Caught Between Two Worlds – The Rogue Education Technology Wave Is Coming

Things used to be simple. I architected networks, administered servers and made sure email flowed uninterrupted. I was an IT guy and I was pretty good at it. Then one day I became a classroom teacher and my simple life in IT, focused on up time and putting six computers in the back of every classroom, became much more complicated. I became fascinated by the art and craft of learning and how technology might improve the school experience for kids. I took a hard look at how we provided and funded technology for teachers and realized we were doing it badly. I started looking at places like Minarets High School that were pushing the boundaries of student trust and teacher empowerment, using technology not for it’s own sake but as an instrument capable of transforming the learning process to focus on individual students instead of teaching to the middle. I started reading books like Drive, The Tipping Point and Disrupting Class and somewhere along the way I stopped being just an IT guy.

You see, I am no longer as interested in servers and networks as I once was. I still see them as necessary and recognize their importance to the bigger picture but for me they aren’t my main focus anymore. They are commodities with known costs that can be planned and budgeted for with a little bit of forward thinking. The same goes for most of what might be considered “traditional IT”. Plan to refresh the network every 10 years. You can budget for that. Replace the wireless network every 5 years. You can budget for that too. Replace laptops every 4 years and desktops and servers every 5 and your major support issues go away. Take advantage of free cloud based services and hosted service offerings and reduce the support requirements of IT significantly. Use open source wherever possible to further control costs. Scale out student computing with cheap mobile non-windows devices. It’s all fairly straightforward (and if you think about it, pretty boring). It’s basically a Deferred Maintenance Plan for technology and anyone with a spreadsheet can make one.

The challenge comes in convincing leadership that this is how to build a sustainable and affordable integrated technology environment for teaching and learning. Convincing folks that their thinking and funding models for the past 30 years are obsolete can get tiring but once a district moves past this point, technology ceases to become an add-on and starts to become an enabler.

That’s why I’m interested in moving past the discussions about technology’s merits and role in the classroom (it’s 2013 for crying out loud) to look at new pedagogies (or the old ones too long ignored) that get to the heart of learning. However, this is the domain of the “Curriculum & Instruction” world where IT folks generally find themselves marginalized and reduced to filling equipment and software orders when schools try to spend all their left over dollars before the end of the year.

What I think most school leaders don’t yet see is the monumental shift that is happening right now with technology in education. For decades technology was a periphery at worst and something to go to a lab to learn at best but in the past three years technology has infiltrated the very heart of education. Edupreneurs, brave teachers young and old and many others are transforming what it means to educate using technology in new and powerful ways. Some, like Sugata Mitra are showing how technology has the potential to fundamentally disrupt the foundational beliefs that our current education system is built on.

When powerful connected devices reach sub $150 (which they will within the next 18 months) it will be difficult for districts to continue to say that they can’t afford one for every student. A school full of 1:1 classrooms looks completely different than today’s technology baren classrooms. I don’t think school leaders comprehend this yet although State Superintendent of Public Instruction Torlakson apparently does. His Ed Tech Task Force has called for one internet connected device for every student in CA.

School business leaders see technology as a cost to be contained, curriculum and instruction leaders see technology as something to be defined, professionally developed and used to address specific deficiencies in learning. Technology leaders are often caught in the middle. Now more than ever, this is true, as both the Business and C&I people are about to have their worlds upended by the education technology tidal wave. Unfortunately for many it will be a rogue wave that catches them unprepared. There will be winners and losers, which is sad because we’re talking about kids futures here.

I am currently caught between these two worlds watching the wave come barreling in. One foot is still solidly in IT advocating for smart infrastructure decisions and sustainable funding that minimizes support and maximizes the ability to scale out student computing with the other foot creeping into C&I urging teacher empowerment through technology to build life long learners and develop professionals that will have the ability to adapt to the rapid change that technology is about to unleash upon them.

I hear often that technology is just a tool and that may be. But then so was the printing press, the pencil and the chalkboard. Systems either adapt or become obsolete and die. It’s time for school districts to recognize the technology wave is coming and adapt before it’s too late. The forward thinking districts are taking the necessary steps; building technology sustainability into their budgets, moving past one time technology professional development days to ongoing, continuos learning opportunities for teachers, building technology integration into common core implementation and bringing technology leaders to district leadership tables to start looking at technology as a critical strategic component in planning and operations moving forward.

What’s your district doing to prepare for the coming wave?