unscientific fashion, nothing has changed:

(a)  Today’s social media postings are about buying tablets and the “top 10 apps.”  Little in the social media is about students learning and focusing on students.  It’s about “buying” and “integrating” — a lost cause.

(b)  Leadership is always essential;  today it appears to be driven by peer pressure.  An executive administrator or a board member attends a conference where a school district reports on an effort of a presenting district and “tada” technology is purchased and expected to be used.  Many times the initiatives are way out of context.  Yes, leadership is essential, but is largely misplaced.

(c) They continue to plan, but with dwindling funds.

(d)  It still happens everywhere.  Wish lists are developed, regardless of the school district.

(e)  Still part of planning.

(f)  Professional development continues to be a challenge as teachers are taught skills, told to integrate, and left to go their way.  Usually not successful and not worth the results.

(g)  Communication about technology is swamped by NCLB and budget reductions.

(h)  It’s one of the most dynamic political processes as teachers and groups work to get the latest techno gizmos.

(i)  Planning committees still are composed of techno geeks and not representative of the larger community.

So the cycle continues.  Purchasing new hardware and then professional development is focused on integration – not transformation.  Teachers continue to teach the same old ways except with new technologies.  They no longer focus on “computers, modems, networks, and the like,” but it’s tablets, apps, wifi, white boards, and web 2.0.”  Their attitudes and practices around technology in schools remain the same.  Nothing has changed.  I did not expect that my research was a “game changer,” (another overused word choice to accent the insanity of technology in schools) but I was hoping that a new group of school leaders would emerge that would transform teaching and learning.  Well, with technology in schools, nothing has changed.

Using Open Source Software

The fifth issue that schools should consider is the use of open source software.  The open source community is quite different from the former “freeware” software.  Quality is improving.  The development community makes improvements and supports new ideas in increments that are similar to paid-for-software.

As with the other considerations (cloud computing, students’ personal devices, increased bandwidth, and social media), the marketplace in open source is maturing and improving.  The heavy-handed licensing agreements of the major software companies are unrealistic for schools.  While schools get great discounts, on-demand inspections and agreement language that only favors the companies are becoming obsolete.

Some of my peers state that “free is not free.”  Paid software that is really not supported, except with extra costs or stonewalling by companies that the issue “will be fixed in the next version, is unacceptable.  In practical application there are issues that should be addressed:

  1. Some open source software does not have some advanced features that some users need.  Ok, buy the software version those indivuals need.  I project that this is a very small percentage, less than 5% of the computers in the organization.
  2. Test the open source software in actual school experiences before implementing broadly.

There is some great open source software for web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, image editing, and operating systems, among others.  Schools should strongly consider the implementation of this software over paid software.

As with other issues with technology in schools, budgets are being cut.  The market across many areas provides the avenues for school technology departments to reinvent high performing systems at lower costs.  Take a look at using open source software in your schools.