Looking through a systemic lens
Technology is one piece of the pie that can help execute a digital learning initiative, but it’s not the first place school leaders should go.
One must remember that the technology used in a digital learning program should enable the established vision driving the initiative. Moreover, the chosen technological tools need to account for the desired interplay between curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Without aligning technology with the overarching vision to meet curricular and instructional goals, a digital learning program is set up for limited impact.
For example, if the goal is to have students use digital tools to learn outside of face-to-face classrooms, a school may not need a one-to-one (one computer per student) set-up in its classrooms. Instead, a school may better serve students by giving them laptops to use independently outside of the physical classroom.
Therefore, in collaboration with the broader school community, school leaders need to conduct a gap analysis that looks at the current state of technology and the desired future state of technology. In addition to considering budgetary possibilities, all relevant stakeholders need to discuss some critical questions:
- Where does technology fit into meeting the objectives and student learning goals of the district?
- What existing technology tools do we already have to help us meet these objectives in the short and long term?
- What new technology tools do we need to meet these objectives in the short and long term?
- What skills do students, teachers, and families need to use the technologies to meet the district’s objectives?
In answering these questions, school leaders should consult a wide variety of school community members impacted by the potential technologies that could be used. Some helpful tools to conduct a gap analysis include surveys, focus groups, one-on-one discussions, town hall meetings, and classroom observations. Again, all relevant school community members should be consulted, including teachers, students, support staff, families, and members of the broader community.
In the end, when it comes to technology, what happens in schools should consider how people are using technology in their personal lives. A digital learning initiative should align with the needs of the instructional program as well as what the school community is doing with technology in all parts of their lives.
After initial discussions about the current and desired future state of technology, school leaders can start to enact a technology plan supporting a digital learning initiative. This requires forming a cross-functional team that draws from the expertise, experience, and perspectives of different constituencies within a school community.
This cross-functional team needs to keep the digital learning program’s vision in mind as they work together to identify viable options and carry out as smooth a transition process as possible. As pointed out in a recent Education Week article on making sound tech decisions and a State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) digital transformation guide, a cross-functional team would need to
- work together to identify gaps that need to be filled
- assess the solutions available to meet those needs, especially with an eye to security, privacy, and accessibility concerns
- conduct careful research about various solutions while input is solicited from end-users
- test solutions with various members of the school community
- craft clear purchasing and rollout plans to ensure systems are in place to introduce new technologies to an enthusiastic and well-informed community.
Once various technologies are identified, interoperability should be taken into account. Do all the chosen tools and platforms work well together? How integrated can and should they be? Are there any friction points that make using tools difficult? If there are barriers to using multiple tools needed to meet various digital learning goals, users’ time can be wasted, leading to frustration toward a program and initiative.
Unfortunately, school leaders do not have a crystal ball to tell the future, but proactive steps can be taken to “future-proof” a digital learning initiative. Plans need to be in place to ensure smooth operations and anticipate the changing landscape of technology.
One must remember that technology ages and breaks. A school district needs a contingency plan for broken computers and network equipment. Computers and systems need to be updated and replaced regularly, so districts need a straightforward maintenance and upgrade schedule to ensure users’ continued ability to work and learn. Also, bandwidth demands have increased over time, and they are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. So, long-term thinking about maintaining and increasing internet access speeds is needed. Lastly, a digital learning program should not be dependent on one particular piece of hardware or a specific manufacturer.
It is vital to have forward-thinking technology specialists on staff who stay updated on the changing landscape of educational technologies and know effective practices in having maintenance and upgrade schedules. As emphasized by a Digital Promise study on instructional technology, not only does technology need to be seamless and stable, there also needs to be opportunities for teachers to learn tangible ways to put that technology to good use in their instructional practices.
Implementation and support
School leaders should not assume that once technology is rolled out that everything will run smoothly. Nor should they believe that all members of a school community are equally adept at using technology. Technology training and support resources are essential to the success of a digital learning program. Training and support should be a key component in the planning and deliberation around what technology options to pursue.
Choosing which technologies to roll out should consider the need to offer training and skills development opportunities to teachers, students, staff, and families. If no one knows how to use a particular platform or tool, it won’t get used. Additionally, if a specific platform or tool is not intuitive or easy to learn how to use, there will be resistance to using that technology.
Thought must also be put into making sure the school community feels comfortable using the technologies implemented, and if they have questions or concerns, it should be clear where they can go for help. If a particular technology resource requires significant training and skill development that cannot be provided with the resources available at a school, other options should be considered.
During the implementation process, attention needs to be paid to what tech support options are available to end-users. If teachers expect students to do work outside of standard classroom hours during the day, will there be tech support available if they need help? Will there be tech support available for students’ families? How will teachers and support staff be able to troubleshoot particular technology-related questions in and out of the classroom? If significant tech support demand is required at all hours of the day to make sure these stakeholders can keep up with their work and learning, school districts need to invest in enough tech support resources and services.
In the end, choosing and implementing technology in a digital learning program should center on the needs of the school community, especially the students and their teachers. Primary goals should be useability and support.
Enthusiasm and success come when people feel confident and supported in using the technology they need to meet the goals of a digital learning initiative.
The following blog in this School Leader Insights series will focus on how professional learning programs for teachers can provide job satisfaction, improve digital learning outcomes for students, and serve as a catalyst for change.
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The authors would like to thank Tracy Gieseking from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute for her contributions and advice in writing this blog post.
About the authors
Dr. Christopher Harrington, director of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.
Dr. Ed Timke is a research specialist for Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Although he specializes in qualitative research — such as interviews, focus groups, ethnographies, and textual and visual analyses — he was trained in mixed methods research while in his doctoral program in communication and media at the University of Michigan. Ed has taught online and face-to-face courses on writing, research methods, global media and communication, the role of advertising in society, and intercultural communication at American University, Duke University, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.