Bridging the New Digital Divide by Ed Finkel

Bridging the New Digital Divide

Technology opportunities and challenges school leaders must address.
District Administration, Jan 2013

As the cutting edge of technology has moved from getting computers into the classroom to digitizing textbooks to fully and seamlessly integrating technology into pedagogy, the role of superintendents and other district leaders has needed to shift to ensure teachers and students are reaping the benefits.

But that cutting edge has been evolving ever more swiftly in recent years, and at the same time, the roles of school district leaders have been expanding and becoming more complex, which has added to the challenges.

On the technology side, the answer of what districts will have to do in five years is still elusive, but leaders still have to prepare. “It’s hard for everyone to stay ahead of the curve. In this complex role that leaders serve in schools, how do you get technology on the front burner?” says Brian Lewis, CEO of the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE). “How do we tap into technology for learning? What are we going to have to do in five years? We don’t know, and yet somehow we have to equip and support our leaders to address that issue.”

In many ways, the K12 world is playing catch-up with the business community and other sectors of the economy in maximizing technology’s advantages, says Gene Carter, executive director and CEO of ASCD, formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. And students are expecting the same technology experience in school, Carter says. “One of the big criticisms of many schools is that they are not authentic learning institutions because what happens outside the schoolhouse differs significantly from what students are exposed to,” he says.

Greg Limperis, who has a personal learning network called Technology Integration in Education, senses that same gap between K12 leaders and those in other fields. He’s started a LinkedIn group called Technology Integration in Education that built membership slowly but has exploded this year, he says. “There’s no talk of technology and how do we use it,” he says. “There needs to be a real focus on that. We talk all the time about teachers needing professional development. When you look at how administrators are, it’s kind of scary—they’re senior-level, close to retirement, they didn’t grow up with technology, they don’t know how to use it, they don’t appreciate the power of it.”

Echoing Carter’s comments, he adds, “How can we keep these kids engaged? You give them the things they’re used to using.”

To build support for technology, superintendents must weave conversations about it into their existing strategic planning process, discussing why it’s important from a pedagogical standpoint in ensuring that students are college- and career-ready, says Leslie Conery, interim chief education officer for ISTE. Strategies can include bringing in speakers or facilitators, or presenting data, perhaps starting with cabinet-level administrators to build their support before rolling out new capacity-building initiatives to teachers and others in the district.

To move their vision forward, administrators need to understand—and then persuade teachers—that keeping abreast of technology is essential to the short-term goals of preparing students academically to succeed in their grades and the next round of standardized testing, and longer-term goals of enabling them to build 21st-century skills like teamwork and communication to succeed in college and the workplace, agrees Matt McClure, superintendent of Cross County (Ark.) School District. He believes this will convince the fence-sitters in teaching and administration, provided technology is well-integrated into the curriculum and not just tacked onto what exists.

Taking Risks

Superintendents need to encourage technology leadership by example, says McClure, who puts budgets and senior level meeting agendas in the cloud. About two years ago, a veteran superintendent told McClure: “I’m glad there’s people like you out there. You’ll take the risk and push the envelope. Then we can learn from the successes and failures.”

District leaders don’t need to be experts in all the latest technology and know all the details, but they do need to understand the big picture of why technology is important and what it can do for teaching and learning, says Conery, which provides a set of four “profiles” that lay out what the organization thinks a superintendent or principal should know and understand. Described in detail in a 29-page booklet titled, “Nets for Administrators,” these profiles cover superintendent and executive cabinet, district-level program directors, district-level technology directors, and principals, providing “information on the kinds of job-specific requirements they need to perform as effective technology leaders,” according to the report.

McClure agrees that superintendents don’t need to know all the details. “You have to understand and have a vision for how you’re going to create an environment for kids to learn those skills,” McClure says. “It’s not that I have to learn how to use Twitter or Final Cut Pro at a level I can teach it to others. I have to have a fundamental understanding of how those tools are used in a business environment or a classroom environment.”

A Simple Understanding

There are some school leaders who are visionaries and taking informed chances, Conery says. And Lewis does not believe one can easily break down the types of people or districts most likely to have embraced technology in leadership levels.

Carter says that the size of technology budgets do play a role. “The degree to which some may have moved forward with greater dispatch and greater success is dependent upon those variables,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any shortage of desire, energy, and intention. … The superintendent is expected to have the vision that provides the direction for the application of technology in the teaching and learning process.”

Smaller districts, for example, have greater challenges given the lack of (or at least fewer) dedicated technology staffers, Carter says. “What the superintendent is expected to have is a thirst for learning and to grow his or her understanding of the impact that technology can have on the teaching and learning process.”

Technology Must be Used

McClure thinks that students in poverty-stricken areas need technology in their hands as early as possible. “It’s an equalizer,” he says. “We’ve got to use the technology as a leverage or a force in the classroom to help focus on what people call these 21st-century skills, or soft skills: the ability to communicate with others, to think analytically.”

To disseminate a technology vision to all school stakeholders—building leaders, teachers, support staff, even parents—Conery suggests that the superintendent start a blog as a forum to communicate, supplemented with periodic meetings and other in-person conversations with key staff. “You figure out where we are and where we need to go” technologically and pedagogically, she says. “You develop an action plan [based in part on the progress you want to attain]... and you report to the school board about what you chose and what you’re going to implement.”

One of the key implications of a lack of leadership is the purchase of shiny new technology that looks good and gets positive press and other reactions—but only initially, Conery says. “People say, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re using technology,’ but the leader has not thought through what that means to have a successful implementation,” she says.

School and district leaders who do not strategize effectively aren’t much better off than district leaders who lack resources to buy technology in the first place, Carter says. “Some school districts that in fact have resources are steeped in the gadgets,” Carter says. “It’s a matter of getting their acts together and … creating a vision, setting the tone for technology use, providing supportive professional development and training teachers, principals, and others.”

Training with a Plan

Leadership must ensure that teachers are effectively trained and understand the goals behind the latest technology purchases, Conery agrees. “If you buy computers or any digital device, and take them to the teachers you have to say, ‘Here’s how we can be successful,’ ” she says.

Limperis wants to see more offerings that give superintendents the chance to take classes that would get them up to speed on the latest technology and software offerings and giving teachers individual one-on-one training when needed. “Why not say to the superintendents, here’s a repository of courses you need to take to get yourself up to speed on how to keep kids engaged and best save money,” he says. That could include anything from general primers on issues like the use of social media in the classroom, to subject-specific professional development on how technology can be used to teach math or reading. “People could pursue what they’re interested in and choose what’s relevant to them,” Limperis says.

Organizations like ASCD and ISTE also provide such training, Carter says, and McClure agrees—but he thinks more resources need to be developed for superintendents. “Most of [what now exists] is focused on how to implement things in the classroom,” he says. “Superintendents and district leaders don’t see that as their role. But without them having a clear vision, it’s hard to make change.”

And districts typically end up with “pockets of excellence” in certain classrooms, Conery says. “You have haves and have-nots depending on the luck of a student getting into a teacher’s classroom who is learning [technology] on their own,” she says. “That’s one of the biggest repercussions of a leader who’s not moving everybody along. The student will get the benefit of the teacher being up to speed, but they won’t get the benefit of the whole school getting up to speed.”

Ed Finkel is a contributing writer to District Administration.

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