Thursday, March 13, 2014

Educational Technology: Instructional Soul or IT Backbone?

Is your technology dept. run by an IT professional or an educator?

Over the past several years I've seen K-12 school districts on both sides of this proverbial fence, and I also have acquaintances and colleagues in one roll or the other. However, I've seen very little discussion on the topic, and it's a shame. Real conversation about this position needs to happen. There are undoubtedly hundreds of Superintendents staffing this position for the wrong reasons.

The Instructional Soul of Educational Technology

In the more traditional roles of educational leadership, like the principal or superintendent, would a school district ever dream of hiring a professional from the business world without having spent a significant period of time in the classroom as a teacher?  Surely not. The fact is that educators resent leaders who haven't spent time in the trenches. School districts want leadership with a real time and experiences in schools and classrooms. They want someone who can walk the walk and talk the talk. This is evidenced by the hiring practices for most campus and district leadership in K-12 school systems across the country.  With the exception, that is, of the technology department.

Some districts have found the value in staffing a strong portion of the technology staff with teachers. But this philosophy, although good, misses the mark of what a technology department could be. A technology department with an instructional soul has certain advantages over departments without. The technology department with an instructional staff becomes a service-oriented department, in the business of life-long learning and innovation. Having an instructional soul gives all technology staff a stewardship over technology skills, organizational efficiency, and the overall level of education they are able to provide for the community they serve.

I read a blog post a few months ago that surmised that teachers who teach with technology are the most likely to innovate and reform education. This statement rings true for me. I've seen it time after time. A teacher starts using technology and almost inherently becomes a leader on that campus. Eventually these people go on to become technology or curriculum coaches. Unfortunately they rarely go on to become campus or district administrators. Probably because those who use technology know how much they must work to stay on top of the latest tools and practices. Whereas principals and other district administrators must equally hard to stay on top of government regulation, local policies, school boards and more. Still, the teacher who teaches with technology can be one of the most valuable assets to a district office.

The Strong Backbone of IT

Today's technology has brought about the need for talented IT professionals as well.  Those who understand
its complex nature and also posses a passion for keeping up with change. Today's schools need professionals who understand complex networks, network management, hardware, big data, student information systems, learning management systems, web management, video production, Flipped Classroom, social media, and more. Unfortunately, with the state of today's school systems and economy, many school systems are able to employ only a small handful of employees to conquer all of these tasks.

IT professionals are notorious for using their skills to make themselves more powerful and influential in the organizations they manage. In most cases this is a strength, but in education, it can be an achilles heel. In education, the IT department needs to have an enabling and coaching spirit rather than serve as the gatekeeper over all things technology. Or worse yet, are the many IT professionals who talk down to teachers because they don't understand the complex, technical aspects of the tools they are working with. Does this sound like any experiences you've had when dealing with your IT department? This kind of department perpetuates contempt, stagnation, and even loathing of technology and especially instructional technology.

Challenges Facing IT Leaders

To make the matter more difficult, today's IT director's responsibilities stretch far beyond networks, switches and servers.  Today's IT director is also tasked with writing policies and procedures which are needed to protect students, teachers, employees, as well as manage the very limited resources of the district. They are asked to review software, purchase hardware for the classroom, make decisions about filtering websites, and much more. The point is this, the responsibilities placed on today's technology directors is complex, and requires a profound knowledge of teaching, the classroom, and educational institutions as a whole.

 The responsibilities are so great in fact that today's Educational Technology director need be more than an IT specialist, and more than a teacher. Today's schools need 3 things:

#1. Schools need teachers with profound leadership qualities, passion and knowledge of technology, and quality experience in the classroom.

#2. Schools need IT professionals with profound leadership qualities, a passion for teaching & learning, and a solid knowledge of IT.

#3. Schools need Superintendents who see the value in having instructional technology personnel in key leadership positions around the district and in schools. 

Do your schools have these 3 components working or does your district continue to 'kick against the pricks' and fall behind as other schools implement Google Apps, Chromebooks, iPads, Flipped Classrooms, blended learning, and other innovative approaches to learning? I'd love to hear from you. Let us know what is happening in your district around technology leadership.

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