Why technology must be invisible during ed tech roll outs

One district leader shares his philosophy for invisible tech roll outs that focus on goals, not tools

invisible-techWhen it comes to classroom and infrastructure technology implementations, it’s the equipment, software, and apps that usually take center stage. Rob Dickson thinks he’s found a better way to approach K-12 technology implementations, and in his mind the tech itself is not the focal point. In fact, Dickson, the executive director of information management systems (IMS) at Omaha Public Schools, thinks the equipment and tools being installed and put to work should be “invisible.”

“Implementing a project should begin with a vision,” writes Dickson, in a post for SmartBlog on Education. “Technology shouldn’t be the main focus but a vein running through a strategic plan touching every objective and outcome, providing the highway to efficiencies and collaboration. Every district is different across the country, with different views, demographics, policies and procedures.”

Dickson, who has been in his current position for six months, bases his philosophy on the fact that technology should be viewed as a utility that’s provided by the district, rather than a key driver or central focus, during implementation. “Just like gas, water, or electricity, the technology is the utility or the service that’s being provided,” says Dickson, who developed the idea during a recent cloud-based Office 365 implementation, “we shouldn’t be focused on the technology itself, but on the actual learning and benefits that students and teachers get from it.”

This doesn’t always happen in K-12 environments where teachers, administrators, and IT directors are focused on adopting ebooks or rolling out iPad implementations. In these scenarios, the technology tools and applications behind those rollouts become the central focus for everyone involved. “The actual learning that will be enabled by the technology takes a backseat,” says Dickson, “and the question of, ‘How can we provide the best learning environment for our students?’ isn’t always answered by technology, to be honest.”

(Next page: How the SAMR model can help)

Focus on doing
When Dickson arrived at Omaha Public Schools in mid-2014, he says the district’s technology platform was a “blank slate” (i.e., its technological infrastructure was sparse and aging). Recently the district completed a needs assessment and is working on several initiatives, such as workshop-based professional development, planned obsolescence, and new digital curriculum.

Dickson’s now keeping an eye on the extent to which the tools and applications become the central focus during implementation. He realizes that keeping the technology invisible won’t come naturally for teachers and others who have for years been taught that it’s “all about the tools.”

“When you think about instructional technology, teachers learn how to use a whiteboard in the classroom or tablets in a one-to-one environment. That’s how things were traditionally managed,” says Dickson. Instead, he sees the shift to his “invisible” approach as a significant cultural change that starts with a different way of measuring goals and results. “It’s not about measuring specific technology usage; the focus should be on the actual activity that’s going on – the actual ‘doing’ of something with the technology.”

Dickson points to the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model as one good measuring stick for this process. Centered on how computer technology impacts teaching and learning, the SAMR model develops a progression that adopters of educational technology can follow as they progress through teaching and learning with technology. At the “substitution” level, for instance, instructors and pupils replace old technology tools with new ones (Office 365 or Google Docs instead of Microsoft Word), as a way to test out new tools to conduct the same activities (in this case, writing).

“You can use SAMR to measure the activity that students are partaking in. If you couldn’t have done that activity before – and without technology – then there’s a real cultural change taking place there,” says Dickson, who has used the SAMR model to switch out traditional classroom instructional tools like whiteboards with a combination of interactive whiteboards and overhead projectors. “In doing so, we added some augmentation to the equation,” he explains, “in that the end result was an interactive environment where multiple individuals were able to edit and collaborate.”

(Next page: How both teachers and IT departments can prepare)

Getting Started
As a starting point for other districts, Dickson says a good first step in the “invisible technology” direction is to identify digital curriculum strategies across a future timeline of about five years. Will the curriculum be “canned,” developed from the ground up, based on open educational resources, or a combination of all three? The answers to these questions will then help fill in some of the holes that districts are currently grappling with – such as how to promote collaboration in flipped classroom environments – and make the technology itself less of a focus during implementations.

According to Dickson, professional development is the key to achieving the “invisible technology implementation” nirvana.

“Many teachers do not have the technical knowledge or skills to recognize the potential for technology in teaching and learning. Just knowing how to use a computer is not enough,” says Dickson. “Instead, teachers must become knowledgeable about technology and self-confident enough to integrate it effectively in the classroom.”

District IT departments also need to step up to the plate, according to Dickson, and get more involved at the classroom level. “All it takes is a little time spent in the classroom to see exactly what students are – or aren’t – getting out of the technology,” says Dickson. “As IT professionals, too many times we sit back and take relative guesses as to how much bandwidth or support is needed, when in reality we should be spending time in the classroom gathering that information ourselves.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.

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