The Leader's Guide to Success in a More-With-Less and More-With-More World

04/11/2014  |  By Mike Abbiatti

America’s classrooms, both K-12 and college, have always held the promise a better future for the nation. Today, that expectation is no less, — but times have changed. K-20 classrooms are expected to do more with less: help states produce more workers with greater technical skills — but with less funding. At the same time, our K-20 institutions are challenged to be more accountable, to raise achievement and to use more data to make better decisions – in other words, to do more with more.

Doing more with more data and greater accountability to raise achievement, but with less support? It won’t be easy. Technology is among the first solutions people name. But technology presents its own challenges: insufficient bandwidth, too few people trained to teach with digital devices, concerns about data security. And things change so fast: legions of people work every day to stay technology to help students.

So while technology holds great promise as a solution for the more with less/more with more conundrums, the way forward is not clear. To take us forward, we need education leaders with both the vision of that promise and the action to realize it.

Technology Is About People
Technology is not a panacea, but it can be a powerful partner for improving education. The key: realizing that what one does with technology is what makes the difference for students.

This calls for a common definition of technology for academic purposes that acknowledges people as a critical component in all technology endeavors.

  1. Hardware: physical objects, the machines
  2. Software: computer code that enables the physical objects to function, programs or applications.
  3. Skinware: people to maintain, sustain, and use machines and applications, professionals and users.

States rarely plan for and fund all three — especially when they launch large-scale technology projects.

When leaders look to technology to help them accomplish more with less and more with more, they face three key challenges, each of which hinges on the students, teachers, professors, trainers and technology professionals who use the machines and code.

Challenge One:
In almost any decision that involves technology, states make significant mistakes when they do not provide adequate planning and support for all three components of technology.

We’re seeing more costly failures of “one-to-one” laptop and digital tablet initiatives. These projects generally issue devices to every student in a school or college. But all too often, they grind to a halt because of skinware malfunction or shortcomings: logistics are poorly planned, or teachers cannot use the devices effectively. Sometimes, it’s software mismatch, when the applications do not align with the curriculum. Rarely does the hardware fail, although it is often blamed.

Educators are accustomed to a deliberative decision-making process, and the speed of new technologies compounds their decision-making process. Vetting and validating new tools - to be sure they are effective in improving teaching and learning ­- requires time. When new technologies now need to be vetted and validated for classrooms, decision-makers often believe they need to rush them to the classroom. Yet, if schools are to harness the power of technology they should not shortcut the validation process. It is in understanding what a technology can do to improve teaching and learning and preparing instructors to use it appropriately that will make it useful.

Challenge Two:
Today, technology moves from the home to the classroom. Before, the “home” generally adopted the innovations of the classroom and the marketplace. Today’s students bring what they have to class and expect to be able to connect. This trend, called Bring Your Own Device — or BYOD, for short — revolutionizes infrastructure decision-making for schools and colleges. These institutions can no longer standardize their infrastructure and require students to conform with compatible technologies.

Innovative districts and institutions recognize that this BYOD trend can make students a partner in providing technology resources. However, it requires that national, state and local agencies clarify technology infrastructure standards more explicitly. The trend has also exposed how few K-20 schools have sufficient, affordable bandwidth to support a variety of devices and the applications they run. If states continue to accommodate the BYOD trend, they need to resolve the bandwidth dilemma. Connectivity to the Internet needs to be accessible to every K-20 educational institution —and they are able to connect to it. The cost to connect needs to be affordable.

Challenge Three:
Today’s education is more actively engaging and has become a life-long pursuit. No matter their age, learners are beginning to reject passive learning for faster-paced, personally engaging, technology-enhanced learning. Education is less teacher-controlled; the lecture-based curricula is no longer standard. Today courses are moving toward being more teacher-coached, curriculum-guided and Internet enriched. The constricting barriers of time and distance are fading away with online learning — and even sophisticated learning management systems within classrooms. These technologies allow students to control what they learn, how they pace their learning and when they begin and end their courses. These changes have the potential to revolutionize education.

Leadership, not management
Schools and colleges need to face these challenges squarely, and that requires leadership. Yet, effective leaders are difficult to find. Good ones have confidence to take calculated risks even when the odds are long; the intellect to conceptualize viable solutions for difficult problems; and, the vision to see beyond a difficult today into an improved tomorrow. They have a sense of mission driven by passion and commitment that inspires continuous improvement toward shared goals. Effective leaders earn the right to be followed. They are measured by their ability to bring about meaningful and quantifiable change.

In contrast, managers oversee a narrow mission, a fixed set of resources, and a clear timeline. While the education enterprise needs both effective leaders and managers, it needs a fresh supply of new leadership right now to meet our complex technology challenges.

Courses of Action
So how can we build technology leadership, especially during tough economic times? Schools and colleges can work together on four courses of action to improve their leadership capacity. These strategies require no new funding — and each fosters strategic partnerships that will serve all parties well for years to come.

  • Developing leadership: Train leaders through a collaborative of schools and colleges, collectively building a leadership academy.
  • Sharing leadership: Share a group of technology leaders among a collaborative of schools and college who can become advisors for the entire collaborative.
  • Seeding leadership: Help student leaders at schools and colleges gain specialized knowledge on local technologies so they can provide immediate help and develop into future leaders.
  • Borrowing leadership: Enlist technology experts from business and community organizations to provide services while schools and colleges develop leadership. These experts can also help schools develop leadership.

A Time for Action
At a time when digital technology has richly enhanced student learning, it has also put a strain on education systems. We need to develop strong leaders to guide the inevitable changes that come with emerging innovation. The bottom line: We have talked long enough. It is now time for strong leaders to take action.

Mike Abbiatti is director of the Southern Regional Education Board’s Educational Technology Cooperative. A certified classroom teacher and former middle school principal, he held higher education technology leadership positions in Arkansas and Louisiana.
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