Is Technology Planning Passé?


Re-establishing the Place of Planning in Technology Integration

By Susan Brooks-Young

Known for his prowess as a baseball player and team manager, Yogi Berra was also celebrated for his way with words. A classic Berra saying is, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” This statement gets right to the heart of the topic for this month’s column. Schools have been producing technology plans of one kind or another for several decades with varying degrees of success. Some are living documents used to guide implementation of digital learning initiatives, but many do nothing more than take up shelf space. These plans are seldom referenced and do not reflect how technology is used onsite to support instruction.

Why revisit this topic now? Some agencies that once required technology plans for program funding are now backing away from that mandate. Calling new application processes “streamlined” or “simplified,” the underlying implication is that technology planning is too much work and not all that important. In addition, in the work I do with private school educators around the country, I’ve noticed that growing numbers of schools (and districts in the public school sector) are launching various technology-supported initiatives with minimal — even no — planning. This is a serious concern because unplanned technology-supported programs don’t typically work out well. So, it appears to be a good time to take another look at the benefits of technology planning. But before digging into the challenges and benefits of technology planning in general, let’s take a look at what happened when one school decided to implement two different mobile initiatives without developing a specific plan.

Take a Great Idea and Run with It?

Author Kelli Jae Baeli says that failing to plan is “… like leaping off a precipice and trying to knit yourself a parachute in the way down.” This summer I visited a group of educators at a small private school that has employed this on-the-fly approach to technology implementation for some time now. Five years ago the principle asked my opinion on several technology-related topics. Upon discovering that the school had no site technology plan and didn’t intend to develop one, I suggested revisit that decision. The principal responded that the school did not have the time or budget for writing a site-specific plan. He did mention they would continue using a generic plan that met minimal requirements for certain funding programs.

Since that initial meeting, the school has committed to – and scrapped – both a netbook cart program and a 1:1 laptop initiative. Why were these attempts unsuccessful? For starters, no one had thoroughly thought through how the devices would be used by students once they were available in classrooms. The school’s infrastructure was inadequate to handle the increased online traffic, and teaching staff received no professional development related to instructional use of these devices. It didn’t take long for the netbook carts to be relegated to a storage room and, later, for the laptops — which had been purchased by families — to fall into disuse in classrooms. Now they were poised to launch yet another initiative, placing tablet devices middle- and high-school classrooms. In the course of the meeting, I asked the group some basic questions including:

  1. How did they envision this tablet initiative affecting student learning?
  2. Had they reviewed recent research studies on mobile device preference among students in grades 6-12?
  3. What kinds of professional development would teachers receive to support instruction?
  4. Had their school’s infrastructure been sufficiently upgraded to handle significantly increased online traffic?

No one was able to respond in depth to any of these questions. Not a good sign, but it did explain a lot about what’s transpired there over the last five years. Lacking a plan, it’s all too easy for decision makers to jump from one idea to the next with little or no chance for success. It would be nice to end this story by saying that at the close of our discussion the group recognized the importance of developing a plan and agreed to write one before launching this next technology program. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happened. They have moved forward with the tablet initiative with no further time spent on development. No word yet on how it’s working out for them.

Why Do People Resist Planning?

The educators referenced in the scenario above are intelligent people. Why are they so resistant to taking the one action that would significantly increase their chances for success? I honestly don’t know many people who relish writing program plans in general. It’s time-consuming and often tedious work, and the resulting plan is often ignored once the original impetus — often external — for writing it has passed. This is true for technology plans specifically. Here are five reasons commonly cited by educators for not wanting to write a technology plan.

  1. It’s a waste of time and energy because no one pays attention to the plans anyway.
  2. Our school doesn’t have the financial or human resources needed to plan well.
  3. Writing a technology plan is the IT person’s job.
  4. Technology changes so quickly. How can we plan more than a few months out?
  5. Hardly anyone is requiring a plan anymore.

I think technology planning may seem to be more of an imposition than other types of planning because many members of the school community don’t see themselves as being “technology proficient.” They prefer to hand the task over to technicians who know about infrastructure and hardware, not taking into account that these people usually have little or no background in instruction. As a result, the technology plan may end up resembling a high-tech shopping list with little or no connection to instruction.

The real downside to this approach to planning is that research shows that simply setting up a network or putting devices into classrooms has little or no impact on student performance.

Good planning does require resources, ranging from making time to meet and write, to finding people with the right skill sets for program design, to sometimes investing in outside expertise. But this investment does not need to be crippling and is certainly less expensive than bad investments in infrastructure, hardware, digital instructional materials, poorly designed professional development, and more. Let’s look at structures that address the objections above and result in technology plans that work.

