Improve Staff I.T. Skills
Thinking about your professional New Year’s resolutions? Do everyone a favor. This fall, make a commitment to keep your staff up to date on technology.
IN TODAY’S CONSTANTLY CHANGING world of technology, it can be a challenge to keep technical staff up to date. Keeping pace with new developments — the always ubiquitous update and upgrade or the latest security threats and disruptive technologies— remains a leviathan task. And it’s one that educators need to keep top of mind as they enter the new school year.
The best way for school districts to meet the educational needs of their technical staffs is to build training programs on four supporting pillars: expectations, budget, time to learn and effective training strategies.
1. SETTING EXPECTATIONS
Supporting the training of technical staff should begin by setting expectations at the top, according to Larry Buchanan, administrator for information management and technology in the Peoria Unified School District in Glendale, Ariz. “It’s important that the district has an overall vision that incorporates technology,” he says. “We have an expectation from the governing school board, and once that tone is set, technology becomes important,” Those expectations then extend to district technical staff.
IT can garner needed support by demonstrating existing vulnerabilities, by providing quantifiable data that justifies expenditures and by providing clear examples in lay terms. For example, a manager could reveal the number of network hacking incidents in order to make a case for increased training in security methodologies.
2. ALLOCATING BUDGET
Allocating a budget for technical training is the second pillar. Gary Allen, executive director of technology for Amarillo Independent School District in Amarillo, Texas, believes that training the district’s technical staff cannot be an afterthought. He maintains a “robust training budget for some of the technical needs we have to support.”
Actual dollar amounts for training vary based on district size, the nature and frequency of technical incidents, and historical expections. The most important strategy is to make the funds predictable and dependable from year to year, so planning can occur in advance.
3. MAKING TIME
John Scarinci, director of technology in New Jersey’s Cherry Hill Public Schools, mentions another hurdle: “the very challenging nature of persistent time constraints” due to schools being “extremely understaffed for mission.” Though he believes training technical staff is vital, Scarinci often hears a common refrain from his technical staff: “I am scheduled to go to this conference, but I really can’t afford [the time] to go.”
Districts that want to keep their technical staff well-honed must deal with the time issue, Scarinci advises. Administrators must make time for their technical staff to improve by prioritizing work, planning ahead, providing peer coverage (which often requires cross-training) and offering remote access in the event assistance is needed. It’s also useful to build training expectations into individual growth plans.
4. EMPLOYING EFFECTIVE STRATEGIES
Districts use a variety of strategies to shore up the skills of their technical staff. Some strategies are more traditional, while others are more creative and innovative.
Traditional strategies include:
• reading books, articles and white papers
• completing classes and certifications
• attending conferences and seminars
• connecting with user groups
• networking with other districts
• negotiating for vendor training
• purchasing computer-based training via CDs or online
• assisting with degree completion.
Amarillo’s Allen suggests another traditional strategy that supports effective technical training: standardization. “We standardize on a single platform and send all our techs through the needed online certifications,” he says. “It’s easier to train our staff on one platform than to [teach them] about many pieces of equipment.”
Although traditional strategies have a proven track record, more creative and innovative strategies are frequently used to support technical staff development.
Creative strategies include:
• providing online learning (anytime, anywhere)
• implementing cross-training (leveraging internal expertise)
• offering coaching and mentoring (internal knowledge transfer)
• fostering internal conversations (using force-field, post-mortem analysis or other directed creativity strategies)
• holding lunchtime or in-meeting mini-learning sessions
• visiting technical shops in other districts.
Cherry Hill’s Scarinci identifies another approach, one he has used successfully in the past: “I outsource a technical task and then bring our people in to learn along with them.” The rippling effect that results from Scarinci’s model of outsourcing-with-knowledge-transfer is a great way to utilize an expert. Data warehouse design, Web site design and integration services are examples of projects that can benefit from this type of modeling.
Innovative strategies include:
• assigning short-term or limited-scope projects to inexperienced staff to build capacity and breadth of knowledge
• placing the IT staff within external departments to learn user requirements and business processes
• bringing external department members into IT for training and mentoring. These field experts go back to their departments as power users, expanding the size of a technology department’s reach.
More recently, districts have been exploring innovative technology-based resources for continuous improvement. Web-based seminars (Webinars), video-conferences, blogs, wikis, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, podcasts, e-mail and compressed video learning vignettes all have a place in modern IT training.
Are these technology training programs paying off? Teshon Christie, network specialist at Boulder Valley Schools in Boulder, Colo., thinks so. “Training is extremely beneficial because it allows me to catch up on modern trends, especially in security,” he says. “You don’t get real-world experiences of what works and what doesn’t from reading books. Outside training helps me deal more effectively with our customers.”
