Tips for School & District Administrators

Getting it Right With Educational Technology

By Brian Gatens

The first step in solving a problem is admitting that the problem exists. OK, so I’ll say it out loud:

Schools have a technology problem.

Those five words sum up decades of schools’ misguided approach to technology in the classroom. Schools continually chase down the newest and shiniest technology of the moment in the hope that it will improve student performance, at the very least; or that it will help solve an entrenched problem, at the very most.

Meanwhile, experience has shown time and time again that the presence of a new piece of technology does little to improve the quality of instruction. Actually, the best way to ensure that new technology improves children’s performance is to design lessons around the technology and to make sure teachers are thoroughly trained in the use of these high-tech tools.

With that in mind, I recommend that teachers, administrators and schools use these four guidelines before they even think making of a mass-technology purchase:

1. Don’t be the first to use a new tool

Find other schools that are already using the technology as you envision it being used in your school. There are few truly original practices in schools. If you look hard enough, you’ll be sure to find a school that’s already modeling what you’re considering.

Reach out directly to these schools, get some people on the phone and see how and what they did to get it up and running. Don’t be surprised if they speak of it taking multiple years to get a program in place.

2. Take your time

It’s best to move slowly and deliberately when selecting new technology for the classroom. I make it a point to set aside time to read as much as I can about education, and I also tend to read many technology publications. When reviewing the advertisements, I’m amazed at the extravagant promises companies make on behalf of their products.

Don’t get sucked into the sales pitch. My experience is that stand-alone programs that do not involve genuine staff development have almost no effect on student performance.

3. Make sure teachers know what they are doing

It is important to develop teacher understanding first, and then move into student use of technology. Everywhere I look these days, I see schools moving to a 1-to-1 initiative, meaning every student has a student laptop or tablet. I think this is a drastic error — it needs to be a 1-to-1 initiative for staff members for at least a year, and only then should we be moving into a student-technology initiative.

Unfortunately, giving teachers a new piece of hardware without helping them adjust their professional practice to use it means they will graft their old instructional strategies onto the new tool. This equals zero change in true instructional usage and little benefit to students.

 4. Focus on what your students need

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned any specific product, company or item. Today’s technological offerings represent a buyer’s market in terms of what to use and how to use it. After surveying both the staff and community, school districts need to base their decision on what is best educationally and most economically feasible for the district.

Don’t get caught up in the idea that you have to buy a certain “shiny thing” to use technology well.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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