DAILY INSIGHT: 10 rules for a successful edtech program that have little to do with tech, part 2

By JD Ferries-Rowe, CIO Advisor

Make sure you read part 1 first.

6. Avoid Myths and Hype

There is no one gadget that will fulfill the needs of every student and every teachers. There is no one technology that transforms every lesson to a multi-variate experience that meets all students learning preferences. There is no LMS that makes every teacher a data-driven-decision-making automaton capable of raising test scores with the blink of a mentor-camera's electronic eye.

Technology tools are designed to accomplish specific tasks in specific ways. Leveraging those tasks and methods into a learning experience takes experimentation by teachers and students. The more experienced the teacher, the more willing the students, the more focused on the learning objective, the easier it becomes to evaluate specific technologies for their educational impact.

But there is no magic wand. Period.

7. Deal with Conflict Openly and Honestly
The best of technology departments are servants to a variety of people, including students, teachers, administrators, parents, and departments of education. Any one of these constituents may be able to play a trump card that can frustrate another group. This can happen when the Testing Overlords declare that no device that cannot be managed can be used for high-stakes testing. This can happen when parents demand online grade-updates as a matter of competition within the schools. This can happen when teachers insist on a specific program regardless of compatibility with student devices.

In these cases, it is best to let those who disagree have the conversation. Parents and administrators, teachers and students, etc., can have productive, student/learning-centered conversations about what system will ultimately meet the mission and student objectives of the school. Note: Technology has almost no dog in these races. Outside of network integrity, data security, and a few other practical matters, technology (see #2, Relationship Manager) serves as an implementer, not a decision maker.

Practically applied: During our BYOT implementation discussions, the math department, a high-functioning technology department, had an extended discussion about requiring all devices to be pen-based, preferably digitizers and even more preferably windows-based tablet PCs (the device of use for all math teachers). This conflict had the potential to sidetrack the entire initiative. As the discussion progressed, math teachers and techs began to isolate the underlying student-based needs of the class apart from the technology:

  • the need to take notes that included drawings.
  • the need to have access to digital notes.
  • the need to turn in assignments for homework.

Experimentation and conversation about learning objectives showed that while some technology may better enable student learning, no specific device or technique hindered the learning irreparably.

8. Acknowledge Non-negotiables, Plan Accordingly
Occasionally, there will be non-negotiables. They are becoming increasingly rare in a world where BYOT and consumerization are impacting the classroom so strongly, but they do exist. Again, the best approach to a non-negotiable (examples include caps on bandwidth, requirements to post grades, forced authentication to wireless networks, etc.) is to be honest about it and let it frame the discussion.

A non-negotiable should be:

  • explainable in terms of student learning or some other mission-based part of the school (we have to cap individual student bandwidth to ensure that classrooms have access to enough of the data stream).
  • agreed upon by a variety of constituents (we usually use tech, teachers, admin, students or some combination) as a necessary if not preferred course of action.
  • able to be reviewed as technology, classroom methods, demographics, etc., changes.

Practically applied: The transition from a command-level wireless network to an open wireless that allowed student devices was a study in "what are the non-negotiables." This included discussions of mandating virus protection (ultimately we decided to not require) and authentication (we require students to use a name and password so that if they engage in inappropriate activity we can have that discussion with the student as a learning opportunity).

9. Lead as Required
Rule number nine has gone through a number of drafts. It included "don't lead from the top-down" and "don't lead at all." Ultimately, the technology department operates best when its primary goal is to facilitate learning and teaching to the best of its ability. Because a well-run technology department has time to explore new ideas and new techniques, it is often in the position of recommending methods that some teachers may not have seen.

Leadership then becomes a hybrid of many of the rules discussed. It is a system of using personal relationships to identify needs and desires and frustrations. It is putting in systems that address student needs quickly and thoroughly. It is running a technology plan that is driven by learning objectives, clear in its goals, effective in its implementation, and open for review as times change.

It requires openness and flexibility and patience and a lot of caffeine.

When we put away silly debates over test scores and manufactured crises in order to increase sales of testing materials and test-prep textbooks, we remember something important: Classrooms are sacred. More specifically, the learning that happens when a student and a teacher are engaged in a give-and-take that opens the mind to new experiences and lets a student authentically reflect on that experience—that is a magic that I would put above anything else.

Any technology department in any school should begin and end with an understanding of how learning works. Without this foundation, programs will miss the mark and teachers will be frustrated because they do not understand how decisions are being made or what is truly important. Does this mean every tech has to be a former educator? That might not even be ideal. But the department as a whole should understand its position in the school is one of serving the greater mission of the school. It is less about authority than it is about facilitating. Less about command and more about service.

So there you have it. An attempt to distill our secret formula for running a technology department. Would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, additions, or changes to the departments that you run or have encountered. Drop a comment down below or reply on social media.

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.