Jul 17 2007

Don't Get Left Behind With IT

Staying up-to-date with educational technology is tough. Here's how some IT leaders make sure they don't get left behind.

Best practices in educational technology have a lot in common with the legendary Bigfoot. Many technology leaders are continuously scouting for them; others simply don’t think they exist and numerous vendors passionately profess that their products represent best practices in teaching and learning.

Jeff Pearson, for one, says the continual search is necessary. He’s refined some questions to ask, hoping to “get past the glitz and the shine, to locate real substance. So many new ideas and technologies being introduced every week pose a challenge to instructional leaders,” says Pearson, the technology integration specialist from the Mesa County Valley School District in Grand Junction, Colo. “Which are just passing fads and which have the promise of power and longevity? Where should we invest our scarce resources of money and time?”

There are three steps every IT leader should consider concerning the search for best practices: learning where to discover best practices, implementing these new gems and dealing with the obstacles that impede introducing change. Best practices are not items to be checked off a To-Do list, but a continual process for improving the way educators instruct with technology.

Making the Discovery

Every three or four years, the Boulder Valley (Colo.) School District conducts a self-examination by comparing “best practice” in technology with its own programs, efforts and practices. Based on specific criteria (see Panel A), its leaders look for recurring themes that appear in journals, educational research, national reports and leading initiatives. Officials also contact and interview key national researchers and innovators. Often the district sends teams to technology conferences, scouting for best practices in technology. When a theme appears to be triangulated by a number of sources and recurs often throughout our search, Boulder Valley’s IT leaders then frame that theme as an indicator of “best practice.” Using these indicators, it produces a report that guides the district’s thinking, reflection and technology planning.

Like most technology innovators, Pearson uses a variety of strategies to keep up with best practices in educational technology, including keeping abreast of new journal articles, attending conferences and networking with other leaders. “While I learn many ideas in conference sessions,” he adds, “I discover more about exceptional applications and trends in conference center lobbies.” Recently, Pearson has started reading and participating in blogs to get more current information and feedback from other educators from around the world, a perspective that is often lacking in traditional media, he says.

District leaders are better served looking outside of educational circles, he adds. “I try to look at a wide variety of technologies, not just limiting my exploration to those identified as instructional,” Pearson explains. “I try to look at a program or a device and think of how many different ways it might be used. Then I look for connections that might make it a powerful tool in the classroom. If we restrict our vision to only seeing what has been identified as ‘educational technology’ we would miss such tools” as Internet telephony, MP3 players and virtual globe programs.

“The district scheduled a follow-up activity at the beginning of school and is interested in learning how to incorporate it into the classroom,” he says. Interestingly, Pearson finds best practice in staff development through systematic self-reflection. “My colleagues and I frequently reflect on best practice — usually following every workshop or class we conduct.”

Peter Thompson, the manager of Information Technology for the Princeton (N.J.) Regional Schools champions a team-oriented approach in seeking out best practice. “All of our key people including supervisors, administrators, computer teachers, media specialists and technology support staff are continuously observing what is current best practice or looks promising.”

Implementing Best Practice

Implementing best practice can lead to exciting and successful learning for students. For example, Thompson has already seen some clear successes: “In terms of nationally respected best practices, we have had great success with notebook carts at all grade levels.” After ensuring a robust wireless infrastructure throughout his district, his district successfully deployed “carts of 15 or so notebooks with a laser printer on top that teachers can sign out and use in their classrooms rather than having multiple computer labs that sit idle for stretches of time.”

Implementing best practices is never a slam dunk, however. Bylund strongly suggests districts “must take into consideration ease of use and the true costs of implementation and support” before assuming any technologies will be an automatic success. He protects his organization from obstacles “by having a group of BOCES customers offer their point of view” before launching any major initiative. Pearson, however, always looks at potential technology implementations from a ROI perspective: “As I contemplate best practices, I also think about the balance of cost (instructional time used) versus understanding gained (quality learning). I have found myself enamored with a cool technology-integrated lesson but upon later evaluation decided that the same learning could have been done more efficiently in other ways.”

Since districts or organizations operate in different legal, cultural or technical environments, Bylund also knows that a best practice in one setting may not play out as well in another. For example, his organization implemented an integrated student information system, designed to reduce the number of systems and silos of information that the I.T. department must support and integrate.

Shortly after the initial implementation, “special educators became dissatisfied with the current online system for recording IEP information.” Bylund explains, “The student management system also handled special education record keeping, which initially seemed like a perfect fit. Unfortunately, the student information system was not as well suited to manage special education records.” So a search was begun for a ‘best of breed’ replacement to meet the needs of special education.”

Now it’s your turn. Use a few of our latest indicators, presented in the following link, to determine how well your district measures up against “best practice” in educational technology. Use your findings as a starting point for discussion with your technology committee. Use the results to celebrate past progress and at the same time identify opportunities for improvement. Self-reflection is always healthy. Good luck.