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Talking Tech: Make Better Technology Investments Through Cross Functional Collaboration

Coby Gurr, General Manager at Lenovo Software, discusses how to implement a collaborative digital transformation strategy that improves student outcomes.

There’s no question that digital transformation is dramatically shifting the education landscape. In the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN) 2019 survey, 55% of respondents say they have implemented 1:1 programs in their schools. This is a significant increase from their 2014 survey which showed that only 23% of schools had implemented a 1:1 program. Yet we know that digital transformation is about more than just the technology that powers it. While devices and software are becoming a ubiquitous part of the modern classroom, digital transformation is a robust ecosystem that combines this new technology with an effective implementation strategy.

Typically, the digital agenda is led from the top down – school or district administrations are, in large part, responsible for championing a digital transformation strategy. As the Director of Product Management, CTO, and now General Manager of Lenovo Software, I’ve spoken to many educators over the years who have shared their experiences with the tech adoption process. Time after time, I’ve found that administrators who combine a culture of strong leadership and a clear strategy are the best poised to drive digital advancement in their respective schools.

When rolling out new technology, administers are primarily focused on cost and immediate impact, teachers are looking for intuitive, yet powerful, solutions, and IT staff are concerned with managing the platform, ensuring security, and simplifying the implementation process. These three groups of stakeholders have different considerations, yet the same goal: establishing the best possible learning environment for their students. Imagine how effective they could be if they came together and collectively made decisions on implementing new technologies to drive digital transformation.

Learning to collaborate

When schools take a collaborative approach, technology purchasing decisions tend to run smoothly and be adopted more readily. For example, the Peabody Massachusetts public school system has instituted a Technology Plan Committee, where IT administrators solicit input on technology decisions from various stakeholders, including principals, teachers, students, and staff. The committee was formed several years ago and continues today, ensuring that teachers and students receive the technology they need to be successful.

This school district has departed from the norm, adopting a “bottom-up” approach to technology investment. Instead of decisions starting at the school board level, or within the IT team, user feedback is the first thing to be considered. That feedback bubbles up, allowing everyone—teachers, IT, and administrators—to voice their opinions and questions.

This is a model for success that, unfortunately, is not followed by enough schools. In many school systems, there appears to be little to no collaboration between these key groups. Decisions are made in silos and based on specific criteria – a budget line item, for example. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see technology purchasing decisions being made without considering end-users’ needs, teacher preferences, or key security considerations. This type of disjointed decision making does little to support true digital transformation.

Collaboration in action

Over the past three decades, we’ve worked with thousands of school districts and have found that schools with collaboration processes in place tend to see the best ROI on their purchases. Ideally, teachers will communicate their technology needs and expectations with administrators and IT managers; administrators will listen and provide them with the right tools at the right budget; and IT professionals will weigh in on security, usability, and other factors to ensure high adoption rates.

Getting opinions from teachers can be particularly important. Teachers have the best knowledge of what is needed within their classrooms, and their adoption will ultimately make or break the success of a technology solution within the school. Understanding their needs and concerns can help administrators and IT managers focus on evaluating specific solutions that address those needs and concerns. For example, a school that might be leaning toward making a large investment in tablet computers or a particularly complex type of software may discover, upon talking to teachers, that a device with a physical keyboard or simple to use app might be a more desirable option.

Ultimately, all three groups need to own a piece of the conversation. Teachers need to understand what IT can provide, and what they cannot (due to security or technical limitations, for example). IT needs to talk to teachers to provide them with tools they’ll actually use. Administrators need to provide guidance on what technology is available, based on budget and other factors, and take all needs into consideration. The key is to understand that digital transformation cannot be accomplished without communication.

Creating technology teams

Communication amongst key stakeholders can happen in several ways—both in-person and virtually.

Like the Peabody example above, schools can create “technology teams” or steering committees comprised of representatives from each segment. This committee could consist of teachers, IT leaders, financial representatives, curriculum directors, and maybe even a PTA or student council member in addition to your administrative representatives. It’s wise to choose a few committee members who are “early adopters” as well as a few who are slower to implement new technology. When we surveyed school leaders we work with, they recommended stakeholders meet on a regular cadence, perhaps weekly or quarterly, to address technology needs and potential investments.  These meetings allow everyone’s voices to be heard while allowing those with technology purchasing power to be able to justify their purchases and understand how they will impact their schools.

Another option is to provide administrators, teachers, and IT managers with a way to provide measurable feedback on a pending technology decision, particularly during a trial period. This could take the form of a secure software platform where individuals can anonymously submit their unique input and perspectives on the solution. Private surveys often encourage those who aren’t as comfortable speaking up in a large setting to share valuable thoughts and ideas. Schools can then use that collected feedback to make an informed decision on whether or not to move forward with the purchase.

In 2019, Seattle Public Schools released their 5 year technology plan. A year earlier, the Information Technology Advisory Committee was formed to represent the educators, students, and families in the community regarding edtech decisions.  The committee met monthly over the course of a year to provide guidance and knowledge on technology considerations, including integrating edtech and pedagogy, prioritizing equitable access, and ensuring data privacy, among other topics. Ultimately a specific department was formed to help bring the plan to life. The plan states, “there are multiple frameworks to deliver technology, but delivery cannot be successful until that framework is turned into a living methodology that the entire organization has made into their own and begun to live and breathe.” And collaboration plays an important role in this delivery. In fact, the district suggests, “cross department collaboration is essential to iteratively move from discovery to deployment.”

To get a complete picture of the technology landscape, administrators and IT managers should look beyond their own schools and solicit feedback and opinions from their peers in other campuses and districts. What tools are they using? What’s worked for them? What hasn’t? What challenges have they experienced? How are they addressing those challenges? Getting answers to these types of questions can help schools narrow down their own technology choices and refine their technology selection processes.

Preparing for the future

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to change learning as we know it, technology is only becoming more important to our education systems. UNESCO reported that over 1.5 billion students, or more than 90% of the world’s learners, were home in April 2020 due to school closures. Consequently, we’ve spoken with many educators over the past few months who have had to quickly implement emergency learning plans. Schools need resources that will support and enhance distance learning at any given time and investing in those resources requires input from all of these key stakeholders.   

Indeed, it’s more important than ever that schools make the right decisions when it comes to their technology investments. Bringing administrators, teachers, and IT professionals together can ensure that schools are purchasing technology that will not only address specific needs and deliver exceptional ROI, but will ultimately create collaborative, interactive, and personalized learning experiences for students.

While edtech’s role in the classroom is steadily increasing, true digital transformation relies on a strong implementation strategy. Administrators must lead the charge by creating and encouraging opportunities for collaboration among stakeholders, and IT staff are tasked with managing the adoption process. Finally, I’m inspired by the words from the Seattle Information Technology Advisory Committee, who gently remind us, “our greatest asset is our teachers—essentially, the best technology comes with a heartbeat.” Digital transformation takes a village – only through collaboration can we implement technology that delivers the best student outcomes.

About the Author

Coby Gurr serves as the General Manager for Lenovo Software and its award-winning education solution LanSchool. LanSchool’s classroom management software is an effective complement to digital learning in connected and virtual classrooms. With a global focus on building products that support everything from 1:1 learning to IT admin efficiency, Coby built his 20-year career at the forefront of edtech innovation, spanning the gap between technology and true learning outcomes. Learn more about the distance learning advantage of LanSchool here.

Originally published by eSchool News

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