Leadership Day 2009: Why Digital Change Efforts Fail. . .

(I'm a bit behind, but I wanted to get in on Scott McLeod's Leadership Day 2009.  It's one of the most important digital events of every year.)

Flipping through a paper copy of the eSchool News this morning left me more than a bit bummed.  Slapped across the front page is an article detailing the struggles of Philadelphia's Microsoft supported, tech-heavy School of the Future (SOF). 

Designed as a model for what education should look like in a knowledge-driven world, Philly's SOF turned away from textbooks, provided every student with a laptop computer, developed an online portal for organizing class content and activities, developed a new teacher hiring process, provided campus wide wireless access, and built a curriculum based on Microsoft's six Is:  Introspection, investigation, inclusion, innovation, implementation and in a slightly ridiculous decision, introspection again.

Unfortunately, Philly's SOF hasn't had the broad impact—on student learning, on instructional practices, or on school reform—that school leaders and Microsoft staffers were counting on.  As Jan Biros, an associate vice president for instructional technology support at Drexel University and former member of the SOF Curriculum Planning Committee, wrote:

"We naively thought, I guess, that by providing a beautiful building and great resources, these things would automatically yield change.  They didn't."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?  Schools turn to education's version of the Hail Mary pass all-too-often in today's day and age, filling classrooms with thousands and thousands of dollars of new digital tools and services, yet they continue to struggle to make any real change in the outcome that matters most:

Student achievement. 

What is most worrisome is the implications that the failure of Philly's SOF—a heavily funded program with the public backing of Microsoft and several area universities—carry for the rest of us.  "If THEY couldn't successfully shift to digitally-driven learning experiences," the thinking goes, "what hope do WE have?!"

The answer is that there IS hope for schools trying to fundamentally change the way that they do business in a rapidly changing world.  

To ensure that the digital change efforts in your building are successful, follow these simple action steps:

Start by defining your core values and beliefs about quality instruction:  Perhaps the greatest mistake made by Philly's SOF was the lack of a clear and consistent vision embraced by all stakeholders and used to drive every decision.  While a team of thought leaders was assembled to craft a vision, the work was too academic to be productive.  

As Biros explains:

“Descriptions posted on the Microsoft website were impressive, but too often seemed vague and general. I often wondered as the group met and discussed when we would get down to the details and specifics.”

Making matters worse for Philly's SOF, the school and district leadership changed four times in three years.  Principals resigned for family reasons, district superintendents moved on, interim leaders were hired and then replaced.  Constant turnover made it nearly impossible to maintain institutional focus on the kinds of actions necessary for working towards a shared vision.

To avoid this mistake when implementing your own digital change efforts, begin by asking one simple question:  What kinds of instructional practices do we believe will create students prepared for a world where innovation, persuasion, creativity and cooperation are the keys to success?"

Then, create specific descriptions about exactly what you would see if you walked into a classroom where your vision had been translated into reality.  What would the teacher be doing?  What would the students be doing?  What kinds of work would happen beyond the school day? What kinds of resources would be available?

You may even consider writing a set of detailed narrative scenarios describing what your vision would look like in action.  By doing so, you'll make your vision approachable and transparent to existing faculty, new hires and the broader community.  No longer will your vision be couched in abstractions.  Instead, it will be a living tool shaping the work done in your school regardless of who leads.

More importantly, detailed narrative scenarios describing what your vision looks like in action can be used to help you to make the best decisions about which digital tools to purchase or which digital programs to invest time and energy in to.  When the instructional resources available to students and teachers are aligned to a clear set of shared beliefs, digital change efforts are far more likely to succeed.  

Prepare for and provide ongoing technical support for teachers:  Teachers in Philly's SOF also struggled with a common problem in any building working towards digital change:  Access to electronic resources and tools was unpredictable at best.  

As Biros explains:

"Although the technology itself was not supposed to trump basic classroom practices, Microsoft and the school's planners had decided to not allow the use of textbooks or printed materials;  instead, all resources were located online through a portal designed by Microsoft.  Yet educators frequently encountered problems accessing the internet, because the school's wireless connection often would not work."

This unpredictability is all too common in schools—networks crash, student logins fail, printers break, software is outdated, simple repairs can take months to complete—breeding a healthy skepticism in classroom teachers about lessons that rely on digital tools.  

