Thirty years ago, cutting-edge districts introduced computer labs into their schools. As these new devices arrived, the teacher who knew the most about them emerged to teach “computer class” and attempted to fix broken machines to the best of their abilities.
This was a fantastic first step. However, as technology became ubiquitous in the consumer market, districts realized they needed more than an overachieving teacher to handle a computer lab.
This evolution brought about the need for a technology coordinator, a person within the district — and again, usually the teacher who knew most about computers — to handle technology on a full-time basis. This progression made perfect sense and served schools quite well through the turn of the century.
Today, navigating the complexities of instructional technology requires a much different leader than the days of standalone Commodore 64 or Apple II computers in a lab. And, while the infrastructure requirements of a school meet or exceed those of major corporations, the client requirements are quite a bit different from those of the business world. To successfully weave technology into the fabric of a district, today’s technology leaders needs to possess what I call the Tech Trinity of Expertise — technical, administrative and instructional skills:
1. Technical. This type of expertise refers to working knowledge of the systems, networks, security, software and devices used throughout the district.
2. Administrative. These skills include the ability to gain consensus, collaborate, plan projects, manage staff (internal and/or external), budget and address procurement.
3. Instructional. This is the understanding of the curricular, instructional and assessment needs of the classroom, as well as the professional learning needs of educators. This is the top of the trinity and arguably the most difficult to find in technology leaders with strong technical and administrative skills.
Embracing the trinity
While at first glance, this trinity might seem obvious, I am surprised by the number of districts that do not recognize the need, do not foster it in their leaders or do not have a leader willing to embrace it.
Many feel their technology leader simply needs to be a technical superhero, swooping in to address the issue of the day, then retreating back to his secret hideout until the next disaster arises. Others feel this person can be just an administrator, relying on other technical resources or outsourced staff to handle the details while she handles the big picture. Still other districts think this person can be a teacher who knows how to navigate technology and will just farm out the other responsibilities. Larger districts often employ three — or more — people, each one with mastery of an expertise. This can certainly work, but only with a technology leader versed in the trinity to keep everyone on the same page.
If you are reading this and thinking, “My technology leader is not a master of all three. Do I need to find a new one?” or “I am not a master of all three. Do I need to find a new job?” the answer is likely “no,” as very few people are masters of all three areas of the Trinity.
The point of the tech trinity is not that all technology leaders are masters of all three areas of expertise, but rather that districts and technology leaders recognize the significance of this trinity and work to improve their deficiencies. If a technology leader works in a district where she is purposely excluded from an area of the trinity, her district does not understand what it takes to successfully weave technology into the fabric of instruction. Similarly, if a technology leader wants no part of an area of the trinity, the district needs to assert its vision for technology and its expectations of the technology leader role.
My personal Achilles heel is the instructional area. While I spend as much time as my schedule allows reading about instructional models, embedding myself in classrooms, and speaking with teachers, subject-area supervisors and administrators, I lack the experience of being a daily instructor in the classroom.
Fortunately, my district recognizes that the more I understand the instructional side, the better I will help our district. Therefore, it supports me by requiring my attendance at curricular meetings, encouraging me to participate in professional learning sessions typically held for teachers, and including me in our affiliations with professional development and instructional resources.
There are three simple steps a district and technology leader can follow to achieve the ideal balance of skills:
- Establish a vision for technology. The technology vision must support both the district and curricular visions.
- Identify shortcomings. Both the district and the technology leader need to identify where they fall short. While this should be the easiest task, it is frequently the most complicated, as ego often gets in the way. If identifying shortcomings becomes contentious to the point of impasse, those involved may need to part ways, as ego should never prevent what is best for the students. However, if everyone agrees about the shortcomings, the path becomes easy to navigate.
- Take action. To begin embracing the trinity, the district can offer professional learning to the technology leader. The technology leader also must be included in curricular and administrative meetings, as exposure to these discussions will help keep focus on the vision. If the technology leader understands his shortcomings, the desire and ability to learn can address any of these areas.
Successfully weaving instructional technology into the fabric of any district goes beyond buying infrastructure. It goes beyond buying devices and software. It goes beyond security. It goes beyond professional learning. It even goes beyond curriculum. While all of these components are necessary, it all comes back to the district and technology leader’s belief and effort to achieve the Tech Trinity of Expertise.
A district’s instructional technology is only as good as its leader. For that leader to succeed, the district must have a clear understanding of vision, guidance and support, and the technology leader must have desire, offer expertise and put forth effort. With a lot of hard work, determination and, in many cases, an organizational shift, districts that have bought into the trinity have developed successful instructional technology programs.
Paul Zeller has served as the director of instructional technology for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District (PVRHSD) since 2011. PVRHSD, located in Northern Bergen County, New Jersey, is a member of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools and is an inaugural member of the innovateNJ initiative. PVRHSD is in the 11th year of its 1:1 e-learning initiative. Follow Zeller on Twitter @PVRTech.