I hope that we can start with the premise that technology literacy is an essential content area in K12 education. Reflect on how different this world is from 10 years ago (before smart phone / tablet technology). Or how different the world is from 20 years ago with the eruption of the World Wide Web; or thirty years ago with the personal (consumer) computer revolution. How we communicate, learn from and with each other, collaborate, research, shop, aggregate, curate, discern… almost everything is very different. We cannot expect to teach as we were taught. Yet there is such disparity between schools, school systems and segments of societies. Most classrooms, most days are not significantly different today than they were 40 years ago. My essential question after attending the tech conferences is: How do we enhance education in a systemic fashion, and sustainable fashion.
photo credit: Marco Antonio Torres 2012
Earlier this year, a good friend and fellow ADE Lucy Gray published an About.com article: Tips for Educational Technology Coaches that provided some great suggestions about pursuing excellence as a Technology Leader in the local school.
For me this article triggered a question:
Do education policy makers recognize just how important a Technology Specialist, Technology Integrator, or Technology Innovation Coach is at the local school level?
A precursory search failed to find any research depicting what percentage of US schools have a dedicated Technology Specialist – Or what the ratio was of Technology Specialists to Teachers / Students is in the US. Other organizations such as COSN have established the need for a Chief Information Officer – a technology director for the entire school system, and that is certainly important, but honestly we need help closer to the front lines!
I must say, I am concerned– after two decades of increasing access to technology, it seems that we are struggling to maintain, much less expand our vision of leadership for digital literacies in a systemic, sustained fashion.
The Evolution of the Technology Specialist Position
Early in the personal computing revolution (mid-eighties) there were primarily two approaches to developing technology integration in schools:
- In many schools, administrators and staff looked to school's librarian/media specialist. They were commonly the 'modern equipment managers' (film projectors, VCR's, slide projectors, overhead projectors, cassette or record players).At least they were the most likely candidate… Sometimes that worked, other times, the librarians/media specialist were resistant, ill-prepared, or just didn't have 'the knack' for technology. Many media specialists were lovers of books and librarians at heart. They didn't necessarily sign up to be experts on the digital realm. The internet had changed the notion of copyright, publishing and research and totally disrupted their world.
- At other school sites, there was that one teacher (or occasionally a cadré who was the early adopter. They were enthusiastically trying new things and quickly began to advocate for a computer for each classroom. They were often the first to try out an overhead projector LCD panel (that sat on top of the overhead projector). They quickly saw the value of computer generated tests and were quick to abandon the typewriter and mimeograph machine line. In many cases, the administrators at that school recognized their aptitude, vision and knack for efficacious use of technology. The principal consulted with them for purchases, asked them to troubleshoot, mentor other teachers and help them with their school emerging multimedia, newsletters, etc. Supportive administrators even began to look for creative ways to schedule release time for their technology-apt teacher(s) giving them partial teaching assignments so that they would be free to work with other teachers and other students. The Technology Specialist (Coach, Integrator, etc.) was born!
In most cases, it was really the principals at the schools that appreciated and made it possible for the technology specialist position to develop. There are a lot of moving parts and squeaky wheels for the administrators to attend to, so at other schools, the potential for an in-house technology specialist was not a priority. In our school system here in on the Space Coast, (71K students, close to 100 schools), there has been shift from a site-based, certified teacher technologist to a shared network associate for two or three schools. The network associate carries a Microsoft or Cisco certification but (typically) doesn't necessarily have a bachelor's degree, much less a teaching certificate.
These associates do a very capable job of troubleshooting printers, servers, wireless connections and access to network resources – in an environment increasingly dependent on regular access to technology this staff position is mission critical. In larger schools, technology associates (network engineers or IT folks) are most definitely needed onsite. This is a relatively recent position for schools that was not needed or staffed when I began my career over 30 years ago.
