Preserving the status quo is, almost by definition, an inherent part of the mission of an organization. Schools, like most other institutions, have built-in and resilient mechanisms for thwarting innovation. Our education infrastructure is a massive institution involving hundreds of organizations and millions of people. Moving it from the 18th century to the Information Age is an innovation of monumental proportions. We must recognize that this change is not a product, but a complex process. School systems can purchase technology, but they must work at change. If the process is to yield substantive change, it must be managed throughout its three phases--planning, installation, and ongoing management. Over time, if the process works, a mutual adaptation occurs.
Most school systems, however, do not begin with a vision of technology-mediated education. At best, they reach for targets of opportunity. Technology is grafted onto existing programs and facilities without a strategic plan. As a result, technology-supported learning often becomes an expensive supplement to existing practices, rather than the focus of structural change.
During the planning phases, a strategic vision should be developed and the problems to be solved with technology defined. Technical architectures are designed. The political coalitions and negotiated agreements necessary to support the change are forged.
To be successful, the vision must integrate educational goals, human resources, and technology. This vision must be developed at the policy and management level. But it must be implemented from the classroom upward, because teachers have de facto veto power over what happens in their domain. They must be brought into the process, either voluntarily or through evaluation practices.
The vision articulated in the plan should demonstrate how the technology will be used to solve problems--to alleviate teacher shortages, to customize instruction, to improve curriculum quality, or to increase productivity. When the plan is in place, coalition building can begin.
Schools are political environments. The key to implementing technology lies in the negotiated decisionmaking between stakeholders before change is introduced.
The coalition that launched an innovative program at the Saturn School in St. Paul, for example, included parents, administrators, the teachers’ union, the school board, private industry and foundations, technology vendors, universities, cultural institutions, and the state education department. Major change invites more stakeholders. The concerns and contributions of each must be understood and addressed. Only then can the process of creating a new infrastructure be confronted.
Technology architecture includes the hardware, software, voice and satellite links that constitute the backbone of an information and telecommunication system. This is the structure that integrates the technologies into the educational process. Designing the architecture means determining what applications and services will be delivered to individual students, to teachers, to a classroom, to a school, and to a school system. What outside networks should be linked? How should the various levels communicate? Such decisions deserve considerable thought, for the investment is costly, and the infrastructure will be in place for years.
The primary tasks of the installation phase are to integrate the human and technical aspects of technology-mediated education, to forge new roles, and to establish authority and accountability to support the new instructional and organizational processes. But installation never works as planned. There is a learning curve, and it is essential to anticipate the need to modify aspects of the innovation until it functions at maximum effectiveness. During this characteristically difficult period, either the organization and the technology adapt to each other, or the organization reverts to its old ways, often with the resentments resulting from the unfulfilled expectations that make future innovations ever less likely. The crucial challenge is to maintain the integrity of the vision while these potentially disruptive adjustments occur.
Ideally, the installation phase--the phase of adaptation--continues until the objective has been achieved, the problem solved. Until the innovation has become part of the established pattern, it is at risk. If change is to be effective, it is essential to continue managing the process until institutionalization has occurred.
The task of ongoing management, then, is to maintain and support the new system as efficiently as possible. The majority of costs for both human and technology resources occur in this institutionalization phase, and considerable thought must go into their management.
The implementation process will function well only if at each stage there are linkages between the educational problem to be solved, the changes in organization and human resources, and the new technology. If educational, organizational, and technical issues are integrated under leaders with vision, change can be effective. One Florida school system provides an excellent example.
Six years ago, the school board of Volusia County, Fla., decided to attack the problem of students’ inability to write. The district developed a strong coalition of support, including teachers, private-industry leaders, and the school board. They created a vision of more effective writing in all grades. To implement their vision, they chose a computer-based writing program and introduced it in kindergarten. The following year, the program was expanded to the 1st grade. In the third year, 4,600 computers brought the process-writing program to the entire school system.
To facilitate this change, the superintendent recruited new principals and trained teachers extensively, both in the writing program and in the use of the technology. These steps were critical to the success of the effort, maximizing the utility of the technology and minimizing resistance to its use. They illustrate the importance of strong and strategic leadership as a critical factor in the front-line management of change.
Now, almost all of the staff in the district use computer technology. Students have shown significant increases in standardized test scores in writing and reading. Several new technology-mediated innovations, affecting both staff roles and the teaching process, are being introduced at all levels of the school system.
All of these new efforts in Volusia County are prototyped and piloted, with voluntary staffs, to test their feasibility and to develop them before they are broadly disseminated. This product-development approach ensures acceptance of tested programs. Another key element in the process adopted by the county is that goals are well articulated and success rates are measurable.
Volusia County has accomplished the mutual adaptation of an existing educational system and innovative technology. The success of this endeavor--and others being mounted elsewhere--can be attributed to the fundamentals of sound change management:
- Focusing on a real problem.
- Establishing a coalition to support the process.
- Planning from top down, implementing from the bottom up.
- Planning totally, implementing incrementally.
- Integrating organization, strategy, and technology.
The basic educational process in this country has not changed in over a hundred years. Decade after decade, one reform after another has been hailed as the “solution” to our systemic problems, only to be assimilated without changing the existing structure. We will succeed in building an Information Age educational system only if we intelligently manage the process of change.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 1991 edition of Education Week as 1