10 ‘Must Ask’ Questions When Developing a Technology Plan

by James Oliver

As a technology consultant, I am frequently asked by superintendents and school board members, "What should be in our technology plan?"

My response is to list what I consider to be the 10 "must ask" questions that need to be addressed when developing a district-level technology plan.

Let me say at the outset that a superintendent or school board need not know all the technical details of the plan. On the other hand, recognizing the dramatic impact that technology is having on education, I believe every superintendent must have a solid grasp of what technology is all about from an executive point of view. Superintendents also must understand what is going on in their community regarding technology, and, through their questioning, ensure that those responsible for execution of the technology plan really know what they are doing.

Stakeholder Input

No. 1: Who puts the plan together?

Like any other facet of the educational environment, all constituencies of the school district should be represented in the development of the plan to ensure a feeling of ownership by all those affected. Many districts constitute a technology steering committee which is charged with plan development.

This steering committee should include appropriate faculty and staff representatives, and must include both the technology director and the technology curriculum coordinator for the school district. In addition, serious consideration should be given to including students, parents, and/or community members, such as the public librarian. Needless to say, the size of the group must be kept reasonable to facilitate the development of a comprehensive, viable document.

No. 2: Does the plan set forth a clear mission statement accompanied by specific objectives?

The mission statement must be clear and may speak quite broadly to the school district's long-range goals as well as its near-term probabilities.

Accompanying the mission statement must be clear plan objectives that speak to what is to be accomplished and when it is to happen. The presentation of these objectives must avoid generalities.

Unfortunately, all too often I read plans wherein the objectives are little more than a vague rehash of the mission statement. The resulting plan often tends to ramble and never really sets the course for the district. Avoid references to what won’t happen.

The plan presentation must carefully and clearly work toward the stated goals, providing a distinct vision of what is intended. Remember, committee members may make recommendations, but plans, once approved, define specific actions that are expected to happen.

Whose Assets?

No. 3: Does the technology plan carefully set the stage for what is to be done?

Early in both the plan development and in its presentation, address the issues, "Where have we been" and "Where are we now," on the journey to acquire and use better technology in the district. This involves accurately assessing existing computer and infrastructure assets, both hardware and software.

When planning for the future, it is important to establish the policy position that computer assets belong to the school district. Often districts and schools purchase computers for a particular department. Those computers are then thought of as belonging to that department and, thus, stay there until they are replaced or updated.

As politically challenging as it may be, computers should be thought of as district assets and, when appropriate, reassigned from time to time to where they can be used most effectively. I recognize that in certain cases, funding restrictions require specific usage, but even those instances should be evaluated.

No. 4: Is the plan grounded in good, solid technology?

Often it is easy to get caught up in what we sometimes call "etherware," a future product or technology that is talked or written about but does not exist yet and may never exist. That is not to say that all products in development are etherware, but rather it begs the question as to what the industry really believes are the prospects for it coming to fruition.

A separate issue has to do with what we call "minimum specifications for computer purchasing." We are all aware that the computer industry is advancing at a phenomenal rate to the extent that computer products are generally updated every 18 to 24 mouths. In this environment it is easy to purchase older equipment that may do the job today but will most certainly become obsolete rapidly.

If the technology plan outlines minimum specifications for computer purchasing that are updated every six months, this system helps ensure that equipment purchased by the district has the optimum useful lifetime.

Logical Development

No. 5: Does the technology plan address development of the objectives in a logical manner?

The correct way to address computer system purchasing plans is to define specific needs and how they relate to the curriculum. The technology curriculum coordinator or faculty technology committee must evaluate and define just what software they want to best address the curriculum objective. Today a substantial amount of high-quality curriculum software is available—a major advancement in just the last year or two.

This curriculum integration does not require development of each subject from scratch by individual instructors, but it makes possible the modification of currently available, sophisticated software to adapt to the needs of individual teachers. From there, identifying the appropriate computer operating system as set forth by the software developer is rather straightforward. That in turn defines the appropriate computer hardware platform required, including the minimum specifications or power required to run the desired software. You would be amazed at the number of times I’ve seen schools purchase hardware from their preferred supplier, only to find out that it won’t run the software intended for the class.

No. 6: Is the school district infrastructure (cables, networks, etc.) comprehensively included in the plan?

