Scott McLeod founded the country’s first graduate program to prepare school administrators for technology leadership.

Jan 03 2024

Q&A: School Tech Integration Advocate Focuses On Mastery-Based Learning

Nearly 20 years after founding a graduate program to grow tech-savvy K–12 leaders, Scott McLeod says there is still a long way to go.

As a professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado Denver and an EdTech IT influencer, Scott McLeod spends his days preparing educators to join a rare breed of K–12 principals and superintendents. In 2005, with help from a sizable federal government grant, he founded the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, the first graduate program in the country designed to prepare tech-savvy school administrators. Today, CASTLE is a national hub for conversations related to the leadership side of school technology.

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EDTECH: What are some of the things you’ve witnessed since CASTLE’s founding?

MCLEOD: Technology continues to move quite quickly, while in schools it moves much more slowly. That creates what I call relevance gaps, which are the gaps between what our communities, graduates and students in society need from us and what we’re able to provide in schools.

And whenever I think about school leadership decisions, technology decisions and instructional decisions through that lens, I always wonder, are we exacerbating those relevance gaps with those decisions, or are we trying to close them?

EDTECH: How can schools close those relevance gaps in a world with fast-changing technology?

MCLEOD: Technology and tech tools will always change, but the question is, are you going to tap its power? Yes, technology is complex and might be causing us some pain right now, but the answer is not to ignore it or block it or filter it out. And yet, we still have a lot of school districts that do that rather than helping students and educators realize technology’s potential. That is a mindset and approach that can be changed.

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EDTECH: How do we encourage more school leaders to see technology’s potential?

MCLEOD: The rapid emergence of generative artificial intelligence over the past year is very instructive. You see ChatGPT causing waves of both interest and alarm in education. There were a lot of people who immediately jumped to things like, “Oh, that’s cheating! That’s plagiarism! Students will never think again!”

However, AI is the worst that it ever will be right now, and it’s only going to get better and more powerful. We need to spend some time talking about it and showing people what AI can do for teachers and students.

LEARN MORE: How ChatGPT is impacting innovation in K-12 education.

EDTECH: How important is it for school leaders beyond the IT staff to have a good grasp of technology use in education?

MCLEOD: Keep asking the question, technology for the purpose of what? How you answer that question depends on your learning model. If your learning model is about teachers transmitting low-level knowledge with students regurgitating back factual recall, then your technology adoption and decision-making will revolve around that learning model. It’s the classic grammar school approach.

If your vision for learning is one of student empowerment and global connection, then your technology decisions will revolve around that. And I think what we see repeatedly in school districts is that the technology vision follows the learning vision.

Scott McLeod

Photography by Patrick Cavan Brown

In most school districts right now, we continue to privilege low-level knowledge transmission and regurgitation, which means that we invest in tools that match that learning model in action and all the technology decisions that go with it.

That's very, very different from an open-ended inquiry or project-based learning model, where kids are working on real-world authentic tasks, and the technology is there to help them.

So, when you see the investments in tools — and that includes filtering and blocking software and so on — you can kind of see what learning model a school is following. You could use technology to have kids do small-group work, where they are collaborating and communicating. That is very different from shoveling information out as a teacher while everybody sits passively.

DIG DEEPER: How collaboration between educators and IT specialists can transform classroom tech.

EDTECH: How does investing in more passive forms of ed tech affect students?

MCLEOD: Our biggest gaps right now are not about access. They’re about how we use these tools — which students get to use the technology to create and make and do and share and collaborate.

We see that it’s the same students over and over again who don’t get to do these things: students of color, low-income students, students who are learning English, students with disabilities. These groups of students are heavily over-represented in modalities where they are receiving passively and regurgitating back, and the more affluent kids are the ones who get to create, do and collaborate.

I think there’s a huge difference between viewing the student computer as a curriculum and content delivery device versus a student empowerment device. That shapes how we think about not only technologies but also professional development for teachers.

And I think what we see is that we spend most of that time focusing on the old traditional model of learning and teaching instead of how we do what we really need to do for the kids of today and beyond, and we seem to be fighting really hard to use today’s technology to replicate 1970s education.

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EDTECH: Why do school leaders replicate traditional forms of learning?

MCLEOD: We have a pipeline issue, and we also have a PD issue. We have about 600 school leader preparation programs across the country and about 5,000 faculty in those programs. You can count on fewer than 10 fingers the number of educational leadership faculty who care about technology, which means that the vast majority of new administrators are not getting much exposure, in any substantive way, to technology concerns.

And if you looked at the kind of professional learning that most school administrators receive over the course of a school year, they have the same problem as teachers: They only occasionally get a technology session.

EDTECH: Outside of your graduate program, how can educators get up to speed?

MCLEOD: CASTLE has a free resource called the 4 Shifts Protocol that’s available online. The protocol is a free instructional design tool that educators, coaches, principals and anyone who wears an instructional leadership hat can use to redesign teaching to promote deeper learning, greater student agency, authentic work and robust tech integration. It also has a lot of good discussion and design questions to lean into as we think about redesigning existing lessons and units.

Technology’s not going anywhere, and it’s only going to get more complex and more capable as we go forward. So, again, we can make the choice to lean in or lean away, and I’m hoping that school leaders and school systems will lean in.

Photography by Patrick Cavan Brown

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