However, these technology associates have a very different view of the role of institutional computers/networks, one that is influenced by the college of management information systems and corporate spreadsheets, word processors and databases in cubicle farms. Very few of them understand the unique needs of an educational enterprise or learning theories / educational psychology. They specialize in very technical things, but are not necessarily good communicators or teachers. A common observation that certainly carries some validity (although not always) is that geeks are challenged when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Their solutions often do not take into account the needs teachers or students have for sound learning environments. For example, the typical corporate deployment model would be a single network printer shared by 30 to 100 employees, down the hall on the left. Obviously, a teacher cannot abandon their students in the classroom to walk down the hall to this shared printer to get that modified progress report for the student that is on the edge of tears.
In contrast to certified teachers that are passionate about the potential of technology, technology associates/IT folks are more often reactionary to the needs of their teaching and administrative staff. The proactive Educational Technologist are constantly scanning the horizon for possible implications of new technologies on the classroom, we are mindful we are teaching for our students future, not our present. Technology associates don't see through the lens of teaching, they are great at putting out fires, but are quicker to acquiesce and say something can't be done or here is the only way. I know I am making some big generalizations here, and I don't intend to offend anyone – but IT folks are usually more concerned with locking things down, rather than creating new possibilities. Most educational technologists are infinitely more patient and encouraging, they thrive on helping staff and students figure out how to fix things and do things themselves independently, whereas the IT bloke has got a fix and will just take care of it for you. They quickly get frustrated with people who can't remember their password or have sent the sixth print job to a jammed printer.
In order to be successful, school-based educational technology coaches must wear many hats and continually iterate on professional development plans and strategies based on school culture. Collegial relationships are also vital to successful instructional coaching; it’s essential to be intuitive to the needs of colleagues. Coaches are often called upon to be advocates, cheerleaders, storytellers, trainers, curators and perhaps even therapists; their primary focus should always be on supporting and championing teachers and students as they progress in their uses of technology for improved teaching and learning.
Lucy Gray in Tips for Educational Technology Coaches
Assertion: I believe that Principals, Program Directors, Superintendents, School Boards, State Representatives and all the way to Federal Level Policy Makers should value and endeavor to establish a technology coach position at every school (at least part time).
Innovation and tech integration is very difficult for most teachers – if as a society we recognize that technology is radically changing the way we live and learn – we owe it to our students and their teachers to make innovation and growth the rule. Without embedded PD and assistance, we will only see isolated 'pops' – events that are exceptions, not a regular practice.
5 Reasons Every School Needs an EdTech Leader
- Accessibility: A site-based technology specialist is mentally, physically and socially much more accessible than an central office or shared technology integrator. As a dedicated integrator, staff that run into problems or have questions don't feel like they are competing with hundreds of other teachers or projects for immediate attention. Even though screensharing and phone assistance is very efficacious, sometimes literal 'handholding' with physical presences is really the best way to build confidence and stretch out of one's comfort zone with new technologies. Many of the people we need to bring along may be very literate in their content area but not so fluent in types of cables, adapters, software interfaces, troubleshooting techniques, etc. Having experienced educational peers present in a moment's notice makes all the difference when 25 middle schoolers are waiting for the fix. In most cases, the physical presence of modeling the integration of technology in an learning activity has a much greater impact than a step sheet or screencast.
- Pedagogical View: I think that the educational community must assert the value of their professional training. Although teaching is an art, it also has a very deep extensive science and philosophical breadth. The ability to structure learning environments, lead a discussion, adjust scope and sequence, anticipate student misconceptions, monitor and be conscious of what might be going in 20 something different pre-teen heads – these are the things that professional educators take in stride with a broad exposure to theories based in learning, developmental, brain, social, cognitive sciences. A deep background in both theory and experience in educational practice are crucial for a technology specialist to impact and sustain innovation on their campus.
