What ISTE Meant for EdTech Operational Leaders

Daniel Greenblatt

Technology has much to teach operational leaders about the value of simple, reliable processes. I admit that as a COO from a non-technical background, attending the world’s largest education technology conference can be intimidating. That said, it was absolutely the right place to learn about what it takes to lead effectively amidst a rapidly changing technology landscape.

Some of the sticky problems that education and social sector organizations have spent decades grappling with are now being fixed with surprising ease and adaptability through innovations in software and applications. Strong operational leaders understand the value of getting out of the way of talented educators, practitioners, and creative problem-solvers so that they have the freedom and support to push and test what is possible. Acting on this premise led my organization to invest significant growth capital over the past year in overhauling our learning platform and tools. Beyond making the resource and infrastructural investments, though, more is needed to leverage technology for transformative change that is felt by the people we serve.

The notion that people must be considered at every level of decision-making permeated the conference. I thought one session in particular served as a compelling case study.

Learning from the White House

The session, “A Conversation with the White House and U.S. Department of Education” provided stellar insights on the power of keeping people at forefront when undertaking bold change. When the Administration made it a priority to address the persistent digital divide by improving access to technology in America’s classrooms, their approach emphasized achieving scale and capacity, while paying attention to digital access needs and equity at every level of implementation.

It might have been thought that the greatest challenges to closing the digital divide would be providing all students with laptops or all schools with new learning software. In reality, the most critical barrier was the lack of reliable, reasonably fast Internet access for schools that had notoriously slow or no connectivity. As one administrator vividly described it, “Connecting to Internet in most buildings was like drinking peanut butter from a straw.” To address this challenge, the White House expanded access by expanding the E-Rate program that allowed schools to pay an affordable, universal service fee and get reliable Wi-Fi.

Jessica Rosenworcel was the key administrator responsible for leading the charge on the modernization of E-Rate, the largest Federal Ed Tech Policy. Under her leadership, the E-Rate budget was increased to 1.5 billion dollars, the E-Rate application was streamlined, and the quality of broadband was improved. All of these decisions considered people—the schools, educators and students that would benefit from access. The importance of addressing access simply cannot be overstated, because without access to reliable Internet, educators and students would never benefit from learning innovations that improve instruction and learning. Of what use, for instance, is a Smart Board or student data dashboard if educators cannot connect to the Internet to log in and use them?

Operational leaders are constantly faced with organizational process challenges. It can be difficult to remember that systems and tools are only valuable in the extent to which people adopt them and use them with fidelity. This is not a new idea, but it was refreshing to be reminded of how keeping the right focus, even in small things, can have a tremendous impact.

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Daniel Greenblatt is Chief Operating Officer for iMentor. Follow Daniel on Twitter,@dgreenblatt

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