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February 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 5

A Technology Plan That Works

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Digital learners are hungry to use technology in school. And many schools are responding by delivering cutting-edge equipment to all teachers and students and infusing this technology into instruction.
This is all well and good. But as evaluators with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, we have observed several major statewide technology initiatives in action, and although some schools have met with exceptional success as they infuse technology into learning, many others have not.
Since 2003, we have evaluated how 45 schools across North Carolina—involving 23,000 students and 1,800 teachers—have implemented IMPACT, a media and technology integration model developed by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (Bradburn, 2005). The model is based on sound theory and practice. But our research suggests that any new program's effect on learning depends on the context.
Whatever the innovation, administrators should keep in mind certain principles. Here are five lessons about how to implement major technology initiatives in a school or district—and how not to.

Lesson 1: It's Not About the Technology

Technology initiatives are about people—the people who plan with, teach with, and learn with the technology. Relationships are key in schools, and investing carefully in people and relationships is the best way to ensure that an initiative will succeed. Building enthusiasm for a technology initiative is crucial; without it, the best laid plans will flop. To this end, we have found that soliciting—and using—teachers' input is essential.
Administrators must listen to teachers in each phase of the implementation process. Before you purchase equipment and before you plan professional development sessions, seek answers to certain questions: What do teachers know? What do they need to know? What will they actually use? What kinds of investments make sense for your instructional program? Teachers' answers to these kinds of questions may be surprising—which is why administrators need to ask.
We also recommend giving teachers formal opportunities to provide guidance throughout the implementation process. Teachers should lead committees that are responsible for purchasing and planning. This continual input will help guarantee that the focus remains on teachers and students—not on equipment.

Lesson 2: Let the Plan Fit the School

At this very moment, the worst-case scenario is happening in a school we know. Last fall, a district administrator ordered some new equipment for Oak Tree Elementary School, equipment that now sits in unopened boxes stacked beside the school secretary's desk. Nobody is sure what this equipment is, how to use it, or why it was ordered. Eventually someone will open the boxes, and the principal will meet with the school's computer technician to figure out what they can do with these unfamiliar machines and software. The technician will discuss the new equipment during a staff meeting, but most likely it will wind up under tables in two or three teachers' classrooms, gathering dust.
This all-too-familiar tale is entirely avoidable. The solution lies in realistic planning at the school level. The needs and resources of each school are different, so it may be counterproductive to standardize equipment ordering and use across an entire district. Although the organizational structure in some districts makes it difficult for principals to have total authority over purchasing, school-level leaders must develop their own plans for integrating purchases into the instructional program, with input and guidance from classroom teachers and technology personnel.
Good planning mandates that each principal know as much as possible about the school's infrastructure and the specific teaching needs of the faculty. We have studied schools that literally had to call the district office each time a teacher wanted to plug a device into an outlet because the electrical system was so antiquated that charging up a laptop cart could create a schoolwide blackout. Similarly, we have visited schools that discovered—belatedly—that asbestos in the walls and ceiling would turn drilling access points for wireless delivery into a bureaucratic nightmare. We've seen districts spend significant funds on laptop carts without realizing that, because the schools in question had multiple stories and no elevators, carts would be virtually useless. In each case, someone along the way failed to ask simple but important questions about infrastructure.
Planning must reflect the instructional needs of the school as well as a realistic time frame for implementation. One element common to worst-case scenarios is that the person making purchasing decisions is doing so with excellent intentions, but without the specific needs of the school in mind.
Even when a purchase is highly appropriate and relevant to the school's instructional program, you'll need a plan for integrating the technology into instruction before the equipment arrives, or it will make precisely no difference in how teachers teach and students learn. Teachers need to see models of hardware and software in action. They should know in detail what they can expect the equipment to deliver in terms of meaningful learning activities and enhanced instruction.
One last word—plan for the short term and the long term, but be flexible enough to realize when the schedule needs to change. The implementation plan must be familiar to everyone—and adaptable enough to reflect the situation. Two schools we studied are good models here. Canterbury Middle School had planned to focus on teacher laptops in the first year of its implementation process and roll out student-focused technologies, including flip cameras and laptop carts, in the second year. Teachers were having so much success using laptops in the first year, however, that the leadership team decided the initial plan was too arbitrary; they purchased the new equipment for students ahead of schedule.
Similarly, Thompson Elementary School originally front-loaded its implementation process by providing the bulk of professional development months before any equipment reached teachers' hands—by which time they had forgotten how to use it. In the middle of the year, this school switched to offering just-in-time professional development opportunities as equipment arrived.

