10 tips for School Technology Planning
Just a few years ago, the toughest thing about educational technology planning was not knowing what new wonder was going to pop out of the box next. Instant data warehousing! Wireless for everyone! Your entire multimedia curriculum on a handheld! Now the threat of economic hard times makes it even harder to see what may be emerging up ahead.
Think of it as uncertainty squared. The unknown multiplied by the unknowable. And yet you are still expected to develop a plan to keep your school's technology working three to five years down the road. It can be done. You just have to plant your feet firmly in what you do know, wrap your arms 'round what you can know, and follow the 10 tips outlined in this article.
1. KEEP FIRST THINGS FIRST
Just because it's a cliché doesn't mean it's not true. The best touchstone in times of uncertainty is your school or district's core mission — whether it's the one framed inside the lobby or the one everyone who works there just knows. Before you add one more computer or one more software license to your stockpile, ask yourself how it fits into the larger picture and meets your goals."How will this help raise test scores in math? How will this improve students' reading levels?" If there's no good answer to the question at hand, skip the initiative or move it down the priority list.
2. SELL ON STRATEGY, SPEND ON TACTICS
That's a catchphrase among marketing types to help distinguish between high-level aims and the quantifiable nuts and bolts of how you achieve them. Your multiyear, publicly-aired technology plan should articulate the high-level aims (such as, "By 2005, ensure effective Internet access on demand for every student and teacher"); but behind the scenes, make sure you have a detailed yearly or even quarterly implementation plan that spells out the steps needed to achieve those aims. Goals can be calendarized or they can come with a specific price tag. Make sure that your school board stays focused on the overall aims while you and your staff take care of the details.
3. THINK OPEN
One of the emerging themes in education technology is the ability of your boxes, wires, and software to work together with any other boxes, wires, or software. From interoperability to true open source, the move is away from proprietary systems that force you to go back to one vendor for every new need. Always be on the lookout for ways to make your technology plan as open and flexible as possible — even if it means having fewer goodies in the short term.
4. LEAVE ROOM FOR RISK
Think of your technology plan as a 401(k) for your school's future. The newer cutting-edge technology companies might offer great rewards, but at a higher risk; more-established companies may deliver less, but offer more security. To get the best of both worlds, set aside a portion of your budget to pilot new technologies. Develop stringent criteria for selecting which new things you'll try, and make sure that everyone, including your board, recognizes that you are serious about innovation.
5. THINK FAT
You just can't have too much bandwidth these days, especially as the Internet and intraschool networking become essential parts of day-to-day activities. Upgrading your schools' connection to the Internet, linking your facilities together in a fast WAN, and beefing up your LANs should be near the top of your priority list every year.
6. GET SMART ABOUT DATA
Good planning means finding new ways to make the very best use of what you've got; and the one thing schools have plenty of is data — demographic data, achievement data, classroom data, special-programs data, and more. Think of all of those 1s and 0s floating around your network as gold dust waiting to be captured. Whatever else you do over the next few years, find ways to consolidate and use as much data as possible to achieve your core mission. You can be sure that you'll do better with technology than without it.
7. INVEST IN YOUR WETWARE
Your wetware — not to be confused with your hardware or software — is your teaching staff and technology support team. In other words, the human factor in the technology equation that often gets short-shrifted in most schools' technology plans. Remember, nothing pays off as well as properly structured, properly funded technology training for teachers. Some experts argue that unless 25 percent of the total technology budget is set aside for professional development, the plan is doomed. On top of that, don't forget to plan for staff to maintain and support the machines!
8. KEEP AN EYE ON "TOTAL COST OF OWNERSHIP"
When you start factoring in training, support, maintenance, and the inevitability of obsolescence, you're coming close to understanding what many experts now say is the real price tag for technology. For more information about total cost of ownership (TCO) for schools, visit "Taking TCO to the Classroom" at www.classroomtco.org on the Consortium for School Networking's Web site.
9. SHARE THE RISK
The more uncertainty you face, the more the companies who count on your business feel your pain. Why not help each other out by sharing some of the risk. Press the technology companies you work with for things like "try before you buy" pilot installations, guarantees of results, favorable pricing, and extra support and training. In return, you might offer them longer and broader contracts, testimonials and referrals, and strategic marketing support. Somewhere in the middle you will find the kinds of partnerships that let you thrive together during challenging times.
10. LEARN FROM A KID
As important as it is to have your top staff members involved in the school's technology enterprise, there is no substitute for the student's-eye view. A computer-savvy sixth grader can show you more of what is happening now, and will be happening in the future, than any collection of experts. For best results, do this in the student's home setting where technology is not limited by your school's current plan. It will require courage on your part to admit what you don't know, but it will give you the insight you need to chart a successful course into the future of technology.
Mickey Revenaugh is the former editor-in-chief of Scholastic's Electronic Learning, Teaching & Computers, and Instructor magazines.