If you are responsible for integrating technology into schools, then you must be prepared to discuss the return on investment stakeholders can expect to see. Those that don’t, may get caught up in an ed tech frenzy without fully thinking through why technology is important in the first place warns Michael Horn, executive director of the education program at the Clay Christensen Institute. This is what happened in Los Angeles with iPads he explains. "Districts are starting with the technology and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding technology in service of that."
This was the topic discussed by technology leaders who came together from across the United States at the Tech & Learning Leadership Summit. They shared what their districts were doing to measure the return on investment when it comes to technology.
Know the Why
The consensus among the leaders was that if you don’t define the “why” upfront, you run the danger of it defaulting to increasing test scores.
Focus on Digital Inclusion
That is not a problem in DeKalb County School District in Decatur Georgia. That’s because Gary Brantley who serves as their CIO warns stakeholders upfront that they are not integrating technology to improve academic performance. Rather it is an issue of equity and access. Brantley shared what we all know: “It is common sense that you can’t have a job today without knowing how to operate on computer.”
DeKalb County School District is committed to digital inclusion. This means providing students with opportunity, access, knowledge, and skills needed for success in today’s world. It is Brantley's job to provide students access to opportunities in our digital age.
Brantley points out that conversations about if technology is worth the investment, are not happening in affluent districts where young people have access to high speed internet and multiple devices provided by families. However, he notes, when it comes to educating low income students, the need to provide devices is far too often questioned and issues like “screentime” creep their way into conversations as justification to bring us back to the days before technology was integrated into daily life.
No Screen time Limits
When the conversation of screen time comes up, Dr. Sheryl Abshire who serves as CTO of Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana explains that, the devices we give students aren’t entertainment devices. They are learning devices. Students are reading, writing, computing, creating, and making global connections in ways never before possible. Unfortunately, what is in the minds of the public is often the research around passive, unsupervised screen time, which is completely different. Educators need to help stakeholders understand the difference.
Technology Provides an infrastructure
What is clear, is that providing technology, is not providing some magic bullet to make kids smarter or do better on tests. Instead it is a necessary component of the infrastructure of schools today.
In the past, the infrastructure consisted of desks in rows, a blackboard, rulers, calculators, and textbooks. No one was looking at the ROI for that infrastructure. That’s because learning is not about the tools, devices, and equipment.
It’s about the lessons, the interest students have in a topic, its relevance to real-world learning, and relationships.
Somehow, we have forgotten the importance of these relationships giving teachers lots of technology along with class loads in the hundreds, and then wondering why the “tech” didn’t improve test scores.
Innovative educators understand when we focus on the technology, rather than on the people, we are focusing on the wrong variable.
If we’re not focused on test scores, you may be wondering what the focus should be.
Profiling Graduates Makes the ROI More Clear
Michael Marassa who serves as the tech director for Grayslake Community High School in Illinois, suggests than rather than looking at numbers, report cards, transcripts, and test scores, we start by envisioning who we want to see graduating from our schools. In his district, they have been following the work of Ken Kay who you may remember as the co-founder of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Today Ken serves as CEO of EdLeader21. An important piece of their work is to help schools and districts find a vision by focusing on students and the skills they will need to be successful in work, citizenship, and life. The build a profile of a graduate. This approach provides a framework for backwards designed learning that integrates technology. The model is taking off. You can view the gallery to see examples of what schools and districts are doing.
Showcase Students, Not Test Scores
Marassa’s colleague, Renee Zoladz who serves as associate supt for instruction explained that it is not enough to talk about the importance of tech and why it’s necessary for kids today. They now use a hashtag #D127GetsREAL (Relevant Engaging Authentic Learning) to showcase the work of students that can be shared with all stakeholders. Seeing is believing. A picture is worth a 1000 words. A video even more. Providing the opportunity to see REAL young people in action allows stakeholders to see the return on investment first hand. What we see is what happens when students are given the infrastructure necessary to produce successful graduates.
Package the Work in Portfolios
The snapshots provided by capturing students via social media is powerful. Schools can help students take that to the next level by capturing their work, artifacts, and microcredentials that demonstrate mastery into a digital portfolio using any of the free (a blog or website platform) or fee (FreshGrade or SeeSaw) options that map back to the profile. More and more colleges and universities are realizing both the uselessness of report cards and standardized tests as well as the reality that they exclude quality candidates who for a number of reasons may not excel using such assessments.
Putting in place structures such as portfolios and microcredentials gives a clear picture of what we want the modern learner to look like. This helps students, families, employers, and colleges receive a much clearer picture of how schools are harnessing the power of technology to prepare learners for success in the digital world.
What has your experience been? Are these considerations ones you've taken into account when thinking about return on investment in technology where you work? Anything missing? Anything new that you will bring back to your school or district?
Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.
Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.