School & District Management

The New Ed-Tech Leader Models by Digital Example

By Michelle R. Davis — February 06, 2013 13 min read
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For the Burlington public schools in Massachusetts, Assistant Superintendent Patrick Larkin is the face of an ambitious effort to roll out educational technology at all levels. He has pushed the 3,000-student district into the second year of a 1-to-1 iPad initiative at its high school, he is giving high school students a pivotal role in serving as technology troubleshooters, and he runs a monthly “tech night” for parents to teach them the skills their children are learning in school. Beyond that, Larkin designed a special “playtime” after professional-development sessions to let teachers experiment with new technologies, alongside experts who offer guidance.

But Larkin, who oversees curriculum and technology, isn’t just prodding others in his district to go high-tech. He is modeling the commitment by blogging and tweeting regularly about ed-tech problems and solutions, and relying on his own virtual network of peers and experts he can reach out to for advice at any time, primarily via Twitter.

Larkin embodies the belief among a growing number of school administrators that getting educators to embrace digital teaching and learning, and to use technology more effectively, requires leading by example. That approach, he believes, is the path to better leadership.

A 2012 report from Project RED, or Revolutionizing Education, a national ed-tech research and advocacy organization, further emphasizes the vital role of leadership in making educational technology efforts more effective. It found that high-quality leadership was “essential” to better use of technology, and that schools whose leaders had properly implemented 1-to-1 programs, for example, saw significant improvements in everything from test scores to dropout rates, over both schools without such programs and those without properly implemented programs.

But many school and district leaders are still unprepared for the shift in thinking and leadership attributes that such technology initiatives require, says Scott McLeod, the director of innovation for the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, which partners with 45 Iowa school districts. He is on leave from his position as the founding director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, or CASTLE, based at Iowa State University in Ames.

“I’m astounded that it’s 2012, and we’re still having conversations about really basic stuff, like you shouldn’t block Google. It’s disheartening,” he says, speaking in an interview late last year. However, he adds: “I think we see most school leaders these days less resistant to ed tech than they were. Some are finally recognizing that the tech landscape is here to stay.”

Patrick Larkin, left, the assistant superintendent of the Burlington public schools in Massachusetts, and Andy Marcinek, an instrumental-technology specialist at Burlington High School, chat while viewing an iPad in the “help desk” area of the high school.

There are examples of educational leaders who have fully endorsed the integration of technology into the school day and are modeling how to make that happen. And there are characteristics and techniques that successful leaders in the ed-tech field share—everything from risk-taking to regularly using pilot projects to test initiatives before expanding them.

As the march toward using online assessments for the Common Core State Standards in 2014-15 continues, those leadership traits and strategies will become even more important, says Rowland Baker, the executive director of the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership, or TICAL, a statewide effort to promote ed-tech leadership.

“We’re moving into a whole new area, and we’re going to have to make a quantum leap,” Baker says.

It was once enough for school and district leaders to surround themselves with people who understood technology, but the leaders themselves didn’t necessarily need deep technology know-how. That is changing, some say.

It’s now critical for principals and superintendents to demonstrate appropriate technology use and innovation for others in their schools and districts, says Spike Cook, the principal of the 300-student R.M. Bacon Elementary School in Millville, N.J.

“Modeling is crucial. If you want your kids and teachers to be users of 21st-century tools, … you have to show that you can do it too,” he says. “It shows that I’m still a teacher—I can still instruct and still learn.”

Cook has been at Bacon Elementary—where 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—for only about a year, but during that time he has made it a point to spur teacher and student interest in using technology for learning. At faculty meetings, he often presents potentially useful tech tools he’s discovered.

Over the summer, for instance, Cook learned how to use iMovie, a software program that people can use to take videos and turn them into well-organized films. He used his iPad to make a movie trailer for the district promoting the kickoff of the new academic year and posted it on YouTube. The local newspaper wrote about it.

During his first faculty meeting at Bacon, Cook told the teachers he had created the trailer on his iPad in just a few hours. Afterward, his school’s 5th grade teachers borrowed the iPad and made their own welcome-back iMovie. Another teacher used the device to have students make movie trailers about books they’d read.

Every two weeks, Cook schedules “Tech Friday” before school, in which teachers can highlight a particular app, software program, or technological device, or simply ask questions of others about various ed-tech tools or approaches. Sometimes, students give presentations about new technologies to the teachers during those sessions.

