DAILY INSIGHT: 10 rules for a successful edtech program that have little to do with tech, part 1

By JD Ferries-Rowe, CIO Advisor

1. Form Relationships

The first six months that I spent at Brebeuf Jesuit was an interesting time for me. I was hired to make significant changes in the way that educational technology was used in the classroom and the school and some administrators were waiting for me to wave the magic wand.

They became frustrated because I spent most of my days walking around the school, watching classes, having conversations with teachers. I was learning about the school, its mission, and its people. While this is difficult and draining a for severe introvert, it was the key to identifying problems (with the computer networks and the human-communication ones), beginning to plan, and getting people to see what was possible. Ten years later, this basic maxim is still true. The most important network the technology department can have is the teachers who leverage the technology and the students who use it as an extension of their being.

Practically applied: We created a space for teachers to meet, gather, and plan called the Teacher Resource Room. We stock it with free coffee, bring in donuts on Thursday, and use it for informal gatherings, idea sharing (the brown-bag lunch), and brainstorming (whiteboards!).

2. Find People and Processes to Bridge the Gaps
The most important role in a school that wants to expand its educational technology program is the #edtech coordinator. This role became so vital in our school that when it became time to reorganize the principal's office, the natural person to help with faculty development, evaluation, and curriculum was the #edtech who had been informally doing that job for five years.

The key to the #edtech role is not based on an expansive knowledge of educational gadgetry or lists of links to include on the ubiquitous "Website Wednesday" newsletter. The best #edtech is an educator who is capable of discussing learning objectives with teachers and then translating those objectives and dreams into concrete work orders that can be understood by techs. He or she serves as the bridge between two very different types of personalities. (For a tongue-in-cheek look at Tech-Geek and Teach-Geek personalities, check out this post).

Practically Applied: Processes can also help to alleviate tensions between the classroom and the technology-cave. One simple method that has immediate impact is a triage system of tech issues that prioritizes classroom issues. If teachers have confidence that issues in the classroom are going to be solved quickly, they are more likely to devote class time to integrate technology.

3. Start with Learning Objectives
Want a quick test to see if a the latest cool new thing was designed by teachers or test-them-all advocates? Count the number of minutes before the salesperson refers to a practical and specific student-base learning objective. If he or she generically refers to "personalizing education," "appealing to learning styles," or "providing data-driven solutions" then it is likely that this device has never been seen in a regular classroom.

At the #edtech and brainstorming level, we start almost every conversation with a teacher by asking: "What are you hoping to have your students learn?" When the initial focus is on the content or the skills of the students, then it becomes difficult to derail the activity with shiny-pretty smokescreens.

Practically Applied: The grand design for our BYOT initiative started with focus groups of teachers and students: "What would you like to see in your classroom in the next three to five years that would transform the way students learn and the way you teach?" Questions like these helped students and teachers begin thinking about the most basic things they do in order to learn.

4. Think of the Use Case
Similar to starting with learning objectives, we often evaluate new tools or initiatives at the most basic level of Use Case, namely, "How will this be used day-to-day?" This seems to particularly apply to large implementations. Rather than being dazzled (or, from the teacher point-of-view, overwhelmed) by a piece of technology, run it through paces. This can be done as a mental exercise or ideally as a pilot.

When the test of technology is use-case and not the spec sheet that is provided by vendors, the way the data is interpreted becomes different.

Practically Applied: I spent two weeks playing around with an ASUS VivoTab. It was one of the best Windows 8 (not RT) tablet experiences that I have had. BUT, on the most practical level, it was nearly impossible to use the tablet/keyboard combination comfortably in my lap—a requirement when trying to send out snarky tweets about a keynote speaker.

5. Build it Before They Come
Most teachers can describe a tech training initiative that failed miserably. Often, if you listen closely, there are similarities to the tales. One of the most common occurrences is a promise of a technology, tool, or method that either a) never materializes or b) shows up so far past the training that teachers have moved on in both practicality and enthusiasm before ever integrating the tech.

Practically Applied: Tech departments should begin to speak of initiatives in very consistent and easy-to-understand terminology outside of the technology room. In our school we talk about "Investigations" (surveying technology, gathering ideas, tweeting), "Pilots" (limited tests by people who are giving feedback about classroom impact, stability, etc.), "Burn-in" (Technology is available but glitches are still being worked out) and "Rollouts" (technology is available and ready to use).

Come back soon for part 2.

JD Ferries-Rowe is chief information officer of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. This blog is cross posted at Confessions of a Jesuit School CIO.