Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Ten Rules for a Successful #edtech program that have little to do with technology

Zooming out to see the big picture:
The @40ishoracle and I have spent a lot of time travelling and talking about BYOT and Digital Citizenship, and professional development techniques (including free coffee, comfy chairs and Twitter chats). In the last few trips, we have been asked to modify some of our presentations to focus on something that we constantly touch, but very seldom present on specifically: How did we get ourselves into the position as a school to be able to do some of the cool things that we have done?

It's an intriguing question, particularly as a school that went 1:1 BYOT but often recommends other solutions for schools based on their mission, school population, infrastructure and student needs. The more I thought about it from the head-geek standpoint, the more I realized that, while there is not one-size-fits all magic device or magic LMS...That doesn't mean that there aren't some nearly universal mindsets that will help a Information Technology department work effectively within a school and in partnership with teachers and students to make learning awesome. Thus, I humbly submit:

JD's Ten (or so) Rules of a Technology Department that have Very Little to DO with Technology!

1. Form Relationships

The 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.

The Teacher Resource Room is one key to keeping the
conversation going about tech and education
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 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 are 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

This nameplate sits on @40ishoracle's Desk
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. They serve 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 
Our BYOT reflections during "Boot Camps" began
with learning objectives, not tools
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 sales person refers to a practical and specific student-base learning objective. If they generically refer 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 (note: this means in the TRC, not the tech room :) ), we start almost every conversation with a teacher, "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 3-5 years that would transformational to the way students learn and the way you teach?" Questions like these began students and teachers thinking about how the most basic things they do in order to learn.

4. Think of the Use Case
ASUS VivoTab: Full Win 8  w/
SmartSleeve Keyboard, great on table
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. The Learning and other
...but a laptop fail

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 (yes, I am working on a review). 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 training initiative in technology that failed miserably. Often, if you listen closely, there are certain similarities to the tales. One of the most common occurrences is a promise of a technology, or 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).

6. Avoid Myths and Hype
Giving up on the One LMS Myth
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 Learning Management System 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 to 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
Excellent leadership position: sitting at the table
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.

10. Respect the Classroom as Sacred Space
Its not about the robot
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 any unibody construction with a glowing piece of fruit (heck, I would even put it above a lime green robot).

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.

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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 to us on social media.


  1. Very well put. Well-researched and well-spoken. Thank you.

  2. love the comment about Leadership as way of using personal relationships to identify needs and desires and frustrations. And a whole lot of caffeine!