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Educational technology and professional development: a conundrum?

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The professional development (PD) of teaching staff across all levels of education is a seemingly impossible task. Teachers and schools are burdened with so many new initiatives such as Common Core, new curriculum development, and assessments. There is little time then to address the faculty expertise using technology in the classroom and beyond. This is the current conundrum for many schools.

There is surely no magic bullet, but the situation is perpetuated and compounded for a number of reasons. While administrators and key leaders pride themselves on the ability to plan, there is dearth of understanding at leadership levels of education that creates a water fall effect down to the teacher level. If one looks at a seminal example of poorly planned technology initiatives, the Los Angeles school district (LAUSD) is a representative example. However, there are scores of other stories of troubled technology initiatives in schools where the root cause can be traced back to the initial planning.

The expertise for planning technology implementation goes far beyond the knowledge of most school leaders. When planning a project in information systems, of which educational technology clearly falls, the need to follow a Project Life Cycle (PLC) methodology is non-negotiable. There are many PLC models, but they all have common threads. There are project phases such as initiation, planning, execution, and closure. Each phase has many subcategories. The planning and execution phases are where professional development would be detailed, including risks, constraints, and contingencies. One such risk is surely the time for PD. It is a failure of leadership to purchase technology, and subsequently saddle a tech coordinator, or the teachers, to figure it out how to spin gold from straw. Failure to plan ahead is about leadership and the requisite skills.

Implementing information technology (IT) is a professional specialty that cuts across all fields. Education is no different. The nature of schools can be described as sometimes insular, where few outside experts are allowed into the circle, and when they are, it is often limited. School leaders generally are not familiar with best practices of PLC and IT implementation strategies in the same comprehensive way that private and other types of organizations are. Further, instructional technology expertise is also far too limited within the school structure. Put this all together, and it is no wonder why schools purchase mountains of technology, and then languish with effective use.

The cost of hardware and software are just a fraction of an implementation budget. The timeline for implementation cannot be dictated by simply how much PD time is available. Sadly though, that is often the case. Schools buy the technology, and then get stuck when they discover they bought an airplane, but have few skilled pilots. The biggest hurdle then begins; how to develop the pilots (teachers). This is just not possible in a couple of PD sessions. Trace this back to root cause, and we always end up with planning.

IT projects routinely budget 2-3x the cost of the hardware and software on the actual implementation. A big part includes training and staff development. Part of planning for PD is a basic instructional design principle; what are the learner entry skills? We know many teachers are well behind the curve when it comes to basic computer and web literacy. So why then would anyone think teachers could be developed to use technology in a big bang fashion, or by not starting at the very beginning? What's the scaffolding PD plan prior to the purchase of any technology? It cannot be a line item on a checklist.

If a school has the authority to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions, or $1 billion as in Los Angles, then there is a responsibility to plan for PD with all of the constraints and risk factors identified. Somehow this gets lost in the shuffle.

Here is some sage advice. Always begin any technology plan with specific basic skills identification to drive staff development, unrelated to any specific device, and prior to any device purchase. Many schools have implemented IC3 certification by Certiport for students; this is exponentially necessary for faculty. Read about IC3 here, and the potential benefits for schools. This is a good place to start any technology project. The point here is not to endorse IC3 or Certiport, but to point out that basic knowledge must precede any other technology PD. Why schools start at more advanced levels for PD is an instructional design mistake, and a lack of effective planning. Again, the root cause is always effective planning. Everything upstream eventually ends up downstream.

There is a solution to PD, but it cannot happen in a short term moment. It’s a long term process that starts in the beginning, not the middle. There you have it.

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