Which means that school leaders planning digital change efforts have to invest in two types of technical support for teachers.  First, teachers should be introduced to the common technical issues that new tools are likely to face.  Building the "troubleshooting capacity" of your faculty will decrease frustrations and prevent simple issues from becoming negative experiences.

But more importantly, school leaders have a responsibility for ensuring that the instructional tools being used in classrooms work!  When making digital decisions, the "total cost of ownership" of new resources needs to be considered.  Ask yourself whether your network can handle new traffic demands before providing web cams and encouraging video collaboration with classrooms around the world.

Consider whether the programs or devices that you purchase have the potential to grow with your faculty—Are there add-ons or upgrades that would enhance the work being done in classrooms?—and decide early on to make tech-support a priority.  

You'd be far better off scaling back your plans and leaving funds available for addressing digital challenges than spending every penny in your classrooms and leaving teachers to fight through the inevitable failures and frustrations themselves.  

Digital change efforts—like every change effort in schools—require small successes and positive momentum, which can only be guaranteed when teachers have a reasonable expectation that new tools and technologies will function reliably.   

Remember that teachers are your most powerful "tools:" For many school leaders—including those charged with establishing Philly's SOF—digital change efforts blur one of the most fundamental understandings about education:  The most powerful tools in any school are classroom teachers!

This is a lesson that Mary Cullinane, Microsoft's lead on the Philly SOF project in 2006, admits learning when she writes:

"But to say this school is a failure is not correct. It’s only in its third year,
and innovation always takes time. We can’t use a short-term yardstick for a
long-term journey; shame on us if we give up so easily, and so quickly. We’ve
learned a great lesson here: that no matter how much money and technology you
pour into something, it’s really the people [who] matter.
"

What does this mean for school leaders charged with digital change efforts?

First, it means that investments in new tools and technologies are meaningless if you don't find time for teachers to work together to study the impact that new tools and technologies are having on student learning.  

Instructional change is a complex process.  Teachers embracing new techniques and strategies need time to reflect with one another, to adapt current work, to try, to fail, to revise, and to try again.  Successful digital change, then, depends on finding time for teachers to collaborate and providing the kinds of support necessary for teams working together.  

Successful digital change also depends on finding ways to amplify instructional discoveries.  Despite a decade of efforts to end isolation in schools, there are often pockets of practice that go completely overlooked in every school.  

To end this isolation, consider creating public forums for celebrating the digital successes in your building.  Create blogs where teachers can write about what they're learning about digital instruction.  Use a support staff member to collect video of effective classroom practices or interviews with faculty members whose work aligns with your school's vision.  

Spend time in every meeting spotlighting the growing human capacity in your building because human capacity is the real key to any successful digital change effort.

In the end, successful digital change efforts require what Chris Lehmann describes as deliberate decision-making—-and deliberate decision-making depends on working from a shared vision, budgeting for the technical issues that are bound to arise, and recognizing that teachers are tools too!

How many schools are considering these kinds of issues before diving feet first into the 21st Century waters?  Have your schools been methodical about digital change, or are they throwing Hail Marys instead?

3 thoughts on “Leadership Day 2009: Why Digital Change Efforts Fail. . .

  1. Charlie A. Roy

    Very insightful post. One other issue is that of sustainable leadership for any meaningful change to take place. How long will it really take? The average principal is around for three years and then they move on. Empowering teacher leadership models with a sustainable model goes a long way towards complimenting solid building leadership.

  2. Matt Townsley

    “Instructional change is a complex process.” I couldn’t agree more, Bill. In today’s era with so many technology tools, it is my perspective that for the most part we have left this element in the dust. Combining these pedagogical improvements with digital tools, as you suggested is key, “Successful digital change also depends on finding ways to amplify instructional discoveries. Despite a decade of efforts to end isolation in schools, there are often pockets of practice that go completely overlooked in every school.” Once the glaze is wiped from our eyes after using the latest and greatest tools, it comes back to quality educators doing what they’ve always been trained to do, figure out how to best reach the students where they are at. Thanks for succinctly saying what needs to be said, even though it may be unpopular in the eyes of those whose eyes may still be glazed over.

  3. Natalie Wojinski

    I agree that school change (reform…whatever you want to call it) must be deliberate both in the kinds of technology you implement and the ways that teachers and students are trained to use the technology. Teachers need time to discuss implementation and to plan transforming their lessons the incorporate new technologies.

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