Feb 12 2020

How School Boards See and Assess Input on Classroom Technology

Knowing where school boards stand on educational technology is key to getting their support for new initiatives.

When Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia needed to replace its 20-year-old core network three years ago, IT Services Director AJ Phillips had to convince school board members to support purchasing a new network infrastructure.

The school board didn’t understand why the district’s network performed poorly, so Phillips had to get creative in her explanation. At a school board meeting, she showed them — using PVC pipes — how the network was no longer able to support the district’s 90 schools and 58,000 devices and connections.

“It was a visual that totally made sense to them,” Phillips told EdTech. She got funding approval two months after her presentation.

When it comes to implementing new technology initiatives, gaining support from school boards, as Phillips did, is key. Ultimately, school boards make decisions on how to best allocate funds to meet students’ needs and enhance learning. They also keep track of the progress and outcomes of these investments, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.

But balancing budget management with requested technologies, desired student outcomes and curricular demands can be challenging. School boards need to make sure spending supports district priorities and learning objectives, rather than the coolest device or the latest tech trend — and often, board members know very little about the technologies presented to them. Many don’t have the background or expertise to understand how technology works, hindering their ability to make smart decisions about tech initiatives and see how they tie into the curriculum.

Therefore, to get school boards to approve tech purchasing plans with confidence, IT leaders must understand how board members view technology as a whole, as their perspective likely differs from that of educators on the ground.

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.”

READ MORE: Discover how to break down silos and improve communication between IT leaders and district administrators for successful ed tech initiatives.

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.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how preplanning for tech purchases and school board communication can help IT leaders and superintendents collaborate better.

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.”

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