Making Tough Technology Decisions

Experts weigh in on keys to making effective decisions about technology.

No school districts want to be featured on the nightly news because of their poor choices in technology decisions or for implementing technology plans that end up wasting the taxpayers’ dollars.

But technology decisions are tough, first, because there are so many options—simple upgrades, new purchases, different platforms, tablets, laptops, 1:1, BYOD—and second, because there are so many other considerations such as cost, curriculum needs, deployment, professional development, and public relations, which all seem to be the purview of individualized departments.

Middle school leaders have the additional challenge of determining what tools will be most appropriate for the unique needs of the young adolescents they teach.

Collaboration Is Key

AMLE talks with author Sandra Wozniak about Technology Decisions

Given the complicated nature of these choices, the best decision can only be made through collaboration of the people who can provide the key information and perspective of the different constituents. However, bringing together the interdependent parts from finance, IT, curriculum, instruction, coaching, the student body, and the community is no simple task.

How do districts make tech decisions that successfully encompass instruction, purchasing, deployment, professional development, and public relations? In a recent conversation with several district administrators, I realized that certain common denominators can help you manage the process of collaborative decision making and determine the best solution.

My colleagues and I asked the advice of three leaders who had recently worked through tough technology decisions in their districts:

  • David Blattner, chief technology officer and executive director for media and virtual learning at Iredell Statesville Schools in North Carolina
  • John Guyer, executive director at Summit Academy (former executive director of technology management) in Ohio
  • George Rafferty, superintendent of schools in Tabernacle, New Jersey.

These school leaders shared their best practices and advice they have gleaned from their experience to help others avoid the common pitfalls of making tough technology decisions.

Step 1. Set the stage.

The first step is to determine what your infrastructure can support. All three district leaders agreed that it is best to start with a robust infrastructure, a wireless network with sufficient bandwidth, and upgrades. An outdated or insufficient network will be a limiting factor in what technology you choose and how you can use it. When inadequate infrastructure holds up deployment and implementation, you are wasting money, losing credibility, and feeding teacher and student frustration.

Step 2. Have a clear purpose.

Start with the end in mind. Sound familiar? As with all instruction, the single most important question is “What are our learning goals?” Have a vision of what you want to see happening in the classroom. As Rushton Hurley, nationally known instructional technology specialist, says, “We need to keep the conversation in learner’s terms not vendor’s terms.” Technology choices should be driven by instruction.

Blattner’s district demonstrated a commitment to this ideal and did not even talk about devices the first year. They wanted everyone involved to understand that their Race to the Top funds were provided for a “blended learning initiative, not a tech initiative.”

Rafferty echoed this thinking, saying, “We do not just want to look at a bunch of cool devices, we have to ask ourselves, what is it in our schools and in our classroom that we want to teach?” Clearly the place to start is in the classroom to prepare students in the 21st century.

Let instructional goals drive the initiative. Before you start looking at technology choices, come to an understanding of what you want the outcomes to be in the classroom. Do you want to see more global activities? Individualized instruction? Cultivate high-quality teachers? Increase the use of data?

Make sure that what is agreed-upon is clearly communicated to all stakeholders. Parents and community members need to understand what is happening and why instruction will look different in the classroom.

Step 3. Gather key stakeholders.

It is crucial to determine who will be involved in the process and how they will be involved. Jean Tower, director of technology for Northborough and Southborough Public Schools in Massachusetts, is quoted as saying, “Twenty years ago a tech leader’s job was 80% technical … over the last 20 years it’s slowly morphed into a real leadership role understanding the business of schools.”

The “business of schools” is often carried on in distinct silos. Technology decisions should not be made by an IT person and the superintendent; the most successful decisions are made with a wide array of stakeholders in the room ranging from administration, curriculum specialists, IT professionals, teachers, and finance officers, to students, parents, and community members. Each contributes a separate piece of the puzzle to the process and ensures that all important issues are considered.

All three school leaders thought it was well worth the time to involve important stakeholders in their decision-making process. Iredell-Statesville schools involved more than 120 people and used surveys to collect additional data. Parents, teachers, students, support staff, community members, administrators, and technologists were all asked for their input.

Guyer pointed out that a representative from finance is key, as budget considerations will always be a factor in school decisions. It is also important to be upfront with all constituents from the beginning about this: those involved in the process are not necessarily those who will make the ultimate decision, but will be the ones who make recommendations and supply the data to support them.

Step 4. Establish criteria for the solution.

Only after those initial steps are completed—setting the stage, having a clear purpose, and involving stakeholders—should you turn to considering what your ideal technology solution should look like.

Establishing criteria is not the same as listing choices; rather, it is a list of characteristics or capabilities that you would like your solutions to provide. Establishing criteria independently of the choices helps you eliminate tool or platform bias that often exists with technology users.

Sample criteria from our education leaders consisted of things like:

  • Compatibility with current infrastructure.
  • Free tools available for collaboration, creativity, and communication.
  • Minimal time needed for support.
  • Differentiation possibilities for grade levels.
  • Durability.
  • Minimum deployment obstacles.

Each of the leaders we talked to used a clear-cut decision-making strategy called decision analysis to determine which decision was the “winner.” Each option was weighed against each criterion to determine a score. From there, they weighed the risks of each high-scoring choice and ultimately made their recommendations to the board complete with a full chart of how the decision was made—why some choices were eliminated and others put forward.

Lessons Learned

Staying focused on your education goals ensures a smooth implementation and a fiscally and educationally sound outcome. David Blattner said, “Using a process did not make the decision easier, it made the decision clearer,” ensuring solid decision making and smooth implementation of their Race to the Top-funded program.

The experts’ final advice to leaders facing the similar big technology purchase decisions:

1. Plan for and provide appropriate support and training. Use surveys and other means to help individualize instruction for teachers as you would for your students. Provide instructional coaches or facilitators who can answer questions, go into classrooms, and provide just-in-time training for those who need it.

2. Engage your entire community, not just parents. Parents are not the only voters when it comes to school budgets. Increase your support and public understanding by including public input and using clear communication channels with all stakeholders.

3. Take the time to do it right. The bottom line for each administrator: it is worth putting the time in upfront to ensure that you are making the best decision possible to meet your instructional goals.

Using a decision-making strategy helped them manage the collaborative effort that was necessary to make and carry out the ultimate decisions. Having clear documentation of that process made it easy to justify their choices with the “right reasons” to everyone in their community.