Tech Leadership

More Voices Create Better Policies

As district administrators, have you ever received comments such as these from your staff? by Doug Johnson

“Who decides what should be blocked by our school district’s Internet filter? Our technology director has been checking more little boxes on our filter. Just yesterday he decided to block all games, even educational ones.”— Librarian

“Come on, I do most of my grading in the evening. Why can’t I have access to the online grade book from home?”— Teacher

“Teachers are saving program files in their online storage area that was set up just for documents. Having programs on that server makes it extremely time consuming to search for viruses. I am just going to delete these kinds of files when I find them!”— Network administrator

Open Hostility
Because many school districts have not yet figured out how to create good policies about technology use, complaints resembling these are not uncommon. Unilaterally made and often unofficial rules are creating what seems like a new range war—not between the cattle ranchers and the sheepherders but between the educators and the technologists.

The techies often win by default because they have, as the librarian put it, the know-how to check “the little boxes.” Their more extensive knowledge about technology leads to practices that become de facto that others with less savvy find difficult to dispute. I have a mantra I often ask teachers, librarians and administrators in our district to repeat: "Technicians don't make school policy.” It sinks in if people say it regularly.

The best rules and guidelines are those developed collaboratively. In our system, both our district technology advisory committee and building technology committee have policy development as a major task. These small groups meet a few times each year and are comprised of a variety of stakeholders—teachers, librarians, administrators, students, parents and community members with our technology personnel serving as ex-officio members.

Competing Priorities
Disagreements over technology use policies have at their core two disparate sets of priorities--one held by the technical staff and one by educators.

Techies have the responsibility for data security, network bandwidth conservation and the reliable operations for what are usually far too many machines for them to maintain. They wish to make rules that will decrease the likelihood of technical problems. Taken to the extreme, this results in a “if they can’t touch it, it won’t break” mentality.

Educators want as much access and convenience as possible. Security systems requiring multiple log-ins eat into class time, and restrictions on what is accessible and from where can discourage technology use and innovative practices.

Technology use issues raised in a technology advisory committee can be given a full hearing. (I often use Edward de Bono’s PMI (Plus. Minus. Interesting) tool, asking about a proposal “What’s Good, What’s Bad and What’s Interesting” to get a productive discussion flowing during meetings. Collaborative policymaking can have multiple results--an agreement reached that everyone can live with; an agreement reached that some members don’t like but understand why it was made; or an agreement reached that lessens the responsibility of the technicians.

Cooperative Process
This approach has worked well for our district. On the difficult filtering issue, our district committee decided as a result of the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act that we would install a filter, but it would be set at its least restrictive setting. Any teacher or librarian can unblock a website with a simple request—no questions asked. Staff members are required to continue to monitor student access to the Internet as if no filter were present. The technicians now know it is the responsibility of the teaching staff, not theirs, to ensure students do not access inappropriate materials. This is a worthy policy decision that could not have been reached without a variety of voices during its making.

To effectively lead collaborative policymaking efforts, administrators need an understanding of the technologies and issues involved. My formal education was in English and librarianship, not technology. But to overcome this, I try to remember Denzel Washington’s great line in the movie “Philadelphia”: “Explain it to me like I was 6 years old.”

My frustrated technicians sometimes work with me for a very long time, drawing pictures, forming analogies and searching for ever-shorter words to describe functions and reasons for complex technologies. But developing such understandings is worth the investment in time and effort. You don’t need to know how to set up or administer a domain name server, but you ought to know what it does and why it is important.

Open dialogue and clear understanding about technology are essential for its successful use in schools, especially when it comes to setting policy. No one will agree with every decision, but at least everyone can have a better understanding of why it was made. Range wars aren’t healthy for anyone, including the little lambs we serve.

Doug Johnson is director of media and technology, Mankato Public Schools, P.O. Box 8713, Mankato, MN 56002. E-mail: dougj@doug-johnson.com