- Planning: Each member of the staff bring a critical piece of the holistic education of a child. It is very difficult for an administrator, curriculum specialist, or teacher to manage the demands of their job and stay current on the latest technologies. It takes a special person with a knack for understanding current and upcoming technologies; someone who can anticipate how to best leverage consumer technology advances with the learning process. Someone who reads Wired Magazine, follows podcasts like This Week In Technology, watches webcasts, attends technology conferences, reads technology journals, participates in and leverages social and professional networks like Twitter, Linked-in, Facebook, makes contacts in other schools, states, and countries. These are the people that you want to advise you in your school's technology purchases and to write your school's technology plan. These are the people who are both familiar with your school's local culture, staffing strengths and weakness, the school's network infrastructure, hardware inventory, past professional development and future needs. These are people familiar with reality, friction points for adoption and yet have a passionate vision for the future.
- Relationships K12 Education is most powerful when it is relationship-based. It is often said that If you don't have the student's heart, you have no business with their mind. One of the current buzz words in education is Differentiation (a.k.a. Personalized Learning). Although this reason is certainly closely related to Accessibility, I think it is important enough to stand on it's own. This is where a people–person, experienced peer, patience, and real friendship have great impact. The best educators and coaches connect on a personal level with genuine interest with each person they mentor. Professional development followup meetings, casual discussions in the hallway, lunch conversations, and maybe even after–school social meet-ups; this is what keeps the ball rolling. Relationships are a key component of embedded and sustainable staff development and technology integration.
- Advocacy Just as schools need someone to look for opportunities for deeper learning and innovative possibilities, they need someone to identify implementation partners, necessary resources and recruit support from the administration. Students and their teachers sorely need advocates today. So much is being asked of them and with the previous responsibilities of the administration still pulling them out of the classroom, someone at the school needs to recognize small victories and document large ones. Advocacy occurs within the institution and without – including the parents and the greater community.
- Web Presence A strange thing has happened to our society. Our schools are under tremendous pressure from their state legislatures, school boards or other governing bodies to differentiate and market themselves. Several decades ago, there were good schools and some not so good schools, but it was more word of mouth about sports teams, discipline and graduation rates. Today (particularly secondary) schools need to have speciality focuses, academies and unique programs to attract enrollment (and often more academically successful students). Every prominent business and institution has a dynamic website, emails news and promotional newsletters and they leverage social media to stay in touch with their clients and prospective clients. In addition to what the administration has always done, now there are additional expectations to market and maintain their school's appeal and community connections. A tech-savvy educator/communicator can help as a webmaster or at least help navigate these efforts as well.
- Collaborations One of the tremendous under–realized potentials of email, social media and the internet in general, is regional, state, and even global connections and collaborations between schools. The impression it makes on a student in Florida to exchange ideas, experiences and visuals with a student in Australia is phenomenal. A technology specialist can server as a point of contact and help coordinate common protocol experiments, original source information from distant places, develop surveys, photo contests, build virtual worlds, compose multimedia mashups, program robots… there are so many opportunities to make abstract, distant things so much more real and relevant!
It is not enough to get a vendor to come in and show 20% of a department how to use an online textbook and say that our teachers are ready to integrate technology. It is not enough to give (most) teachers a single training on Blackboard, Google Docs, and Discovery Learning and to expect them to teach differently. It is not about the tool, the software or the novelty – it is about the choice of the tool, the pedagogy, and the efficacy of the activity. It is about continuous growth, relationship, articulated, scaled, and progressive development. Most of what we see presented at Educational Technology conferences is only reaching a small portion of our students and for a couple of weeks at best. In the majority of our public schools, using technology to enhance their learning experience was the exception not the rule. I do see more yearlong efforts/strategies/projects, such as the flipped classroom strategy, but still for the most part only a fraction of our students have access and experience the power of technology to enhance their learning.
Policy makers: Effective Technology Integration ≠ More Computer Based Testing
Policy makers, educational leaders, and legislators – let's make technology coaching a priority at all schools. It's how today's students learn and become equipped for their future. We need a renewed focus on developing our vision of this role!