Planning for Success

We have learned over time that technology for its own sake does not impact student learning. However, when technology-supported activities are designed to challenge students to use critical-thinking skills and to create rather than costume content, there are academic benefits. This kind of digital learning environment doesn’t happen by accident — educators, technicians, parents, and students must work together to use technology more effectively. The best way to approach this is to craft and implement a well-considered technology plan.

“A technology plan should start with what the students need to learn and be project-based. It should not be written to gain the approval of the administration, but to focus on the concrete skills students need to create a wide variety of content-based products. Without mandatory teacher training, no technology planning is effective.” -Jack Jarvis, classroom teacher/professional development provider

Begin by committing to make the plan a living document. A high level of flexibility may be challenging at times, but it’s not impossible. With rapidly changing technologies, it is important to check the plan regularly to ensure you are still using the right tools for the various kinds of work that must be done. One trick I learned as a school principal was to keep critical planning documents front and center during faculty and other school meetings. During discussions ranging from instructional strategies to purchase orders, it was easy to reference the appropriate plan(s) as needed to see if we were still on the right track or if it was time to consider making some adjustments.

Some educators believe that technology should be woven throughout the overall school plan. The thinking behind this approach is that better decisions will be made when they are within the context of instructional need instead of the latest, greatest technology. Generally this works well as long as specific details like professional development and infrastructure needs are addressed. Here are five tips for effective technology planning.

  1. When instruction forms the plan’s foundation, it is more likely that positive outcomes will be achieved.
  2. Identify the skills and knowledge that the teaching staff must have to support the plan and explain how professional development will be provided.
  3. The school’s infrastructure can make or break your plan. If upgrading is required, devise a realistic plan to make it happen.
  4. Include a budget. The best plan in the world won’t get off the ground if it’s not properly funded.
  5. Identify strategies for measuring successful plan implementation, and then use them.

Resources

Once you make the decision to develop or update your site technology plan, there are free resources you can use to get started. Here are five:

K – 12 Blueprint: Developed by Intel with the support of Tech & Learning, the blueprint consists of toolkits and other resources educators can use when planning and implementing technology-supported initiatives.

California Technology Plan Template: Located under Recommended Resources, this Word document lays out five plan sections (overview, curriculum, professional development, infrastructure, and evaluation) as well as planning questions. You need to add a projected budget for a complete plan. The template provided with this tool is very comprehensive.

Guide to Implementing Digital Learning: Developed by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), this online resource provides guidance for schools and districts as they strive to implement successful digital learning initiatives.

Future Ready Framework: The U.S. Department of Education maintains that personalized digital learning for every student can only be achieved through systemic change—and that requires planning. Visit this site to review the seven key categories educators must address in planning and implementation and access a self-assessment tool.

Model for Managing Complex Change: Developed by T. Knoster, this simple graphic clearly demonstrates why all parts of the planning process are important for any initiative.

“The challenge for educators is the rapid change of technology and consonantly evolving tools. Therefore, the plan needs to be a document that evolves with these changes. Keeping an eye on trends and determining when and how the plan is what educators must commit to in order to maintain a plan that is relevant.” – Gabriel Soumakian, superintendent, Oxnard Union High School District

Moving Forward

Geoff Belleau is a consultant for the California Department of Education with extensive background in technology planning. I asked him to share his thoughts on planning and its relevance for schools. I’ll close with his response.

“Here’s my take on planning, especially technology planning. Without a plan, failure is almost certain – but even failure doesn’t mean throw everything out and start over. It is best to take a look at what happened and learn from it!

“Whether working at a school site, in a district, of here in grant management, I’ve always asked three questions to try to get to the heart of a technology plan.

  1. What training has the teacher had on the integration of technology – beyond wandering by a conference session for 45 minutes?
  2. How will students be impacted on a regular (daily) basis in terms of technology use and their learning? If the answer is something like, ‘I’ve scanned my worksheets or they will look stuff up,’ I pointed them to integration models like SAMR or TPACK.
  3. How will the technology be secured and tracked to prevent against loss and to track use?

“Technology plans need to be clear and concise – no need for a dissertation, just a few pages will work as long as the plan covers these questions: ‘What are you going to do? What do you need in order to do it? How are you going to know you did it? What’s next?”

As Geoff’s final questions demonstrate, Yogi Berra was right – at least in terms of technology planning. If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s highly probable you may end up somewhere else.

Susan Brooks-Young has experience as a teacher, school administrator and professional development provider. She specializes in helping educators with technology-based strategies which will increase productivity and the introduction and use of technology in classrooms.

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