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Cook also blogs regularly about his school’s tech use and school issues, and though he’s never mandated that his teachers blog, he’s made sure they’ve seen its power. “Teachers have started their own blogs highlighting activities in the classroom,” he says. “I never told them to do it, but I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if a parent could find out what their child is doing?’”

A hallmark of successful ed-tech leadership is introducing rapid-fire pilot projects, working out the kinks, and scaling up quickly if the pilots are effective, says Pamela Moran, the superintendent of the 13,200-student Albemarle County schools in Charlottesville, Va.

Last school year, through Twitter, Moran learned about CoderDojo, a global initiative to bring students and teachers together informally to learn about computer programming. The mathematical thinking students use in the CoderDojo program often spurs academic improvements in math classes, Moran says.

Albemarle County scheduled a four-day CoderDojo event over the summer, just before the start of 2012-13 school year, and set aside 50 slots for students. Within two minutes of advertising the opportunity via social networking, 50 students were signed up. Within four minutes, the list had grown to 200 students, which spiked to 900 in two days.

“We could have told all those parents ‘no,’ but we ended up expanding the number of teachers to accommodate 200 kids,” Moran says. The event included elementary students working with high school students and teachers.

Because it was so successful, the district has now put CoderDojos in place at schools across the district.

Albemarle County Superintendent of Schools Pamela Moran emphasizes rapid-fire technology pilot projects in her Virginia district.

“We don’t talk about five-year strategic plans anymore, and sometimes we have to adapt our priorities in the middle of the year,” Moran says. “Instead of spending two years beating an idea to death to figure out if we can do it or not, we just do it. You make some mistakes, but it allows you to scale up quickly.”

Moran has also given staff members at each school the flexibility to set up a CoderDojo in a way that works well there. That approach of “high standards, but not standardization” is a characteristic of successful ed-tech projects, according to several leaders in the field.

The ability to adapt, even when pilot projects don’t work as first envisioned, is crucial, says Skip Johnson, the principal of the 210-student El Crystal Elementary School in San Bruno, Calif. “Seventy-five percent of what you learn is from making mistakes,” he says.

For example, when his school started an iPod audiobook project several years ago, teachers loaded one book at a time, and when a student had finished listening to it, he or she came back for another. But students were flying through books and got frustrated when they couldn’t move immediately to another one. So teachers instead made “playlists” of books that increased in complexity with each successive book.

“At first, we were treating the iPod like a regular library book, when in fact it was designed to do something else,” Johnson says.

Johnson makes it a high priority to give his teachers flexibility with technology to experiment and use the tools in ways that work best for their teaching styles and their students. When some of his administrators and teachers were given iPads, Johnson deliberately did not tell them which apps they needed. He gave them each a budget of $500 and told them to experiment and then share information about apps that worked well.

“That’s opposed to me buying 40 of them and the teachers saying they’re garbage,” he says.

Of course, not all pilot projects work, and it’s vital to cut losses quickly. Johnson saw some software he thought would work well as an electronic bulletin board for data collected by teachers and piloted it in one class. Teachers didn’t like it, though, and the venture was scrapped after about a month.

So far, school officials feel El Crystal’s culture of innovation is having a significant impact on student learning. The school’s API score— California’s state testing measurement—increased 65 points from last school year, to 870 this school year, the highest it’s ever been. Johnson attributes the boost directly to better use of learning technologies.

But Daniel Lyttle, an assistant principal at the nearby 815-student Parkside Intermediate School, which has also seen success related to technology initiatives, acknowledges that what’s happening in those schools is not the norm. Many school and district leaders feel uncomfortable with educational technology because it’s so different from their own educational experiences.

“This is all very scary stuff that the kids know, but we don’t know,” Lyttle says.

Indeed, some educators are reluctant to try out new and sometimes unproven technology techniques for fear of doing harm to a student’s experience or of violating some policy about how to use technology, says Barbara Nemko, the superintendent of schools for California’s Napa County Office of Education, which oversees five area school districts.

Burlington High School in Massachusetts emphasizes the use of iPads, rather than textbooks, for students to read material for their classes.

“We’re timid,” she says, noting that educators in her state are fearful of a precedent set by a San Francisco superior court ruling, which requires equity for students in core subjects. Some educators have taken that to mean that students must have access to the same technology, making them reluctant, for example, to adopt “bring your own device,” or BYOD, programs in schools, Nemko says.

“Human beings are risk-averse, but we can’t let our timidity stand in the way of providing the best possible education,” she says.

