School Boards Believe in the Power of Educational Technology
Today’s students are digital natives, which means having digital learning opportunities in the classroom is crucial to helping them build 21st-century skills such as critical thinking and communication.
Board members are aware of that. They see technology as a valuable and essential tool for learning, says Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director and CEO at the National School Boards Association, a nonprofit representing more than 90,000 school board officials.
“They’re interested in knowing how technology is going to be used to improve student achievement and address equity issues, such as the homework gap,” Gentzel says.
For instance, students in digitally equipped schools performed better in reading and math than their peers in schools with inadequate tech resources, such poor (or unavailable) wireless internet connections, according to a 2019 study by The Center for Public Education, a research arm of NSBA.
However, even though school boards view educational technology as beneficial to improving instruction and learning for all students, they also see it as a capital expense that must be carefully monitored.
“They can be healthy skeptics about technology, in terms of making sure districts are actually well prepared to make the best use of it,” Gentzel says. “Districts have been burned in this area from buying something that doesn’t get used because there hasn’t been proper training or preparation for it.”
Collaborating with School Boards on Tech Initiatives Is Critical
Successfully integrating classroom technology requires involvement from multiple stakeholders on all levels in the K–12 sphere. This includes not only teachers and IT leaders but also superintendents, parents and school board members.
As school districts increasingly face a plethora of options to consider when searching for technology solutions that best fit their needs, it’s even more significant for all of these stakeholders to be on the same page.
They need to collaborate and have a shared vision before planning technology initiatives, even if they have differing opinions and goals. They must also thoroughly consider other factors, such as cost, device management and deployment and professional development needs.
That’s easier said than done, especially when board members don’t have education or technology backgrounds. “School board members are a cross section of the population — they come from all walks of life,” Gentzel says. “In my 40 years of working with school boards, I’ve met everybody from a coal miner to an astronaut who’s been on them, and I say that literally.”
Making a Stronger Case for Integrating Classroom Technology
When it comes to making decisions about technology — or any other expenditures, for that matter — it’s important for school board members to be in a good position to explain it to the public and encourage a larger community conversation about it, Gentzel says.
“When school boards make a decision, they need to own it,” he explains. “The real test comes when board members are out in the community, and somebody stops them in the grocery store and asks, ‘What was that tech initiative you guys just approved?’ The board member has to be able to stand their ground and explain how it’s going to help students in their community.”
But it’s hard for school boards to sign off on tech initiatives if districts don’t have a well-developed plan for them. IT leaders and superintendents should also show they’ve engaged a lot of people in developing these plans, including teachers who are going to be the frontline users of the technology and students who need to be prepared to use it.
“There’s a whole range of questions that wrap around the decision of buying technology,” Gentzel says. “They also need to ask: What are our plans for training teachers to use it? What are our plans for security? How are we guarding against data breaches? It’s more than a budget decision.”
IT leaders and other district administrators should also actively engage school boards in discussions about tech plans from the very start. Gentzel says he’s seen school boards that are separated from the real world of what’s actually happening in schools, making it hard for them to see how funding large tech expenditures will impact learning.
Some districts are even presenting tech initiatives to school boards as learning projects or instructional models that feature technology, says Chip Slaven, chief advocacy officer at the NSBA. School boards are also becoming more involved in test-driving new devices in the classroom before deploying them.
“If an initiative doesn’t work — and we’ve seen that from time to time — it will just be seen as a boondoggle, and that’s a problem. It makes it even harder down the line to get public support for a major outlay for technology in the future,” Gentzel says. “This is not just about buying stuff, and I think that’s the critical conversation that has to take place.”