Knowing What You Need to Know

About two weeks ago, I ran a whole day workshop at a large, high-performing public elementary school.  We’d been working for most of the day around their plans to move to a modern learning environment, but as is typical of many schools their use of technology had really only played a marginal part in their students’ learning to date.

Now we’ve all seen this, where with all the goodwill and best intentions in the world, the school had, over the years, pulled together a significant number of computers that were spread across most classrooms and a lab/library…but there was hesitation by many staff to embrace their use in any really meaningful way often because of reliability issues.

But we had a great workshop that day; all faculty took part and their openness was a credit to the school’s leadership. Just as I was leaving, the Principal turned to me and said, “You know Bruce, I finally feel comfortable about the knowledge I need to lead our use of technology across the school.   I now have a much clearer idea about what I need to know to be able to lead our development of a modern learning environment.”

Her honesty was refreshing, but it very simply and effectively highlighted the burden so many school leaders face as schools confront the inevitable shift to a technology-rich learning environment that today so readily reflects the world around them.

It’s a common theme that I don’t think is spoken about often enough…and interestingly it is not unique to education. Take some time and look a bit closer at some of the more prominent corporations. In every country there have been countless examples of companies that have failed to see the essential role that technology must play in their future. Not just the obvious Kodaks and their ilk who were just blind to the transformative potential of various technologies, but more subtly there are currently large numbers of CEO’s who still see technology as someone else’s responsibility.

Start with the banks. Yes, they were the radicals when they popped ATM’s into walls to replace tellers, but once you get past that too many have been laggards and customers are starting to vote with their feet…or rather their keyboards. In the US, Wells Fargo has been a market leader with innovations such as their recently announced  biometric logins, while in Australia, the Commonwealth Bank, one of the 10 largest in the world, has market dominance largely because of the focus by their very senior leadership around technology through their Innovation Labs.

Martin Stewart-Weeks who does some great work across the public sector including education says it so well when states…

“It’s not that technology is ever going to be a simple or singular answer.  It never has been; but while technology is never the answer, the answer isn’t now possible without it.”

The thing that is fast becoming evident though is that the leaders in the companies that are thriving understand that technology is something they have to know about, because almost every significant strategic decision they are now making requires that knowledge.

But that’s not about requiring every CEO to have an IT degree, but it does mean that such knowledge must underpin corporate strategy, and accordingly leaders in ALL sectors, including education must keep abreast with what’s happening and what technology now makes possible.

Obviously the role of social media as a marketing tool caught many companies unawares several years ago, but for schools, corporations and the public sector, the game has changed…radically.

Not knowing is no longer acceptable, nor is delegating knowledge, expertise and critical decisions to an IT Director appropriate if the leaders do not understand the underlying principles and ideas that are being impacted by any new and emerging technologies that are being considered for use within the school.

So just how much does a school leader need to know?

In the first instance they must know enough to be able to establish effective accountabilities for the management and oversight of technology across their school. In other words they need to have very clear and reasonable expectations about the performance of their schools’ computers at all times. This does not mean a deep technical knowledge, but rather having agreed performance standards that ensure that students and teachers can seamlessly rely on the technology whenever they need it.

Unfortunately in many of our schools over past decades we have developed a culture across our technology support areas which has given rise to ‘problem heros’ who unfortunately have learnt to define their worth by the number of problems they face each day. Not only is this counter-productive for the school, but it is hardly in the best interest of support staff; far better that they can report regularly on a clear set of metrics that define what is working rather than what is not.

And then of course, even more importantly, there are the expectations for what impact technology-richness now makes possible for modern learners. This does mean that today the reality is that there is an increasing requirement for school leadership to keep abreast of relevant emerging technologies and the opportunities they may create for their faculty and students. Our past is sadly littered by very low expectations which are too often reinforced by school leadership who are simply not aware of the scope of what is now possible.

For too long, too often we have seen heads of school happy to delegate all responsibility for the management of technology to others, with minimal accountability, and then celebrate the success of isolated innovators rather than expect more from all faculty. While history might explain such circumstances, the future demands a different approach.

Developing extended personal learning networks are key to keeping abreast with the opportunities, and expanded professional reading, which hopefully always includes EML, will offer leaders the best chance to be well informed, make the best decisions, and accordingly lead powerful and effective use of technology across the school.


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