“Let’s Just Try It” is Not Leadership

Millions of iPads and Chromebooks entered American classrooms between 2012 and 2015 and often joined laptops already in place. As a result of the influx, many schools decided to launch a 1:1 (device-to-student) tech integration program and many administrators held high expectations that technology would bring about substantial instructional innovation.

What’s clear now is that few administrators had a vision of how instruction might change. As a result, that change has not occurred. I can remember visiting dozens of schools during the summers of 2013 and 2014 and having discussions with administrators about their new 1:1 tech initiatives.  I’d ask them what their learning goals were for the program.  Sometimes I’d be met by silence and rarely would an administrator articulate a specific learning goal. Instead, they were more likely to mention expanding the program to more grade levels or talk about a management goal, such as the distribution of apps. In a few cases, some administrators made references to the four Cs — creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. Yet, many conceded that they did not have a vision of how learning would be different as a result of their 1:1 program. Many said their role was to provide teachers and students with technology and then it was up to the teachers to develop instructional strategies.

However, teachers would often tell me that they wondered why there was a 1:1 program in the first place and what the administrators expected them to do with the technology. The striking paradox that emerged is that teachers would often praise their administrators for purchasing the technology, but at the same time criticize them for a lack of direction.

Therefore, I am not surprised that the few national research studies evaluating the impact of instructional technology on student learning show only modest gains in student achievement. There are so many issues surrounding a tech implementation—acquisition, distribution, equity, insurance, security, teacher training, parent education, and more—that it is easy to lose sight of the most important issue of all: How is technology in the classroom going to change and improve student learning?

The most important thing administrators can do is to work with teachers and others to articulate a clear vision for how technology can improve instruction. As you do, keep in mind that you can’t separate the user from the device; the technology is only as good as the teacher who is leveraging it. Many 1:1  programs continue to focus on learning the device itself with its various apps and tools, but not enough on thinking beyond the device. It’s hard, if not impossible, to change instructional practice on a wide scale if is there is no broad vision and consensus around a program’s purpose. A “let’s try this” or “it’s all up to the teachers” approach is not a recipe for success. As one teacher succinctly put it: “ 'Let’s just try' it is not leadership.”

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