School planners and administrators are caught in a conundrum. Research makes it clear that students and teachers are best served if they have convenient, consistent and frequent access to technology. But many schools buy technology as an afterthought; they add equipment to their inventory with no clear plan about how to integrate it with existing infrastructure, equipment and curriculum. The result in many cases is technology that becomes obsolete before it can be exploited.
As technology advances, it is imperative that schools make wise choices to create an enriched technology infrastructure that will be used to the maximum and is flexible enough for future evolution.
Develop a rationale
For a successful and cost-effective technology program, schools must develop a comprehensive vision and a well-thought-out plan. Planning helps schools navigate through diverse technologies, minimize the frequency of renovations, avoid investments in underused systems and marshal adequate funding.
First, create a planning group consisting of network and equipment technology specialists, educational technology staff, administrators, teachers, students and members of the community. The group should gather information through staff and student interviews and visits to other schools. The goal is to take advantage of the flexibility, interactivity and individualized learning potential of new technologies.
The group should evaluate the opportunities offered by new technologies (such as wireless, PDA, video streaming, virtual-reality environments, etc.) and determine which ones can be used to enhance learning.
Technology-based teaching strategies should include opportunities for professional development and training, as well as a support network. Teachers need to restructure their presentations and delivery, not simply add technology to their current approach. If they restructure their teaching in a way that incorporates technology as a central tool for enhancing pedagogy, real changes can occur.
Educators will need to not only adjust to new teaching delivery mechanisms, but also navigate a new physical infrastructure. Faculty with different proficiency levels should test new classroom technology setups before they are used in other classrooms. Classrooms should be set up as similarly as possible. But, given that classrooms often differ, simple, well-designed and tested documentation should be posted about all technologies in the room.
A few keys to get started right:
When beginning an installation, give technology to technologically savvy teachers and staff who will use it immediately.
Make the technology easily accessible, reliable and supportable by a comprehensive infrastructure.
Offer training programs.
Even after educators are willing to incorporate technology into the teaching model, barriers still remain to developing high levels of use. The biggest of these is reliability. Faculty members often complain that software is incompatible between office and home; that it malfunctions or is out-of-date. Improving reliability can be as simple as establishing clear lines of responsibility for checking and maintaining quality control of classroom technologies.
The most effective step toward reliability is the purchase of highly reliable technologies. Cheaper systems are likely to require more maintenance and repair, and earlier replacement. Poor reliability also drives teachers away from technology. They won't put all or part of their course material at the mercy of a new technology unless they are convinced that it is completely reliable. Technology needs to be like a blackboard, which works every time as long as you have a piece of chalk.
Rather than struggling to train and support a growing information-technology infrastructure by hiring and retraining staff, some institutions are hiring outside companies to help manage their computing operations and technology needs. Outsourcing can benefit institutions in several ways: it can help contain costs; provide up-to-date services; eliminate or reduce staff time spent on learning about new hardware and software; and protect institutions from technical obsolescence. Outside companies often can recommend when new technology makes sense for your system. By consolidating these services, schools are more able to afford dedicated professional service.
Effective use of technology requires adequate school and district infrastructure, on-site technical support, administrative support, and encouragement and ongoing integration support.
Mobile laptop labs are replacing student desktop computers in many classrooms. Investing in mobile laptops makes it possible to bring hands-on, technology-enriched classroom experiences to every corner of the building. Teachers are able to instruct more efficiently with mobile laptops. They can come into a classroom with their lesson plan or instructional materials stored on the laptop and easily connect it to a presentation system. Normally when a curriculum has a section with computer-based learning modules, teachers must schedule computer lab time. However, laptops provide the capability of converting a standard classroom into a lab when necessary. They can be deployed in a variety of ways that allow for flexibility in class size and learning models.
Many schools are installing wireless networking. A wireless network provides ‘anytime/anywhere’ access to faculty and students. It has the potential to revolutionize homework delivery and correction methods and transform the entire school into a virtual classroom. Wireless networks are easier to upgrade, move and change. This saves money over hard-wired systems.
Mobile or permanently mounted data video projectors are replacing large TV monitors in classrooms. They allow for large-screen projection of easily readable data and video for instruction. Interactive whiteboards also are becoming a powerful tool for enhancing instruction, collaboration and presentation in the classroom.
Looking to the future
Many educational innovations are available, and more are on the way. Decisions about classroom technologies can be risky, but the key to avoiding risks is to look before you leap. Funding, facilities and personnel are managed most effectively when goals and strategies are identified over three to five years. A three- to five-year plan can evolve as a school grows and technology advances.
Installing technology may not result in any actual savings at the time of purchase. But proper planning can turn technology into an integrated “tool” that streamlines operations, delivers the latest curricula, and provides enhanced teacher and student services.
Constable is a principal with Design Partnership of Cambridge, Charlestown, Moss.
From plan to action
Acton-Boxborough Regional High School in Acton, Mass., formed a committee to guide planning for technology. The resulting “Educational Rationale for High School Building Project Technology Purchase Proposal — October 21, 2002” spelled out six guiding principles:
Employ strategies to use technologies in support of student learning.
Promote integration of technology into curriculum.
Provide professional development that supports the use of technology to enhance learning.
Improve administrative efficiency to enhance support.
Maintain, expand and enhance the technical infrastructure to improve user access and support learning, while continuing to value safety and responsibility.
Address all technology costs via an annual budget process in order to improve continuity and accountability of the planning process.
Synthesizing these guiding principles with research on technology integration, the group developed system criteria: Technology resources should address specific curricular needs, and should be deployed as tools for solving problems, developing concepts and thinking critically. Technology must be accessible, reliable and supportable. Staff should receive professional training to take advantage of technological resources.
Based on the above criteria, the school developed this plan for interactive multimedia presentations in classrooms: Every classroom in the high school will be equipped with a ceiling-mounted projection device. A laptop can be plugged in to run a presentation, as well as a videotape or DVD, from the projection device. Devising new teaching techniques to include an interactive multimedia component will require professional development and peer mentoring. Ultimately, teachers will be able to communicate course curricula in new and powerful ways.