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Dude, you’re getting a tablet! Now what?


Tablet deployment failures stem from no relevance to curriculum; no strategic plan; no readiness plan; and no user advocacy

tablet-education-learningYou’ve heard this story…

A generous individual or group donates a number of tablets to a school with the aim of helping students get on board with the latest technology that will help prepare them for the future workforce.

It’s a worthwhile goal, but one that can lead to challenges. It can be costly and problematic for unprepared districts to scale up technology programs, and more importantly, it is a lost opportunity to create a better learning opportunity for students and instructors.

What happens in the above scenario is the devices are brought on without a strategy. In such a situation, the critical thing to first ask is, “What do I want these devices to do, and how does that impact better student outcomes or instructor effectiveness?”

Such a decision shouldn’t be made solely by an IT department, instructional technology head, or superintendent, but rather by a collective group of stakeholders. Likely this includes all of those groups, but also should include both instructors and students.

Some of the more successful school districts have done precisely that. It starts by working with the end in mind. Yet simply asking what you want the technology to do likely requires some outside perspective. There’s an old adage: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

This is where an outside consultant can be a part of the preliminary planning or think tanks, and can even facilitate the discussion. At the end of the day, you’ll find you’re not having a discussion about tablets; you’re having a discussion about a new learning platform, enabled by technology.

In a planning session or think tank, I’d recommend some of the following:

(Next page: Tablet deployment tips 1-4)

1. Build a Technology Advisory Team: This should include instructors, administrators, students, technology curriculum leadership, IT leadership, and outside technology consultants. You’ll also want to embrace both “friendlies” and “non-friendlies.” Building consensuses with non-friendlies largely allows you to proactively address questions you’d otherwise face later.

2. Agree on Vision for Teaching/Learning: This means asking the foundational questions. What can/should the learning experience look like for a student? What can/should the teaching experience look like for an instructor? Ideally, what would be our measurements of success if we did this? These are BIG questions, but ultimately anything you do from a technology plan (or any plan for that matter) needs to align to this vision.

3. Determine Feasibility: This includes instructional, technical, and financial. From an instructional side, questions would be tied into the ability to shift curriculum to support the new learning/teaching experience. Regarding technology, you have to embrace the importance of adapting a flexible infrastructure that will support a variety of devices. And if you have more devices hitting the wireless network, can your infrastructure handle the density and performance requirements to ensure a great and continuous experience?

Finally, can you make this work financially? Even if it’s gifted, what about the bigger costs in support, accessories, deployment, management, infrastructure readiness, not to mention the replacement costs of devices when it’s time to refresh. It’s funny how someone “gifting” some tablets sets in motion a bigger conversation and ultimately a bigger budget issue.

4. Build Technology Enablement Plan: This includes all aspects that allow technology to work, including facilities. For an effective experience, you need to ensure you have power charging sources, security (physical and cyber), and network connectivity. For the devices themselves, you need to ask yourself, “Are tablets even the right choice?” There are different opinions on this.

For example, if it’s to merely take advantage of touch, many laptops now also have this. Also keep in mind that many standardized testing requirements will push you a different direction on devices. Often the best way to choose a device is by putting a variety in the hands of the Technology Advisory Team, and even going deeper into the future user community. This should be limited to devices you know you can support, with application, doc store, LMS, and SIS integration capabilities being obvious criteria (yet more and more applications are becoming web-based or multi-platform). Try to think about simplification in the beginning, especially for instructors.

5. Build Stakeholder Enablement Plan: The effective deployments in schools today are going beyond using tablets as digital textbooks and browsing devices. They are using them for collaboration, digital research, video creation, notes, and instant feedback from instructors or workgroups.

Students are able to use the tablets anywhere they are connected for continuous consumption, collaboration, and content creation. This only happens with appropriate training. This plan is critical and has to start early in the process. The Technology Advisory Team is key to building this. Part of any enablement plan should include not only the “readiness” training, but also help desk support, peer support, knowledge bases, and continuous education, including training archiving.

6. Project Implementation: Some of the best installations I’ve seen have taken time to thoroughly plan, with input from instructors and students – those that are going to be at the “experience” level. Piloting or working in smaller groups prior to mass deployments is ideal, but determining what grade level to start is a question the Technology Advisory Team needs to ask.

There are many different opinions on this, and this is where it’s good to seek opinions from other school districts. Regardless, the project implementation plan should be done in a fashion that 1) ensures timelines are met, 2) leverages experienced resources/consultants, and 3) maximizes opportunity to understand how you can improve and deploy to masses moving forward.

7. Continuous Improvement: Yes, technology changes. Teaching changes. How students learn changes. Long term, the Technology Advisory Team needs to meet regularly, while consistently rotating in new people. Gaining new ideas and perspectives is paramount to ongoing success. The team should also be putting themselves in a position to “know what they don’t know.”

This means talking to peers, talking to consultants, attending industry events, etc. on an ongoing basis.

By no means does the above represent a technology plan or even a tablet integration plan. However, after talking with countless school districts over the years, these do represent some of the important items to embrace when someone thinks it’s time to bring tablets into the district.

It’s important to first step back and work with the end in mind. Building a cross functional team is key.

The biggest failures I’ve seen in tablet deployments were largely due to 1) no tie into curriculum, 2) no strategic plan, 3) no readiness plan, and/or 4) no user advocacy.

Like most important investments, planning and preparation is key. As Benjamin Franklin once stated, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” The great thing though…with proper planning, you can drive a better student/instructor experience, and drive stronger student outcomes.

John Miller, VP and lead executive for Public Sector operations at PDS, has 17 years of IT consulting experience focused on accelerating student growth, instructor effectiveness, and community impact. He founded the IL & WI IT Leadership Councils, and serves on advisory boards for HP’s US Public Sector and Pathways to Prosperity.

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