With all the hype during the last year or so about wiring schools and connecting them to the Internet, the subject of infrastructure must be a part of any plan today. However, the subject must be addressed carefully to encompass the entire district in order to best integrate each building's local area network into a district wide area network. Consideration also should be given to working with the community to encompass a municipal area network.

Questions surely will arise over Internet access and who will be the Internet service provider and at what cost. This subject demands a separate discussion, apart from the technology plan, since many complex alternatives exist and so many pieces are affected by these decisions. Suffice it to say, this matter requires the school system executive become reasonably familiar with the broad spectrum of networking and ask an inordinate number of questions of truly knowledgeable people before irreversible decisions are made.

Essential Training

No. 7: Does the technology plan adequately cover the need for faculty and staff training?

All too often I find that a school district has a comprehensive plan that says little or nothing about how faculty and staff are going to be adequately trained to take advantage of what technology can bring to the classroom. Of the many challenges here, the two most dominant ones are finding adequate funding and faculty/staff time.

Regarding funding, to provide thousands of dollars worth of computers and software and not provide the funds to train the teachers how to use it effectively is senseless. Lack of training virtually guarantees your technology will be underused or even ignored. Have you ever seen computers in the corner gathering dust because the teacher didn’t have the right software or training to use it? Conventional wisdom in education is that about 30 percent of the technology budget should be for training—an estimate I don't think is overstated.

On the issue of faculty time, district leadership must be visionary and creative to make it happen. I can only say, without hesitation, that only six to eight hours of training three or four times a year won't do it.

No. 8: How will the technology plan be funded?

As in all education programs, having enough money to do what we would like to do is never the case. And technology funding is going to take more than the usual discretionary funding. Often this causes districts to try to fund technology though grants, special project funds, or bond issues. The latter is an excellent source, if available, for one-time long-term expenditures like infrastructure.

The other funding sources typically can be used to quickly update part or the entire district. However, the ongoing cost of keeping a district's technology current, and operating, recurs annually, and should be treated as such. That means a budget-line-item every year that must be as consistent as teachers’ salaries. The continued effectiveness of the use of technology cannot be subject to erratic up-and-down budgeting. And don’t forget to tailor your district plan to meet federal and state objectives for grant sharing. It can mean a big difference in just how you say it.

Followup Actions

No. 9: Who is responsible for implementing the technology plan?

Regardless of how well written and how well funded a technology plan may be, its success will be determined by the people who make it work. People contribute more to a project when they know what has to be done and for what portion they are responsible. This clear mandate goes a long way toward eliminating turf battles and finger pointing.

Ultimately the superintendent will be better able to manage the technology program when all the players—from board members to the teacher and other users—each know who is responsible for doing what and when it is to happen. The technology plan must set forth clearly each of the implementation steps that are contemplated, who is to execute them, what resources are available to that individual, and what is the time line for execution. And, be sure when it comes to technology implementation no responsibilities are designated to "the committee."

No. 10: Is your technology plan a living document?

Plans are created to provide a specific course of action over a given time span. Some schools create technology plans as part of their budget planning, spread the costs out over five years, and then ignore the plan for the next five years. Plans treated in that manner are useless.

Technology is changing at such a rapid pace that technology plans today must be viewed as living documents. Schools may feel they cannot afford to keep up with the latest technology. Even so, they must keep their technology plans current. As technology advances, a static plan won't change to take advantage of new or maturing technologies. A dynamic or living plan, on the other hand, is modified at regular intervals. Such a plan defines significant events, not in terms of how many days, months, or years until an item should be completed, but rather in terms of what date that item should be completed.

For this living document to be useful, it must be reassessed regularly. The ongoing exercise of examining where we are versus where we want to be versus where we want to go now keeps a technology plan focused, relevant, and useful long after most static five-year plans cease to be pertinent.

Bonus Question

Once you’ve answered these questions, ask yourself this: Does the plan hang together and is it understandable?

The technology plan should be a comprehensive document and probably should contain one or more supporting segments or appendices. It is important that all material assumptions, existing equipment inventories, etc., are available in the technology plan in a series of appendices for reference as may be needed. It should not be a mystery known only to the creators, but rather a useful reference document for all the faculty and staff.

Finally, the most important question: "Is what you're planning good for the students?" It's the only question that really matters!

James Oliver, Executive Consultant, Future Technologies Now, Marathon Key, Fla.