When it comes to technology, the most difficult thing to decide on is what should a school purchase – from hardware to software – in order to effectively support teaching and learning. The decision is difficult because first the research up until recently shows conflicting findings in regards to the benefits of technology on teaching and learning. Some authors demonstrate a positive outcome of using instructional technology arguing that it better engages students and provides a more relevant approach to learning that students can relate to. Other researchers argue that technology has no impact on improving teaching and learning because it is the teacher that essentially provides the guidance and support for the students regardless of the media this teacher uses. Some of the arguments are that technology can even be distracting to students because it encourages multi-tasking and doesn’t prompt students to stay focused on learning.
However, the biggest blunder when it comes to deciding on technology integration is… yes, you guessed it… cost. School budgets are always shrinking and never enough for anything else, let alone equipping computer labs and paying software licences. And because the effects of using technology were so controversial, it is just not justified enough to spend on renewing the technology. I am sure that if using computers increased academic performance by 40% (or even 20%), school districts would be more inclined to spend money on buying more computers. However, that’s not always the case (or at least not consistently). So what drives the decision to spend on technology?
Well, the picture is not really black and white when it comes to effects of technology on teaching and learning. First, we have the factor that technology needs to be used properly to be effective. That’s a strong argument considering that the overuse of Power Point, for example, without any thought put into it creates more confusion than support in the classroom. So now the question of teacher preparation to use technology comes up. In other words, we cannot ignore the fact that lack of understanding, or technology, media, and digital literacy among teachers may be the cause for lack of increase in academic achievement.
Second, a factor that drives the decision to spend on technology in schools is keeping up with the times. Schools are preparing citizens of the future. The future is close to impossible to predict, but one thing we know for sure is that smart phones and computers aren’t going anywhere any time soon. In fact, their use keeps growing and the devices become more and more advanced in principle and easier to use in practice. Think about it… how long did it take you to learn how to use your smart phone? Did you take a course to figure it out? Technology nowadays is directed towards the user – it has to be user friendly. Otherwise it becomes exclusive and loses ground with the common user. Simply put, if I need to take special training on using my iPhone while there are other products out there that don’t require it, I’ll move onto them and never even consider buying an iPhone. That example was not very realistic especially considering that exactly Apple changed the way user needs were met by technology manufacturers. To summarize, schools need to stay relevant to every day life where students live. This is another substantial argument for continuing to spend on technology.
Of course the pros and cons don’t end here. The point is, though, decision-making on technology integration has been frustrating, slow, and the least favourite part of a school administrator’s job. Here’s what the this processes looks like today:
WHAT DO WE HAVE –> WHAT CAN WE AFFORD –> WHAT DO WE NEED = RESULT
Basically, schools go with what they have first. Whether it’s hardware that is still usable, software which licence hasn’t expired yet and is not too old, facilities to house a computer lab, projectors, screens, etc. Once they have inventoried everything usable, administrators will consider the budget to see what they can afford. How much can they spend on purchasing new technology, updating the existing, and maintaining the existing. Only then, they do a needs assessment – if we have that much money, what can it get for us that we can use to meet our needs? The result is purchasing more hardware which is usually not the best for the recognized needs but it’s cheaper. The software usually remains the same. There is a bit of investment in maintenance and if there’s anything left, teacher training. In short, we do the same things, expecting different results.
Instead of worrying about keeping up with the fast developing technology, schools should focus entirely on changing the way decisions are made. They need to change their outlook and approach on integrating technology. The most important question here is, what can be changed so we have different, better results? Instead of focusing on the budget and losing sight of the school’s needs, administrators should research the new management methods out there and apply some of them in their own work. For example, a decision shouldn’t take 2 years to make. There are way to approach a problem and act on solving it immediately. When I say school administrators, I mean everyone involved in the decision-making from the school principal to the Ministry of Education. And when I say schools, I mean educational institutions from K-12 to college and university. The current process is too slow and heavy. This is also another reason why schools can’t keep up with the real world – they move too slow. Anyhow… Instead of starting with what a school already has, the decision-making process should start with what the schools want. Where do we want to be in the upcoming school year? The key word here is “want”. Yes, this is very rarely taken into consideration when it comes to decisions about technology. If we start with what we want, the process takes a different turn. Take a look at this new process:
WHAT DO WE WANT –> WHAT DO WE HAVE –> WHAT DO WE NEED –> BUDGET = RESULT
What this means is, we have to consider our goals for technology integration first and the budget last. Some of you may think I am a bit confused – budget always comes first. Actually no. Think of all these small start-up companies that start with $1000 in the bank and in no time grow to be multimillion dollar enterprises. Yes, schools are different. Yes, schools are mostly public. And no, we can’t act as if we are a private company. That’s all true. But everyone would agree that the biggest reason why these small start-ups were successful, is because they started with a vision and a goal. Their goal was far from making millions of dollars. They had a passion and they acted on it. You know how Facebook started. You know what the principle behind open source technology is. Not money!
So once we know what we want and the direction we want to go, we take a look at our inventory to see if it meets any of our wants. What do we want to use from the existing inventory? If all of our computers are in working condition but they are not efficient, then we don’t want them. There is a difference between “working condition” and “efficient condition”. If the computers have 512MB memory and are 15 years old, the fact that they work is not enough for us to want to keep them. If we have Internet in the school but it’s all wired and can only reach 10 of the 20 computers we have and restricts us to a specific room in the school, then perhaps investing in wireless Internet is worth looking into… especially if want our students to use their smart phone for learning.
Now that we know what we want and what we have that can be used, we starting making a list of what we need to get. What do we not have already that we need? Needs are referring not only to hardware and software, but also to flexibility of technology, maintenance, technical support, etc. In other words, what features do we need the new resource we purchase to have?
And only then, we look into budget. Spending is based on wants and needs combined. We may have a big budget but we don’t have to spend it all just because we have it. So the question is not “what can we afford?”, but rather, “how much do we want to spend?”. Take for example Microsoft Office and Open Office. The education licences for MS Office per computer is cheaper than the regular package, but it still costs a substantial amount of money. How about updates? How about compatibility? If we want to go with MS Office, we can allocate money from the budget for it. However, if we don’t want to spend that much, we can go with Open Office which is free. It has nearly the same functions and will do a great job in the classroom. In short, it will serve our need for text editing, presentations, spreadsheets, etc. Or perhaps we can use Open Office in combination with Google Docs. That way, students and teachers don’t have to email or use a portable USB to transfer files they created at school to their home computers. They simply save their files in Google Docs and open them at home through their browser.
The above example is just a simple picture of what is possible with emerging technologies and how a school can quickly save money on certain aspects of technology integration and allocate it for something more important. This option is available and possible because of emerging technologies such as cloud computing, smart phones, apps, open source learning, web 2.0 tools, freeware, social media, etc. In other words, when it comes to decision-making, school have three things to consider and take care of:
The average price of a laptop these days is around CAD600 if not less. Schools get special rates too.
Internet, intranet, facilities, technical support, etc.
3. Teacher training
Constant teacher development is essential and pays off immediately. In fact, new technologies as the above mentioned, are motivational drivers for teachers to initiate their own professional development. You wouldn’t believe the look on my teachers’ faces when I introduced them to screen capturing. They were like kids in a candy story hungry for innovation and ready to use everything that’s available to them.
In conclusion, decision-making about technology integration in schools must change. While we have had a passive approach to decion-making always starting with what we have and expecting improved results, we should start with what we want. Where are we heading and where we want to be. In other words, we must take a proactive approach and proactive decision-making process. The real world where our students will live does not cling on what’s there, but looks towards what is possible.