CHASING SOFT SKILLS
Technical skills are not the only ones needed for continuous improvement. A number of soft skills are equally important. One priority for Amarillo’s Allen is “developing communication skills in our staff. These skills make the office work smoothly and help people understand their role and communicate effectively.”
Mark Antrim, associate superintendent for facilities and technology for Natrona County School District in Casper, Wyo., concurs. “You can have a high level of technical skill but lack the ability to work with the customer,” he points out. “When we run into walls, eight out of 10 times it is about communication between technical support people and those who need support.”
Antrim’s district, under the leadership of their HR department, has responded with a strong communications training emphasis. Everyone in a supervisory role is asked to complete a program entitled “Succeed: Success Using Constructive Communication,” a video-based program created by McGrath Systems that can also be modified for face-to-face learning with a consultant.
Improving the customer service attitude of staff is another critical skill that resonates with technology leaders. But Antrim doesn’t think training is the sole answer in this case.
“It’s not about training, but about philosophy and modeling,” he concludes. “Those in leadership must understand that our core business is education and learning, not wires and technology. By building relationships, by modeling these core customer service values when meeting with others, the results are very evident in key employees.”
THE RIGHT TIMING
Lastly, timing, prioritizing and frequency play an important role in efforts to keep technical staff up to snuff. Antrim has learned about the need for just-in-time training. “It doesn’t do any good to train folks to do something if they won’t be using those skills very soon,” he says.
Priorities and frequency also matter. “We do a lot of reading and conversation as to what changes are coming,” remarks Peoria’s Buchanan, “but we don’t incorporate every change. We send people to technical training all the time based on our highest need.” Clearly, effective training should be prioritized and ongoing.
WHERE IS THERE?
Advancing the skills of technical staff requires a focused strategy, but no one claims that moving principals, administrators and support staff forward with technology is easy. Getting from here to there by knowing where “there” is, finding out how to get there and stepping into other administrators’ shoes are essential to ensure a smooth transition.
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire cat which way she should walk. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the cat says. Confused, Alice answers, “I don’t much care where.” The cat says that since Alice doesn’t care where she is going, it doesn’t matter which direction she takes.
The same lesson applies to efforts to improve the technology skills of administrative and support staff: It’s far more helpful if we know where we’re going. Many districts take their employees on a journey toward a competency checklist. Once these competencies are acquired, it is assumed that the employee is adequately skilled.
Although a skills checklist is a useful frame of reference, it is often too one-dimensional and unforgiving, and it doesn’t consider the developmental stages of diverse employees. A more insightful approach involves employing a rubric, which offers specific advantages. It can show shades of gray, appear less judgmental, differentiate between skill levels, offer intrinsic motivation for improvement, and can be flexibly altered to fit each district’s unique perspectives and priorities.
The rubric above portrays degrees of competency better than a checklist can by differentiating between four different types of technology users:
Routine user: demonstrates routine, functional or basic competency with technology
Intentional user: demonstrates flexible, selective or intentional technology use Effective user: demonstrates efficient, productive, problem-solving or contributing levels of technology use
Inventive user: demonstrates creative, analytical, innovative or strategic technology use that extends the capabilities of the organization.
The rubric also differentiates between transactional (everyday work competencies) and transformational (continuous improvement or innovation) abilities using technology. On a personal level, reaching the higher, more contributing levels of technology use is a more rewarding destination. On an organizational level, separating transactional from transformational competencies can help differentiate compensation in school districts.
Amarillo’s Allen works both ends of this equation. He offers training in technology basics in a systemic, ongoing manner (transactional), but he also “schedules transformational training, such as changing business processes, as needed.” Allen will often step back from using his IT staff to provide training and instead will help a department use its own staff to provide the training for a technology deployment. He believes that a department’s internal staff will better understand business change processes than an IT trainer.
Using a clearly defined rubric instead of a competency checklist may be a better way to demarcate where we want to take our principals, administrators and support staff as we travel the road to technology proficiency.
HOW DO WE GET THERE?
The art of empowering principals, administrators and support staff to use technology parallels the four pillars recommended earlier. Peoria’s Buchanan explains how his district’s vision for technology reaches every school, principal and teacher: “Every school has to do a community presentation on its goals, which are based on the four district-adopted strategic areas of student learning, data-driven decision-making, community connectedness and capacity development. All these areas have strong technology components integrated into them.”
Allocating a consistent budget, assuring adequate release time to learn and employing successful training strategies are also crucial. Most of the training strategies listed above apply to supporting principals, administrators and support staff. Yet, skillfulness in cooperation — with other departments and school sites — now comes into play.
