Words of Advice from a former Instructional Technology Director
Having spent 40 years in a school district as a teacher, assistant principal, and district level Instructional Technology Director, this time of year brings back a familiar feeling.
Much like a bird listens for the wind and looks for changes in the season to know when it’s time to head south, I too listen for the bell and look for kids heading to the bus stop. I presume it will be an annual reflex, one that I’m only too happy to maintain. Why? Because despite the many frustrations that stem from the busy back to school season, this is a magical time where teachers and students come together with renewed energy and purpose. With that in mind, I would like to share some of what I’ve learned about back to school in the digital age.
Timing Your Tech Deployment and Staging Your Professional Development
To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, “Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be.” Typically, Professional development is the least funded, most overlooked aspect in the transition to a digital curriculum. Those of us who embrace technology may assume that it will be easy for staff as well. I can assure you this is not the case.
What we learned is that you have to put many new technologies, whatever they may be, in the hands of the teachers 6 – 12 months in advance of the the students receiving the tech. This is especially true for devices, where the learning curve is taken at various speeds. This also allows you to offer training while the pressure is not as great. We all need time to adapt, so unless you’re introducing tech that is intuitively easy and requires limited training, make sure you’re not asking teachers to adapt inside the pressure cooker that is back-to-school.To distribute the devices and provide professional development during pre-planning is asking for push back. If this is your plan, think twice.
Infrastructure and Bandwidth
Have you been to a conference where the wireless access is slower than dial-up? That’s because wireless tends to be a shared environment and everyone is taking their fair share. As you ramp up for back-to-school, think about whether you need to amp up your bandwidth. I say this because there is a big difference between total coverage and adequate coverage.
I know this because I’ve experienced both and the difference is felt most acutely in the classroom. Simply stated, the addition of 20+ laptops per classroom probably means that the single access point in the hallway is going to be an issue. Load test before the children arrive.
Your “pipes” to the internet will no doubt be affected by the large jump in devices and the additional applications you’ve added to your portfolio of resources for teachers and students. Be sure that you are able to do some packet shaping and/or negotiate the ability to burst when needed.
Your parents and community are going to have questions around the use of digital. While I find it ironic that many of the parents asking about appropriate use are the same ones using devices as babysitters….but I digress. Be sure that your orientation, parent nights, and home-based communication touch on new developments in your digital learning environments. Accept that parents have a right to ask and be ready with some of the most frequently asked questions – especially about safety and security.
In my department, the words “Digital Content” were removed from our vocabulary. It means too many things to too many people. The conversion of a black line master to a PDF might, in some circles be considered digital content. PowerPoint, e-texts, static websites, Word documents are examples of this. They are, in fact digitized content, not a digital curriculum.
A digital curriculum is engaging and instructional in nature, designed to promote critical thinking, provide feedback, and deepen understanding. Take a look and critically evaluate the resources you are providing, and highlight those that meet this criteria. This is not a statement about the value of Digitized Content versus Digital Curriculum. Instead, it’s a challenge to think critically about what you hope to achieve with each transition to digital, be it at the individual, classroom, or district level.
Transformational vs Tradigital
Too often, I’ve heard teachers struggling with the transition from traditional to digital. Take, for instance, the early use of interactive white boards. While pundits (and company sales reps) were busy congratulating themselves on all the new technology in classrooms thanks to interactive boards, teachers were using them like shiny new chalkboards. In other instances, teachers they want to know how a child fills out a worksheet and turns it in digitally. This is what I call a tradigital approach. It involves trying to apply digital concepts to the traditional pen & paper methodology. Make sure that this distinction is made, and that administrators and coaches know the difference.
Administrative Buy-In and Support
Don’t forget your administrative staff when planning a roll-out and when scheduling Professional Development. Support from the superintendent on down is critical to your success. Consider that their buy-in is not a matter of whether they’ll buy new technology, but whether a district will meaningfully integrate that technology into the business of education Working closely with your school admins on logistics, preparation, and adoption are key to ensuring exactly that – adoption. Just because they are not in the classroom all day does not mean they are less important stakeholders in the use of devices and applications.
Be sure to put processes in place to help the administrators deal with technical, instructional, and community concerns. A school principal is juggling more than technology issues. While your focus is on the technology integration, be aware that your principals have other priorities as well.
Digital Does Not Mean Paperless
While advocates for digital learning often cite paperless environments as the end goal, this is often unrealistic for most schools. And as a result, we tend to vilify schools that still use paper. In fact, back-to-school is a key period for paper-based communication. This concept seems to get lost in the transition. While there should be a significant decrease in the need for paper, it is not wise to try and do everything digitally. I have witnessed implementations where the retrieval of a document or other artifact is so convoluted and cumbersome as to be detrimental and a waste of instructional time. Sometimes students with different learning styles may prefer to make notes by hand, or brainstorm ideas on paper. We should not force everything to be done by computer if it does not make sense. This will allay many fears people have around a digital adoption.
I am reminded of an elementary teacher friend who volunteered to pilot laptops in her classroom. On the first benchmark test, her students did miserably on the math portion. When she spoke to her students, they said it was hard to “work out” problems using only the computer. When they began using paper to “cipher”, the online resources deepened their understanding. Her students began to outscore the traditional classes.
You cannot overplan for the logistics around implementing new devices. You cannot overplan for the logistics around implementing new devices. This is so important I had to say it twice.
A lot of decisions will need to be made and much of their success will depend on your ability to do what I call air traffic control. It so happens I fly a good deal these days and yet, no matter how many times I depart and land at airports big and small, I marvel at how fluidly air traffic controllers orchestrate the many moving parts of an airport. This is, in part, because they’ve mapped out the best routes, fastest times, and every conceivable departure from the norm. Likewise, you should map out as many procedures as possible and do your best to prepare for the unexpected.
For example, have you planned for insurance, theft, breakage, replacement, inventory, charging areas, cases, technical support, and loaner devices ? Has your Acceptable Use Policy (I prefer to call it Responsible Use Policy) been updated to reflect the use of school owned devices, especially with regard to social media? There are countless other considerations, but that is for another post.
If you are serious about moving to a large scale implementation of Digital Curriculum, Single Sign-On is a must. Yes, yes, this is a little self-serving since I happen to work for such a company now. But I was an early adopter of this technology because I knew that air traffic control was key. I knew that I’d be working in both traditional and transformational environments. And I knew that I’d have to get everyone bought in – from administrators to tech and learning teams, from teachers to students to parents. The surfeit of websites, usernames, and passwords serves as a significant barrier to embracing the digital space. Whether it’s ours or some other platform, having a good SSO solution will make all the difference.
Best of luck to you for this back to school season. It’s a lovely time of year for those that are prepared. I hope these few concepts will prove useful to you as you enter this new season. And although I’m in a new role, I’m still actively involved in education technology. I guess it explains why I’m still listening for the school bell. Now, if only I could.
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George Perreault most recently served as Director, Instructional Technology and Library Media at Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) in Florida, capping off a distinguished forty-year career as teacher, administrator, and technology leader. During his time working in schools, Perreault guided OCPS through increasingly sophisticated use of technology in the classroom and across the district.