by Matt Harris, Ed.D. Matt Harris, Ed.D. No Comments

Put the Learning Before the Technology

Put the learning before the technology

“We’re getting tablets for the students!” Such a wonderful statement isn’t it? Think about the possibilities for the students. They’ll have access to personalized devices for use throughout the school day. Each device will be connected to the Internet which will provide access to a wealth of knowledge and information. And each device will be loaded with apps that students will use to communicate, collaborate, and explore.

For those of us who’ve spent a large amount of time in the EdTech game, this actually is a worrying statement for us, not an encouraging one. You’ll notice that nowhere in the preceding practice does the word “learning” show up. It’s all about access, usage, and tools not learning, individualization, or educational.

This is a dangerous approach we find in schools around the world. The enticement of devices or digital tools or the influx of funds that have to spent on technology can obscure schools from focusing on students’ needs. I’ve seen this done in schools (and entire countries) around the world where technology was bought before the learning was planned for and the tools created more problems than benefits.

In schools that are most successful with digital tools used for learning, they live the ethos, “no technology without purpose.” These schools have developed the experience and policies to identify the learning needs that will be filled with devices, online tools, or even Internet access. Frequently, they will tie these decisions to an Educational Technology Roadmap where evaluation procedures for technology tools and the intended learning outcomes for students are clearly defined and available for everyone in the school community to access.

How do schools follow this model of “learning before technology”?

First, schools need to define what their student learning outcomes should be with technology. Are they looking for 21st skills development, deepening and broadening of content knowledge, or even improved performance on summative assessments? Once this question is answered, schools need to articulate the learning outcomes they expect from their students when using technology.

I have seen this done in a number of ways. One school created a scaffolded set of technology and non-academic skills they expected from students and outlined them against grade levels. I worked with another school that mapped the areas of the existing curriculum they felt could be enhanced by digital tools and identified outcomes that they would expect when technology was infused. Other schools use the ISTE standards or the P21 Framework to help map and identify those outcomes.

Second, schools need to approach the teaching elements of technology for learning. Do their teachers have the capacity to implement such technologies? How will they offer ongoing professional learning in the functional aspects of technology and the pedagogic uses of it in the classroom? How will evaluate the efficacy of technology usage by teachers in the classroom?

The best schools I have seen will have a clear training and support system in place to help prepare teachers for the use of technology in the classroom. They will do this through evaluation of existing skills and attitudes and then provide continuous access to professional learning resources on the technical skills and pedagogical uses of technology. I’ve seen this in the form of EdTech coaches, connections to external training organizations, or internal time reserved for collaborative planning.

Last, schools need to recognize and plan for the “knock-on effect” of introducing digital tools for learning. A school is an ecosystem, with any change having impact on other areas of the organization. If new technology comes into the school, will it replace another tool? How will time be reserved to use it in the classroom? What other resources are needed to support that technology? Strong schools will investigate these implications before they purchase any digital tools because they know a significant disruption to the learning environment could result in teachers disengaging with the tool or the tool being misused.

Once these planning elements are in place, a school can confidently say they have put the learning before the technology. At this point, excitement about the students getting tablets should be encouraged around the school because those tablets will be used in ways that will enhance learning by teachers who are supported to use them well.

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by Matt Harris, Ed.D. Matt Harris, Ed.D. No Comments

Technology is the Circulatory System of the School

Technology is the Circulatory System of a School

People often ask Tech Directors, “What exactly do you do?” The answer is of course incredibly complex, but in essence they keep the blood flowing to all the parts of the school.

Let’s think of a school as a living organism (which in many ways it is). This organism is a community of people working towards a common mission of student learning. They work together an interconnected set of systems, workflows, and dependencies much like the human body.

In the human body, each system serves a purpose towards the greater goal of keeping the body alive. Some of these systems are quite visible to use (the consumption of food, our ability to move, our senses, etc.) while others work in the background (the nervous system, the respiratory system, the circulatory system, etc.).

In schools, technology serves as the circulatory system.

In the human body, the circulatory is vital system that branches to every part of the body exchanging blood to ensure continued life. It contains a collection of mechanisms and parts that ensure the blood continues to be oxygenated and distributed, while prepared for emergencies should there be a problem.

The same is true of technology in a school. Technology’s purpose in a school is to distribute the life blood of the organization: information. Whether it’s network cable and wifi serving as the arteries and veins or maintaining access to the most updated information as the oxygenation of blood, technology helps ensure that every part of the school that needs it. Technology has backups and protective measures to handle issues and emergencies similar to the circulatory system. And just like the circulatory system, technology works about 97% of the time and people rarely notice it unless there is a major problem.

Of course, we have to address a key thought you might be having: with this analogy, does he think technology is the heart of the school? Well, yes…and no. From a functional standpoint, yes, technology runs the heart of the school. The servers and systems that pump information everywhere its needed acts as the four-chamber heart of the school. It needs to be well maintained, protected, and free of clogging. A breakdown of this system is akin to a heart attack with the same potential severity. From a metaphoric standpoint, no, technology is not the emotional heart and purpose that drives a school. It is not the reason the school operates or the school’s driving force. Nor should it ever be…though I think we all know tech people who might disagree.

Technology as the functional heart and circulatory system, but not the emotional heart of a school is key concept for all stakeholders as it sets clear expectations and culture.

If leaders, teachers, parents, students, and technology personnel understand the critical role technology holds in all academic and operational areas of the school then expectations can be appropriately set. Uptime requirements and communications from the tech department will be more in line with the reliance all others place on their work. The need for institutional support and appropriate funding will help ensure system health. The need for clear protective measures and operational procedures will be understood by all stakeholders. And realistic expectations around technology capacity, functionality, and reliability will be held by all. Further, when everyone in a school understands the circulatory system role of technology a culture of better communication and efficient technology usage tends to arise.

This begs the question: how do leaders, teachers, and parents better engage the technology department to build this understanding?

First, a technology roadmap for the school should be co-created to outline the current state of technology across the organization. This will outline the veins, arteries, and (functional) heart of the system. Such a roadmap will allow for greater clarity of decision making and serve as a backup of institutional knowledge.

Next, the process and data flows should be mapped by the tech team. This outline of the blood will allow the school to better understand what data it has, how it is used, and how teams work together to ensure consistent flow.

Last, an exercise program and healthy eating program should be put in place. The goal of better data flow, protected technology, and systemic improvement should be treated the same way we aim to exercise and eat well. The school should do this through strategic planning, cybersecurity auditing, and data flow and protection procedures.

By understanding that technology is the circulatory system of the school and treating it as such, the functional aspect of the organization can be maintained and improved in a healthy manner. This will allow everyone to focus on the true heart of the institution.

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