Amarillo’s Allen offers a cogent example: “We just finished a $60 million tech upgrade and computer rollout over the past five years. As a part of that, the heads of accounting, purchasing and athletics agreed to provide periodic training (two to three times a year) to administrative staff.”
After providing basic instruction in computer and application use, “We provide periodic refresher training courses at our service center,” he says. “We put in place a technology facilitator group, split into four groups, and provide ongoing training for secretaries and principals.” Allen’s message is clear: systemic, job-specific, ongoing, timely and closely supported training is essential.
While Allen executes effective training with seasoned precision, Cherry Hill’s Scarinci has enjoyed success with innovative strategies. He also has had success utilizing a peer mentor model in which “high-level technology users” within a department or a school’s administrative staff “perform that work alongside other folks to help them move forward.”
STEP INTO THEIR WORLD
Sara Lane, principal of Marlborough Middle School in Marlborough, Mass., believes that in order to reach principals, technology leaders must step into their world. Principals are accountable for academic results, so helping them locate and deploy technology tools that “provide any kind of [demonstrable] impact” is beneficial. It is especially valuable if technology leaders can help unearth data to support technology’s effectiveness, because, says Lane, “the school committee wants to see they are getting a bang for their buck.”
Natrona’s Antrim adds, “Everything has been sunk into assessment, so most training now is how to understand piles of data and how to direct the data to improve programs for kids.” He believes that to move principals forward, we need to help them collect, support, manage, report and interpret data.
What’s the best way to reach support staff? Marlborough’s Lane believes it is crucial to convince them that technology “can save them time and make them more efficient.” This might be accomplished by building their skills in fundamental tasks such as using templates and mail merges or by training them to become more adept at online purchase orders and requisitions.
If you want to have an impact, Lane adds, “Demonstrate how the secretary’s complex tasks could be easily automated,” making the daily workload more manageable. Whether it involves automated generation of home phone directories, a smoother process for collection and management of student fees, or rapid movement through a lunch line, be ready to demonstrate the concrete deliverables that technology can help produce.
This rubric portrays degrees of competency by differentiating between four different types of technology users as well as transactional (everyday work competencies) and transformational (continuous improvement or innovation) abilities using technology.
TECHNOLOGY: Communication and Collaboration:
4 Inventive: Uses the full array of communication tools effectively and creatively; explores and uses new communications solutions; improves efficiencies and expands communication horizons for others within and outside of the organization.
3 Effective: Uses district communication tools (e-mail, list servs, discussion boards, Web sites, portals and others) to manage people, resources and clients efficiently; contributes to organizational effectiveness.
2 Intentional: Intentionally selects and uses the communication tool that is most appropriate for the task; knows when not to use a specific technology.
1 Routine: Uses basic communication tools (phone, fax, e-mail, pager, walkie-talkie, district Web site) for routine purposes.
TECHNOLOGY: Core and Specialized Skills:
4 Inventive: Improves organizational productivity by using core software creatively; performs advanced functions using specialized software to generate analysis, develop systems, processes, or reports; and is able to innovate for own or other departments.
3 Effective: Uses core software effectively; performs advanced functions using specialized software specific to a department or unit to manage operations or generate standard reports; contributes to organizational effectiveness through personal productivity.
2 Intentional: Uses core software to address nonroutine tasks; intentionally selects the application that is most appropriate for the task; uses specialized software specific to a department or unit to perform necessary functions.
1 Routine: Uses core office software (Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, etc.) for routine tasks.
TECHNOLOGY: Use of Enterprise Technologies
(includes business or transportation systems, HR systems, student information systems, data warehousing, etc.)
4 Inventive: Uses enterprise systems to create strategic solutions to new problems, create new efficiencies, foster continuous improvement and innovation in the organization; designs and produces reports to meet strategic information needs.
3 Effective: Uses enterprise systems efficiently; regularly uses information to solve problems; produces and tailors reports to meet basic information needs; develops nonroutine reports for unit or department; contributes to organizational effectiveness and productivity.
2 Intentional: Flexibly accesses and/or enters ad hoc information; produces requested ad hoc reports.
1 Routine: Accesses and/or enters routine information using enterprise systems; prints standard reports.
TECHNOLOGY: Responsible Use:
4 Inventive: Identifies, designs, communicates and enforces policies and practices that ensure the responsible use of district technology resources.
3 Effective: Promotes the safe, ethical and legal use of district technology resources with others.
2 Intentional: Deliberately models the use of district technology resources in a safe, ethical and legal manner.
1 Routine: Uses district technology resources in a safe, ethical and legal manner.
Len Scrogan is director of instructional technology for Boulder Valley Schools in Boulder, Colo.