|Doug Johnson is the Director of Technology for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage (MN) Public Schools. He is the author of nine books on educational technology, including The Classroom Teacher’s Technology Survival Guide.
In this guest post, Doug provides ten strategies for getting the most out of your school’s tech department. Though technology can get in the way of learning if poorly implemented, Doug writes, it doesn’t have to: properly applied, technology can serve as “a vital partner” in education.
This post originally appeared on Doug’s Blue Skunk Blog.
I’ve long shuddered when I hear a school’s tech department called the “Prevention of Education Unit” or the tech director called the “Tech Nazi.” Yes, I’ve actually heard both these terms – but thankfully not in the districts in which I’ve worked.
A major cause of this disconnect is that educators and technologists have valid but very different priorities when it comes to technology. As educators, we need simplicity, abundance, convenience, and ubiquity. As a technologists, we must provide security, reliability, and adequacy.
But I also believe we can build a culture based on norms in technology departments that will build a reputation of being truly a vital partner in helping teachers and administrators effectively and efficiently complete required tasks and achieve their professional goals.
Here are some norms that consciously or not I’ve observed that keep tech departments from “preventing” education.
- Education first. Everyone in a school must view himself/herself as responsible for the school’s primary mission of education. This applies to bus drivers and cooks as well as superintendents, and technicians are no exception. Consciously, we must ask ourselves – how will this decision, rule, or action impact children’s ability to learn. We are all of us educators first, technologists second.
- User experience second. There is no such thing as a totally secure technology environment. Common sense, based on level of security needed and the ability of users, should dictate what security measures are truly necessary. Schools and the Department of Defense simply don’t need the same complexity of passwords or login processes. Our goal should be to make technology use both transparent and secure.
- Economy third. Too often departments with the biggest budgets view themselves as “winners.” But in the zero sum world of school funding, such winners may be creating students who are losers if money is unnecessarily spent on technology or software rather than lower class sizes, better teacher pay, professional development, or non-technological curricular materials. (See Norm 1.) I always ask myself that when buying big ticket items, do we need the Mercedes or will a Chevy get the same job done?
- Support mission-critical technologies really well. The only way most of us have time to do that is by prioritizing our support tasks. I’ve found that by clearly articulating to staff that only by maintaining equipment that is within the replacement cycle and has been purchased through departmental processes will eliminate the Sisyphean task of keeping obsolete and non-standard equipment running. Do I care if a teacher still uses a IIe to run Number Munchers? No, but when the machine dies, all our department will do is carry it to the recycling center.
- Over communicate. If even we can’t get to a staff member’s problem immediately, we always let them know we’ve been heard. If a system needs to go down for maintenance, let everybody who may even be remotely impacted (teachers work on weekends and late at night) several days in advance. Overestimate the time the service will be lost. And never assume by telling a principal or director something might happen that that message will get to everyone else.
- Always assume a task is possible, a problem has a solution. I once heard a teacher tell a technician. “When you say it can’t be done, what you really mean is that you don’t know how or you don’t want to.” If that is what we mean, then let’s say that.
- Seek the “why.” Some demands placed on the technology department and its workers sound kind of crazy. But once one learns the reason behind the request, additional, less onerous solutions may present themselves. By focusing on the goal, not a specific solution, creativity often kicks in and everybody benefits.
- Work as a team. While everybody is usually busy, some people may be extra busy at times – a new lab needs to be installed, a whole slew of iPads need imaging, a new wing is opening in a school. Teams of technicians working together help each other out in times like these. Each member of the department brings specific skills and expertise (or that should be built). Make sure tech integration specialists, librarians, and information system managers are a genuine part of the tech team.
- Check your work. Does the printer driver installed actually allow the teacher to print? Does the new login password actually work? Did the new cable to the IWB actually take care of the problem? My dad had a saying “There never seems to be time to do it right, but there is always time to do it over.” Ten minutes checking one’s work saves time, frustration, and builds one’s reputation for service and competence.
- Blame the director. If a staff member is unhappy about a technology procedure, the only person who should take heat about it should be the person making the decision. Yet, techs often hear from teachers about old equipment, inadequate wireless signals, or clumsy security measures. Operate under the assumption that conversations between two professionals are respectful and constructive. Offer and accept nothing else. “Take it up with my boss,” is the standard response to disagreeable people.
So what works for your tech department to make it an effective partner in the education of your kids? As a teacher or administrator, what makes your tech department effective?