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September 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 1

Power Up! / Good Technology Choices: A Team Effort

None of us is as smart as all of us.—Japanese proverb
I hate to be blunt, but the worst decisions about technology deployment are made unilaterally by technology directors. The second worst decisions are made unilaterally by educators.
And there are a lot of decisions to be made, ranging from minor to mission-critical. This is just a sampling of the technology decisions that school districts regularly face:
  • Which websites should the district block? Should we allow YouTube?
  • Should "strict" passwords be enforced?
  • What type of computing device would be most useful for our new 1:1 project with middle school students?
  • How much bandwidth should the district purchase?
  • Should the district replace its aging student information system?
  • What technology professional development should we offer, and how does it support other professional development goals?
  • Should the school limit students' use of personal technologies, including cell phones?
  • What technology skills should we expect all students to master, and how should we teach those skills?

Uncharted Territory

With technology and pedagogy changing rapidly, we don't have a large body of best practices on which to rely. Business technology practices don't always fit well in a system where a single device can have multiple users, users are expected to try new teaching tools and techniques, and standards on appropriate web-based materials may be determined by the local community.
Administrators realize that information technology is a double-edged sword. All devices have the potential to make education more effective, but they can also be used in ways that are annoying, unethical, and even destructive. Digital data can help us modify instructional practices to meet the needs of individual students, but unprotected data can violate personal privacy. Powerful multimedia resources can help students learn, but such resources may use excessive amounts of network bandwidth, slowing or stopping other processes.
Too many schools have not yet figured out how to create good policies and rules about technology use. Under the worst circumstances, poor or nonexistent policies have created what seems like a new range war—not between cattle ranchers and sheep herders, but between educators and technologists, with the techs winning by default.
I'm not beating up on technologists. We have knowledge that is crucial to the operation of technology in schools. Plus we have the responsibility for data security, network bandwidth conservation, and the reliable operation of what are typically far too many machines for an understaffed department to maintain, leading us to make rules that will decrease the likelihood of adding more technical concerns to an already-long list.
Yet these hard-working people often do not understand the goals and concerns of parents, teachers, librarians, or students. They may not understand why it's so important to give kids access to the widest range of information possible. They may not recognize that teachers need the flexibility to load software on their computers. They may not see why it's important that students and staff be able to access online resources from home. They may not understand why the librarian needs the password to the desktop security program in the computer lab, or how demanding and complex login procedures can cut into valuable instructional time.

Better Decisions Require Many Perspectives

So who should make technology rules in a school or school district?
To put it simply, decision making about technology has to be a shared responsibility, with both educators and technicians having a voice. There are pragmatic ways to accomplish this.
First, every school district should have a technology advisory committee that meets regularly. This committee should be composed primarily of educators (teachers, librarians, and administrators) but should also include parents and students—and of course, representatives of the technology staff.
Our school district's 20-year-old technology advisory committee has well-defined and limited responsibilities: planning, policymaking, assessment, and budget oversight. And we do listen to everyone—especially our student members, who too often lack a voice in their own education. School building technology committees should work in the same way.
This system has worked well for us. On the difficult issue of Internet filtering, for example, our committee decided that as a result of the Children's Internet Protection Act, we must use a filter, but we would set it at its least restrictive setting. Any educator can get a blocked site unblocked by simply requesting it, and blocking a site requires the same formal reconsideration process as removing other educational resources does. Adults are required to monitor student Internet access as though no filter were present. The technicians now know that it's not solely their responsibility to make sure that students do not access inappropriate materials by blocking websites—it's also the responsibility of teachers to educate students in how to use those sites safely. This is a good policy decision that we could not have reached without a variety of stakeholder viewpoints.
Ongoing, informal conversations about technology resources and use are also vital. Technicians should be part of school leadership teams so they understand the goals and priorities of the school. For the same reason, a technology representative should sit on district curriculum, professional development, and strategic planning committees. And the technology director should visit regularly with principals and in classrooms and libraries to observe, converse, and learn. If you don't regularly see your technology leaders in your school building, they're not doing their jobs.
An open dialogue about concerns, responsibilities, and priorities is essential for successful technology use in schools. Not everyone will agree with the decisions made, but at least everyone will have a better understanding of why those decisions were made. Education range wars aren't healthy for anyone—especially the little lambs we serve.

Short bio coming soon

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