Lesson 3: Build in Professional Development

Simply delivering an LCD projector to a teacher's classroom in September does not equal implementing an initiative. The value of the equipment lies in the ability of the teacher to use it in a way that enhances instruction, and many teachers won't be able to do this without adequate support.
In too many cases, a district outlays funds for equipment long before anyone realizes that professional development will be a necessary expenditure if the equipment is going to see any action. In contrast, the IMPACT schools we studied reserved 25 percent of their technology budgets for professional development, which shows how important teacher training should be in an intervention of this type.
A vital aspect of professional development is timing and "dosage." One exemplary district in our study included an elementary, middle, and high school that each began implementing the IMPACT model in summer 2008. The district scheduled a week of summer training sessions for teachers from all three schools. This facilitated collaboration and instructional continuity both within and among schools, which is especially important for students moving into middle and high school settings.
Teams of teachers from each school who were identified as advanced technology users led many of the sessions— and were later available to help classrooms in different parts of their school buildings. Teachers in the district received a stipend for this time and could take the new equipment they received (a laptop, an LCD projector, and a compact interactive whiteboard) home for the remainder of the summer.
By the end of the week, participants were enthusiastic about possibilities for using the technology. Focus groups of IMPACT teachers reported that summer training sessions were beneficial. As one teacher stated, "From the classroom teacher's point of view, doing it in the summer made all of the difference in the world. I cannot imagine your normal beginning of the year [activities] paired with … all this new stuff" (Mollette, Townsend, & Townsend, 2010, p. 25).
Additional professional development should be paced throughout the school year so teachers have time to digest what they learn and try out new skills in the classroom. We found that teachers in schools that tried to cram too many different topics into a short time span were frustrated and overwhelmed (Mollette et al., 2010).
It may not be necessary to hire expensive consultants. Teachers' level of technology expertise will vary considerably, and many master users can create practical, effective workshops for novices; teachers will also become more skilled as a technology rollout progresses. Here again, soliciting teacher input is crucial. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of offering a variety of types of sessions and tailoring sessions to teachers' specific needs. Having 200 staff members sit through an hour-long presentation on Excel when only 30 teachers need the information will only generate frustration.

Lesson 4: Give Collaboration Its Due

Collaboration is one of those buzzwords that has almost begun to sound like senseless jargon. Yet collaboration has a very real place in schools implementing a technology initiative. One of the requirements of IMPACT is that teachers have regular, formal opportunities to work with media and technology staff to integrate available resources into their instruction.
Because teachers are typically overbooked, we recommend that, especially at first, principals help teachers make collaborative planning a priority by devoting significant time to it during workdays or staff meetings. In addition, administrators should set clear goals and guidelines so teachers know what kinds of products (such as integrated lessons or units) should come out of collaborative sessions. Encourage media and technology specialists to coteach lessons with regular classroom teachers, especially as teachers struggle to master new technologies.
When done well, collaborative planning sessions become peer-led professional development opportunities, with media and technology staff working as facilitators. As teachers become comfortable developing lesson plans and units together, much collaborative planning will begin to happen informally.

Lesson 5: Become Turnover-Proof

Three years ago, Forest Hills High School started a technology initiative. In the first year, all teachers were trained; and everyone, including the principal (the real driving force for the project), implemented like crazy. At the end of the year, approximately 25 percent of the staff was lost as the result of routine turnover, but the principal kept the initiative going. In the next year, an additional 25 percent of the staff left, and the principal was transferred to a new school. What happened to the technology initiative? Unfortunately, it's easy to guess.
Staff turnover is a fact of life, but it can kill a technology initiative, which depends on a high degree of teacher buy-in. The only solution is to plan for turnover, which involves two important approaches: developing teachers' expertise and sharing leadership for the initiative.
In most schools, technology expertise is the province of the school technician (who may have little knowledge about content or effective instruction) and two or three teachers with advanced troubleshooting skills. If a technology initiative is to succeed, this kind of expertise distribution won't get the job done. Again, effective professional development is the key. "Train the trainer" models are important, as are demonstrated examples of technology integration in action.
Many of our schools have reported that showcasing successful lessons during staff meetings is extremely effective in building teachers' repertoires. However, administrators have to be careful to ensure that technology integration isn't limited to discrete "hot spots" in the building and that all teachers have at least the basic skills to carry out technology-supported lessons.
A common phenomenon in our research was the inverse relationship between years of teaching experience and self-reported confidence levels in using instructional technology. Principals continually reported that new teachers (usually recent college graduates) had more advanced skills. Having at least one advanced user on each grade-level or subject-area team provided much needed support in the early phases of implementation—and also later on, when the novelty wore off and motivation for learning new skills waned. We recommend using the Performance Standards for Inservice Teachers survey (Advanced Learning Technologies in Education Consortia, 2001) to assess teachers' level of technology expertise.
Equally important in sustaining an initiative long-term is the need to make sure that leadership is shared among teachers from different grade levels and subject areas as well as with media and technology staff. No one person should be the linchpin. Similarly, principals should seek out the support of district personnel and invite other teachers and administrators in the district to attend professional development sessions related to the initiative. Getting other administrators invested in the project can help ensure that a new principal will share a similar vision for technology integration and won't pull the plug on years of hard work.

A Moving Target

Progress toward schoolwide skill with new technologies takes time and patience. The schools we studied received funding for two to three consecutive years, and although steady funding allowed for major equipment purchases and infrastructure improvements early on, the sustainability of each initiative was ultimately dependent on the vision and skill of educators. Keeping the focus squarely on people— as opposed to technology—will help schools smoothly introduce a technology initiative and maintain enthusiasm for the project in the long term.
References

Advanced Learning Technologies in Education Consortia. (2001). Performance standards for inservice teachers (ISTE). Lawrence, KS: High Plains Regional Technology in Education Consortium.

Bradburn, F. (2005). IMPACT: Guidelines for North Carolina media and technology programs. Retrieved from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction at www.ncwiseowl.org/impact

Mollette, M., Townsend, L., & Townsend, M. (2010). IMPACT III and IV – Year 1 (2008/09) annual evaluation report. Retrieved from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction at http://it.ncwiseowl.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_4500932/File/IMPACT/FinalReport.IMP3&4.2008-09.pdf



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