Guest Column

No More Shopping Lists for Technology

Viewpoint by Alan November


Exasperated and confused, the superintendent shared her school board's concern with me.

"Last night the board members asked why the district was requesting a second round of major technology funding? They really wanted to know about the impact of technology on learning after our first big round of funding three years ago. They demanded to know why our current technology plan looks like a shopping list of 'stuff'?"

I asked her, "Why do you think they call it a shopping list?"

"Because," she replied, "it states that we need more computer labs. But that is exactly what the teachers have asked for and we want the plan to respond to their needs."

A red light went off on my techno-lust detection meter. Many so-called technology plans are not education plans at all, but shopping lists of techno-stuff. Ironically, the very thing that is being planned—technology—is getting in the way of asking the right questions and focusing on the primary business—educating students to make meaning out of information—to create knowledge products.

In some ways, this is a confession of a techno-lusting nerd. After spending millions of dollars and many years in the business of pursuing improved learning with technology, I now am convinced that technology should not be the focus for planning at all. Unfortunately, because it bewilders so many and costs so much money, technology in education has assumed an aura and focus that it does not deserve. It is, as if 500 years ago, we had set out to write a paper plan for schools that wanted to take advantage of the printing press and we asked teachers, "How much paper do you want?"

Too often, when teachers are polled about what technology they want, the question represents a setup for failure for people who do not understand what these machines can really do. Instead, educators should focus on the real digital revolution: information and communication.

To do this, we need to re-engineer the current model of education that largely depends on paper technology and has led to a tightly controlled and limited flow of linear information in our classrooms. If we are to prepare our students to be successful in the digital economy, we must provide them with information literacy and digital communications and social skills.

* Step 1: Ask the right questions.

Shift the focus from "what technology should we buy" to "what information should teachers and students have access to" and "what relationships do we want to support between our students and the world?" These questions invite all educators and students to join the planning process. Consider shifting the perspective from improving a school to a total community focus.

* Step 2: Take some giant leaps.

Realize that applying technology to improve the current reality of school day, schedule, assessment, departments, and grades is only a temporary step and will only lead to incremental improvement. The really tough planning issues have to do with redesigning the organization so that the investment in technology really pays off.

* Step 3: Guarantee success.

Create a database of the most difficult-to-learn concepts in the curriculum and target the investment in technology to specific curricular objectives. (e.g. acceleration in physics, orchestration in music, balancing chemical equations, factoring in algebra).

* Step 4: Support risk-taking teachers.

These are the instructors who want to rethink organizational structures, such as combining grades and academic departments, and give students complex learning challenges, such as creating professional-level work in science and music.

Undoubtedly, technology will transform the way we organize the business of education in powerful ways. The roles of leadership, educators, students, and families will evolve. If we so choose, we can radically raise the expectations of students and even build a more equitable society. But we will not get there by focusing on the digital plumbing.

Alan November, now a consultant, formerly worked as technology coordinator for school districts in Massachusetts and Illinois. He is Senior Partner, Educational Renaissance Planners, Chicago, Ill.