Saturday, October 8, 2011

Public Education: Technology Management

Buying stuff is easy – now for the hard part.

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There are more than 14,000 school districts in the United States. With all those students in all those locales, there is a great variety of teachers and learning environments. But 1 + 1 always equals 2 , "Au" is always the symbol for gold, and July 4 is always Independence Day. So why do we rely on teachers to teach these facts? Why not rely on technology to teach facts and have teachers teach concepts, monitor progress, and advance learning?

Sure, kids need to be taught to use computers. That's easy: kids want to use computers. But I get the sense that teachers and administrators don't know how to use technology to their advantage -- perhaps because they didn't have that advantage when they were students. Just as robots freed automobile workers from becoming lifelong "left handed bolt turners", computers and the Internet have the power to free teachers from the tedium of rote learning and transform them into leaders and mentors -- but only if union leaders, administrators, and school boards train and guide them in that transformation.

Perhaps administrators and school boards are overwhelmed by technology initiatives and vendors.  Here's a typical implementation plan for many technology customers:
  1. Buy some technology
  2. Buy some more technology
  3. Buy some stuff to put the other stuff together
This is commonplace for business, government, and schools.  Whereas business is more hesitant to buy because of bottom line concerns, government and schools often buy because they can -- without a plan for implementation or user training.  It's not a path to success.

Many technology initiatives fail not for a lack of funding for equipment but for a lack of management foresight. I've heard anecdotes about warehouses full of unused equipment, about teachers using $3,000 "smartboards" as projection screens because they're not connected to software or networks, and of schools with underutilized wireless networks because no one knows how to reset the router.

Many times technology implementations are just window dressing, a visible bandage for a "crisis in education". The crisis is one of management, not of teaching – a crisis that falls squarely in the lap of school boards and school administrators. The metric of success is not one of how much stuff the school system buys but, instead, of how trained and effective teachers use technology in the classroom to achieve learning results.

We need to invest in teacher training and technology best practices – not just vendor seminars and sales pitches – before we buy one more piece of gear. School boards and teacher unions need to come together to devise a technology implementation plan. The U.S. Department of Education must not fund or assist any further technology investment until school systems submit succinct, executable plans for classroom implementation and teacher training. In fact, it should be one of the Education's primary missions to seek and understand classroom technology best practices then broadcast and proselytize those practices to schools and parents.

School boards and administrators must be good stewards of our tax dollars, not just buyers of the latest fad. Unions must seek and offer relevant, up-to-date training. Teachers must push back when they don't know how to use technology effectively. And parents must look past flashy new stuff and ask, "Where are the results?"

So please – no more, "Gee whiz! Look what technology can do!" We know. It's time to get on with it and exclaim, "Wow! Look what technology has done for our students!"