Over the past few weeks, during a trip through England and the United States, I had the opportunity to visit several Jewish and private day schools. While every school has its strengths and weaknesses, I began to see a pattern with educational technology integration. Most schools now agree that technology is an important part of today’s educational model. However, unlike subjects such as math and science, there are no universal practices or implementation plans being followed. Every school seems to be creating a technology plan based on urgent needs and not always with a long term vision in mind.
As a veteran educational technologist, there are a few components that should be part of every school’s technology plan. The first, and most important question that must be asked is “how will the technology help our students?” Spending money on fancy equipment, without a plan for implementation is just a waste of dollars. Ten years ago, many schools throughout the world fell in love with the idea of putting a Smart Board device in every classroom. As a “tech guy” this sounded amazing, however equipment on its own does not bring results. When schools were rushing to install these devices in every classroom, many of them forgot that time and money would be needed for training and implementation. Sadly, many of these SmartBoard devices went largely unused. A shame, considering each SmartBoard cost $5,000! Surely, those resources could have been better spent. When I was a school technology director, I always insisted that any new technology purchase had to include mandatory teacher (and sometimes student) training. I remember the arguments and the upset faces from teachers who were being forced to give up their free time in order to learn how to actually use a new hardware or software platform. Many of those frowning teachers actually came back to me later to thank me for making them do the training. Once they knew how to use the new equipment, they really were able to strengthen the learning process for their students.
Almost 15 years later, as I toured both Jewish and secular private schools, I still saw some schools going down the same paths. Once school I visited just spent $8,000 on new Chrome Book computer carts for their students, thanks to a generous grant from a large organization. The carts were beautiful and the computers looked brand new. The problem was that they were actually almost 6 months old. I asked the principal what they were doing to encourage teachers and students to use these computers. I asked what I thought were the “obvious” questions about whether they were using Google Apps, or other software platforms. The principal responded that they did not really have the budget for technology training, so they were kind of letting people “figure it out as they went along.” Hearing this, I could not help myself, so I asked why they didn’t budget for training? He was honest and told me that they did not really think about it when they bought the computers and spent the grant money. I could not help but to think about all the potential projects and uses that this small school, with limited staff members could be doing with these computers. Certainly, the $8,000 that the school spent could be having a greater effect.
The same principles are true on the student side as well. Many parents have run to purchase fancy new laptops and tablets for their children. Again, while these devices could add to your child’s educational development, they can also become expensive additions to the ever growing list of entertainment related devices. If you are considering purchasing a laptop or tablet for your child, first check with the school to find out how they will actually use it to further their education. Will teachers be using online learning platforms to provide enrichment materials? Does the school have a management platform for communication and assignment submissions? Do other students have personal devices? How have they benefited? One student with whom I work regularly was very proud to have his own iPAD. He convinced his parents that if they bought it for him, his grades would improve. The boy’s parents had tried everything else without much academic success, so they figured there was nothing to lose by giving their son an iPAD. The student actually did begin using it to take notes and to work on assignments in some of his classes. The problem was that in a short period of time, the device became another outlet for watching movies, playing games, and all of the other things that teens like to do on their Internet connected devices. Looking back, this boy’s mother told me that he spends so much time on the iPAD that she wishes they had never gone down this road. They have tried instituting time limits and history checks, but in the life of a teen, where rules are constantly being challenged, this is just another struggle between the parents and children.
So, we live in a world full of devices which are not necessarily being used properly. Schools today are spending record amounts of money on new computers, 3D printers, tablets, and all sorts of other 21st Century technology. At the end of the day though, both principals and parents need to remember that purchasing the new equipment is only half of the task. Training must be a part of the process and there must be a clear plan for both equipment additions and for integration. Without these elements, the technology will never have its maximum possible impact on the students.
Some schools do have full time technology specialists on staff, while other schools use outside firms when they feel services are needed. The rest, however, have yet to view training and technology integration as essential parts of the academic program. For these schools, it is time to think about the long term future and develop a plan that works for the school both academically and fiscally.
There are organizations that specialize in helping schools to create technology plans. We all want our students to be prepared to face the challenges of the world. Part of getting our students ready is making sure they are able to use technology in productive and efficient ways.