Look Before You Launch: 6 questions to ask before you add more tech to your school

6a010536aec25c970b01bb0842f4e5970dOver many years of guiding schools and districts on integrating technology and instruction, the costliest mistake I see is the rush to purchase hardware and software without first identifying a
clear purpose and plan for the new technology. This kind of oversight can lead to misuse or neglect of expensive equipment and systems, resulting in little of the intended impact on student learning outcomes.

Before you add new technologies to your school or district, here are six vital questions—and a few related ones—I recommend you ask first to help you look before you launch.

Why are we doing this?

Number 1This may sound obvious, but, too often, schools launch new technology initiatives before clearly defining the intent. Are you preparing for online assessments? Is the new technology meant to make teacher tasks more efficient? Are you trying to increase student engagement or creativity? All of these reasons have merit and you might even say, “Yes, all of those and more!” As a first step, it is imperative to define your goals clearly, and long before you make any major purchases.

How will we know if we are successful?

Number 2Once you’ve identified your intended goals, define the measureable targets, both quantitative and qualitative, that you will use to track and report on progress. For example, if you’re adding tech to classrooms to increase student engagement, start by defining what you mean by engagement and how you’ll measure change over time. Will you look for evidence of fewer discipline referrals and higher attendance rates? Do you expect to see students working in a wider variety of grouping strategies? What leading and lagging indicators will you expect and monitor? How will you collect, disaggregate, and report your data?

Are our teachers ready for this?

Number 3Conduct a survey of staff readiness for your proposed changes, reviewing their tech skills and their instructional practices. For example, if you’re considering a one-to-one or a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program, first assess how your teachers typically group students for instruction and identify the more appropriate strategy for tech integration.

One district I worked with was considering providing laptops for all high school students to encourage collaborative learning, but, in auditing their program, we found that a significant majority of instruction occurred in whole-group settings. Teachers had very little professional development in cooperative and collaborative learning strategies. We realized that moving staff from traditional lecture-style instruction to a one-to-one environment in a short amount of time would be a very heavy lift, causing more problems than it might solve. The district made the wise decision to modify its plan and begin the laptop program at the middle level, where students were already working collaboratively more frequently.

Is our facility ready for this?

Number 4Adding new tech to a building requires a certain level of supportive infrastructure. If students will be taking online assessments, creating videos and animations, or using 3D printers, ensure you’re providing sufficient bandwidth for all of the computers, especially those performing more network intensive tasks. Are you going to need to add local data storage space or use a cloud service? Consider not just the network inside the building, but also the pipeline from the school to the district to the Internet service provider (ISP). Is the entire system robust enough to accommodate increased data use from multiple schools?

For one-to-one and BYOD programs, verify that you have enough electrical outlets available in classrooms. Regardless of manufacturer claims, devices will need charging during the school day, especially as the batteries age. Can your building’s electrical system handle a simultaneous re-charging of all devices or charging carts over the lunch period?

How will you support your staff in this change initiative?

Number 5Look again at your identified goal: What professional development (PD) have teachers experienced in the past three years that directly relates to that goal? If your initiative is focused on technology integration in the classroom, was the PD teachers received focused on pedagogy or on the mechanics of using the hardware or software? Be sure you have a plan and budget that gives staff the adequate and appropriate PD that maximizes their use of the new tech and increases the odds of achieving your goals.

What is your sustainability plan?

Number 6Technology has a much shorter useful lifespan than other fixtures and equipment in a building. In most cases, you should plan to renew hardware and software at least every five years. If you’re using grant money to purchase technology today, determine where the renewal funding will come from five years from now. Form a plan for repair and maintenance—whether in-house or through the manufacturer—and  know what the manufacturer’s extended warranty covers. Finally, establish a protocol for loaner technologies while the devices are being repaired.

As with hardware, staff PD training and resources should also be forecasted over time. You’ll have new staff who will need to be trained on the technology, and your current staff will need continued support.

Look before you launch

Launching into a new tech initiative without taking the time to ask and answer these six questions can easily lead to squandered financial capital and lost educational opportunities. With some planning, you can save yourself some stress and pain.

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A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s executive director of digital solutions.  He is co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.)and was the lead developer of McREL’s Power Walkthrough® classroom observation software

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