To complicate matters, Nemko says, she often sees educators buying new technologies without a clear goal for their use. Technology should be a tool to reach an educational goal, not the goal itself, she says.

One of the preschools in her area wanted to use a literacy software program with English-language learners, but it was only deliverable through the iPad. So the district started a small summer pilot program with 16 students using iPads and collected data to show it worked. The lead kindergarten teacher, despite thinking the project was a “dumb idea,” observed the pilot and, “by the end of day two, she became our biggest cheerleader,” Nemko says. The teacher demanded that every kindergartner in her school get an iPad.

Now they each have a device. The kindergartners use the iPads to improve language and handwriting, and teachers note that the pupils, particularly ELL students, are more verbal and collaborative, Nemko says. But she emphasizes that the project wasn’t about the iPad—it was about delivering programs that improved students’ educational experiences.

Some education leaders may be wary of putting ambitious ed-tech initiatives in place because their test scores are stable and high, says Cook. “What would force someone to change if their results are saying what they’re doing is excellent?” he asks. “But are they preparing the students for jobs that don’t exist yet?”

Though all school leaders need to think about standardized testing and test scores, many are using alternative methods to determine whether their technology initiatives are having the impact they seek.

In Virginia’s Albemarle County, Moran says she goes beyond standardized testing to evaluate success, looking at evaluating “authentic assessments” conducted by teachers. That means, for example, using analytical reading assessments or determining whether students can write in powerful ways.

Focusing on traditional state testing, “we may end up with kids who pass tests, but those are not children who love learning,” Moran says.

Larkin of Massachusetts’ Burlington schools says his district examines test results, “but our goal in doing this [technology initiative] is not to improve” state test scores. The district is seeking to use technology to improve in other ways, such as boosting student engagement.

Technology initiatives “are improving test scores, but I’m fortunate to be in a culture that encourages and accepts risk-taking,” Larkin says. “We’re encouraged to take risks that are in the best interest of students and to know we’re not going to be punished for it.”

Pamela Moran, the superintendent of the Albemarle County public schools in Virginia, believes in using rapid-fire technology pilot projects.

That support from the highest levels of the district sets the tone, says Devin Vodicka, the new superintendent of California’s 22,000-student Vista Unified School District, north of San Diego. Vodicka, who started the job in July, says he took the position in part because the school board told him it wanted a tech-oriented superintendent.

The board recently adopted a formal district vision statement that embraces innovation and risk-taking, with the understanding “that it doesn’t always lead to instant success,” Vodicka says. That gives him the support and courage to venture into new areas, he says.

Even so, those ventures are calculated risks. All the ed-tech leaders interviewed for this article say they research, experiment, and test the initiatives they seek to put in place before fully enacting them. And they all tap into extensive social-networking communities they have formed for themselves—a significant change for principals and superintendents, who in the past sometimes felt isolated, having to project unwavering confidence and with few peers to reach out to on a daily basis.

Most of those leaders are regular Twitter users and have a significant presence on other sites, such as Facebook and Google+.

Cook says he has learned more from his personal learning network than he ever learned getting his doctorate or during his first and second years as a principal.

Lynmarie Hilt, the principal of the 480-student Brecknock Elementary School in Denver, Pa., says her network through Twitter has made her unafraid to admit she doesn’t have all the answers, since she now knows she can get advice on nearly any topic at any time of day.

“I can associate with people who are well versed in certain areas,” she says. “I say to my teachers all the time, ‘I’m not sure, but I know who to ask.’ I know people who can help me and who have already done this.”

That social-networking piece can work in another way as well. Joe Mazza, the lead learner, or principal, at Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, Pa., has created his own personal learning network, or PLN, but has also used social networking to forge connections with parents and the wider community. He tweets school news and has his Twitter feed linked to his school’s Facebook page. He estimates that 83 percent of his school’s families are on Facebook.

“I want to provide the pulse of the school every day to parents,” he says. “You have to invest and build relationships because if you don’t, nobody is going to care about following you on Twitter and Facebook.”

Mazza believes that many educators fear social networking because “we didn’t get out ahead of it.” Because educators didn’t model proper social-networking use for students, he says, “there were no guidelines, and damage was done.”

But educators no longer have the luxury of hanging back on technology, he says. “I don’t think it’s OK anymore to say, ‘I’m just not tech-savvy,’ ” he says. “If we’re not, we’re hurting kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as Movers and Shakers


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