Without visionary school leadership, backed by supportive communities, the disparities in ed-tech budgets increase. So say the authors of the “Digital Leadership Divide,” a survey released June 10 by the independent research organization Grunwald Associates and the non-profit Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

The quality of leadership, researchers found, is also the primary indicator of whether technology funding–regardless of the funding level–is likely to be spent wisely or be wasted.

Despite budget shortfalls affecting schools from coast to coast, visionary leaders refuse to let a lack of funds derail the effective use of technology in their schools. Even in the face of stagnant or declining budgets, the report states, dedicated educators are aggressively pursuing the use of technology by employing creative thinking and innovative partnerships to make up for a shortage of cash.

“Schools that are committed to deepening the impact of technology are finding ways to raise or repurpose funds to maintain or increase their level of support for technology, even in difficult budget cycles,” the report said. On the flip side, “Schools that are less committed to using technology are falling behind–cutting budgets, reducing staff, and forgoing the professional development that would enable educators to use technology more effectively.”

The findings are from a nationwide survey of 455 school decision-makers, including superintendents, assistant superintendents, directors of instructional technology, chief technology officers, and administrators of management information systems. The study, sponsored in part by AT&T, Educational Testing Service Inc., and Microsoft Corp., reportedly is the first in a series intended to monitor schools’ technology spending and related trends.

According to researchers, the key to effective technology integration lies not in the number of dollars spent, but in the ability of school leaders to communicate their needs and harness the power of technology–making the best of what resources are available.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found that school budgets may not be the biggest barrier to deploying and utilizing technology effectively in the classroom,” said the study’s lead author, Peter Grunwald. “Instead, visionary leadership coupled with an aggressive development of community and parental support seem to drive change in the most technology-intensive schools.”

Chief among researchers’ findings were a direct link between the quality of leadership within the district and the amount of money budgeted for technology programs, a need for community and stakeholder buy-in, and a too-frequent disconnect between school administrators and classroom educators regarding the effective use of technology.

Professional development

Although the findings indicate a shared vision and broad support from stakeholders at all levels are needed to achieve a high level of technology proficiency in schools, researchers also have found a number of school leaders, especially those in large districts, are frustrated at the lack of technology expertise exhibited by teachers and other school personnel.

Nearly half of the school leaders surveyed from large districts (45 percent) say the lack of technology understanding on the part of other district employees poses a significant barrier.

Furthermore, school leaders admit they themselves lack the skills to integrate technology effectively. According to the survey, fewer than one in 10 school leaders (7 percent) would classify his or her ability to integrate technology into the learning environment as “very good” or better. Further, most school leaders contend classroom teachers need even more help. On a scale of one to 10, respondents gave teachers an average score of 5.3 on technology competence.

Making a difference

Even though educators acknowledge they lack sufficient competency with technology, they recognize that technology is essential to reaching district goals. When it comes to improving productivity and efficiency, 74 percent of survey respondents say technology provides timely data for decision making, while 70 percent report it improves communication among parents, teachers, and the community at large. Nearly eight out of 10 respondents (78 percent) said their districts currently rely on data-driven decision-making, the study found.

Respondents also cited technology’s salutary impact on learning. More than two-thirds (68 percent) said technology motivates students and provides them with important life skills (67 percent).

Decision-makers also touted classroom technology as a means to create equity for students. Sixty percent of respondents said technology helped level the playing field for learners with disabilities, while 52 percent said technology can help individualize instruction, and 51 percent reported it promotes academic equity.

In spite of the importance of leadership, educators who responded to the survey made no attempt to hide the devastating effects of budget cuts on their respective technology programs. In fact, 48 percent of the school leaders surveyed cited budgeting issues as a key impediment to effective technology use.

In light of the survey’s findings, CoSN offered these recommendations:

  • Move from automating administrative practices to transforming teaching and learning. “Perhaps the most promising and powerful application of technology in education is the delivery of personalized instruction,” the report said. “We are only beginning to glimpse how technology can enable educators to assess students’ knowledge and skills continually and get results immediately.”

  • Invest in strong technology leadership. This includes the creation of the chief technology officer position in which the successful candidate works closely with top district leadership to pursue a shared vision for technology.

  • Create new professional development initiatives. The majority of educators still don’t possess the technology skills necessary to integrate technology into the classroom, the survey found. In response to this widespread deficiency, CoSN recommends school districts across the country schedule routine technology workshops to better prepare educators for their role in a technology-infused learning environment.

  • Recruit the active support of parents and the community. Despite budget constraints, the report states, community support can be a key factor in determining whether or not schools succeed in integrating technology effectively.

In the last analysis, school leaders concluded that the human element is more important than equipment in determining the ultimate success of school technology.

See these related links:

The Consortium for School Networking

Grunwald Associates