Soon Devices Will Matter Less, In the Meantime Prioritize

The good news is that there are more computers in schools these days–a little better than a computer for every two students on average. The bad news is they are often many different types running different operating systems purchased at different times for different reasons with different funds.
When an EdLeader finds an EdTech mess what’s the right path forward?  I asked Scott Ellis of The Learning Accelerator (our co-author for the Blended Learning Implementation Guide). He responded with five observations about the journey of innovation:

  1. Supplement to core. This [mess] is a characteristic of the transition from tech being a “nice-to-have supplement” to being “integrated in core instruction.” I envision a future state in which tech in schools is managed the way it is in good companies and other organizations: systematically and effectively to maximize performance, uptime, and supportability. For example, at the last nonprofit where I worked (about 200 staff) we made intentional strategic decisions about the IT platforms staff used, hardware, software, support, integration, etc. We had a head of IT who did this, in partnership with me as the COO and others. Schools and districts will need to do the same thing–otherwise it will of course be a mess. This is a well-known issue in tech for all sectors, and education is no different.
  1. Work in progress. I think part of the discussion with schools is to explicitly identify this phenomenon and articulate it as a stage of the journey to where we want to be, and then the key is to work with them on IT strategy. Is blended and personalized learning a strategic priority? If so, then the plan to create the technology context must also be a priority, and this means getting the right hardware and software, managing it, and supporting it on an ongoing basis.
  1. Support teacher leaders. If they are very constrained on resources, they may need to consolidate their existing tech resources to support a few identified teachers or classrooms. I am working with one district that wants to offer support to hundreds of teachers, but they lack the devices and support infrastructure. So I am advising them to really focus on the 40ish “blended learning pioneers” and ensure those teachers have a really solid tech environment–this is a surer path to success than spreading the devices more broadly with spotty support. If other teachers get annoyed because they want tech as well, then I think the key is to get more resources, not spread existing resources more broadly.
  1. Solutions focus. I am increasingly thinking about how EXACTLY everything comes together in the classroom to bring blended learning to life: personalizing learning, making it competency-based, and using real-time data effectively. What exactly is the software system? What data about student mastery is gathered and where is it stored? How is this used by teachers and students to get the outcomes we seek, etc.? With this lens, I think it is feasible to advise schools and districts to really focus on having a few interventions that really work end-to-end (same direction as #3 above).
  1. Share successes to accelerate innovation. I actually think it is good that more and more districts are getting connectivity and devices for more teachers and students–this is critical for enabling scale down the road. It will be a bit messy for now, but as long as we focus on clarifying how the end-to-end solutions should really work so we have the exemplars to emulate, then we will be able to implement them at scale soon. And as this happens more, funding for support will follow–once people see how blended learning works and how it helps students, they will want more of it, and will see that effective technology environments are critical enablers that need to be funded.

Keith Krueger, CoSN CEO, agrees on the importance of compelling narrative about learning and finding a way to enable an e-learning culture that is scalability. While he acknowledge that the device mess can be a big challenge right now, but with the rise of BYOD the whole question “seems so last year.”
“Given increasing cloud delivered content, theoretically devices should matter less and less,” added Krueger, “The big challenge is developing the human capacity to leverage the opportunities we have.”
In the meantime advises Ellis, “We can get through it by prioritizing scarce resources to make sure things work well for a subset of teachers and students by pushing for greater clarity about how exactly everything comes together to create the kinds of learning environments we are seeking with blended learning.”

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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