Nov 26, 2008
I recently attended a conference for technology directors in the state of California, and I must say I was heartened by some changes in the program and, in some cases, the attendance of the sessions. What was different, you ask? The focus of these sessions on students and education. To be sure, these sessions were in the minority. But they were there, and they indicate the beginnings of what I believe will be an important shift in education technology. My only question is, are we too late?

To understand why I ask this, one simply needs to look at the vast majority of technology departments in school districts across the country, and their relationships with the instructional staff. When I have the opportunity, particularly at conferences, I often try to take an informal poll of educators, asking, "how would you describe your relationship with your IT department?" On nearly every occasion, their faces contort, their heads shake, and the adversarial relationship comes forth in their description of security restrictions, filters, blocks, bans, and controls. Speak to the technology leaders, and they will stress the need for an efficient and reliable computing infrastructure, speak of the need for "standards" (you know, those specifications that are used as clubs to beat back any idea that doesn't match a set of pre-selected technologies, especially those that they know nothing and/or are unwilling to learn about), and describe how providing these helps to enable technology use. When pressed on what impact technology has had on the district's mission (ie educational goals), confusion often ensues, typically followed by a series of unsubstantiated anecdotes about something that happened once in some classroom at some school, or one of my favorites, "because our technology is so reliable, teachers can be confident that it will work when they need it, which naturally means they will be more likely to use it." Quite a leap of faith, if you ask me.

CIOs in the corporate world experienced a similar trend five or six years ago, and realized that their failure to align their goals with those of the organization created an environment in which their value was in question, much as is the case with education technology today. What they discovered was that merely maintaining "five nines of uptime" was not enough, that they needed to become a strategic part of their organization's efforts to achieve its goals and to find new ways to measure their effectiveness, beyond those "five nines." Those that were successful in such alignments flourished. Those that focused on maintenance found their staff continually at risk of layoffs, their budgets cut, and often themselves outsourced.

So how do we avoid finding our departments on the cut list? As technology leaders, we must change our perspective with regard to our role within our organizations. If we truly want to establish value beyond mere "break/fix" maintenance and have a measurable impact on teaching and learning, we must:
  1. Be willing to step outside of our comfort zones and engage with teachers in the process of developing authentic, measurable educational technology implementations and goals. Too often, technology department heads do not participate in the discussion, choosing instead to serve a judiciary role from afar with little direct contact or involvement. This common practice has lead to the perception that department heads just don't "get it" and served to divide the IT staff from the educators. This must change if we are to align our efforts with those of the classroom. We must endeavor to take an active role in the education process, and to seek ways in which we can provide the tools and resources to facilitate new learning opportunities in the classroom.
  2. Consider the mission of our organizations first when making technology decisions. It's human nature to grant undue weight to the impact of decisions on our technology department. In an effort to maximize efficiency and minimize problems, we build walls around our infrastructure (and call them "standards") and develop complex integration frameworks with little room for discovery and exploration. This "preventive" mentality, however, is completely at odds with the environment in which we place the technology. The classroom is, at its core, a creative space, where failure is always an option and, in my humble opinion, should be celebrated for the learning opportunity that it is. I do not intend to suggest that the needs of the technology department should be ignored, simply that, while important, they should never be the primary reason for denying students and teachers access to technology or the flexibility to use it in new and creative ways.
  3. Loosen access restrictions in the interest of teaching and learning. The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was never intended to be used as an excuse to remove responsibility from the classroom, yet our response to it has had just that effect. In an effort to "protect" our children from "inappropriate" content, we have created an environment where noone takes responsibility for their activities, instead choosing to "blame it on the technology." In an ever escalating effort to restrict, ban, and block anything that might have the remotest potential to be misused, we have denied our staff and students access to some of the most powerful tools for creativity, collaboration, and learning on the web, and eliminated every opportunity to teach children to use these tools wisely and safely which, in my opinion, puts them at even greater risk. We as technology leaders need to drive a paradigm shift within our organizations and help our staff and students learn to be responsible for their activities on the Internet, just as they are for the content of any other media they might bring to school (ie magazines, music, video, etc.) We need to encourage our teachers move away from unsupervised computer time and into Internet use that is executed with purpose, or not at all. And finally, we need to convince administrators and teachers that intentional inappropriate behavior should be treated for what it is: a behavior issue, not a technology issue.
These are not simple changes. They will certainly require courage, creativity, and "thinking outside the box." In light of our current financial crisis, however, it is my sincere hope that technology leaders will seriously consider them. "Five nines" is not enough to establish technology as a strategic part of our organizations and, when money is scarce, district leadership might be willing to settle for fewer nines in exchange for dollars to spend on other priorities. My great fear is that many of us may well find our already thin technology departments on the cut list this year. Based on a number of emails on the ed tech listserves, I'm afraid many of us may already be there.


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  1. 'that they needed to become a strategic part of their organization's efforts to achieve its goals and to find new ways to measure their effectiveness, beyond those "five nines."'Superintendents are not dumb. If your department does a great job of keeping equipment running, but isn't considered valuable during strategic educational planning, then what, really, is the difference between your department and an outsourcing group? How about this: the outsourcing group is cheaper - yikes! We all need to ask ourselves if we have become as important on the front end (planning and decision making) as we have on the back end (implementation and maintenance), not just because we want to keep our jobs, but because it makes all the difference in the education or our kids. Thanks for your point of view on this blog, and in person, Jim! Sometimes we feel like voices in the wilderness, but the wilderness isn't so lonely when we have opportunities to share and learn from each other.

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