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Implementation Woes Undermine Ambitious K-12 Ed-Tech Efforts, Study Finds

Establishing a district-wide technology program can be a daunting task. It requires up-front planning and making a smart decisions about purchases, and it also requires faithful implementation—the hard work of getting buy-in from teachers and principals, and encouraging them to use devices purposefully and consistently.

Project RED, an initiative of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the implementation of 1:1 programs in K-12 environments, is trying to perfect the technology implementation process. The organization developed the Project RED Design, a research-backed technology implementation plan available to districts nationwide, in 2012. Project RED released the first results of a three-year study of 17 districts last month. The districts all developed Project RED Design plans and used the implementation framework over several years.

The study, which will be released in five parts, focuses on 1:1 implementation concerns in leadership; communication; instruction, pedagogy and data; professional learning; and finance, according to a statement from the One-to-One Institute. A summary section and the leadership brief offering highlights from the findings were released last week.

Districts using the Project RED Design to implement a technology program saw some positive effects on student academic achievement. Graduation rates increased in 79 percent of reporting districts, and 84 percent of reporting districts saw fewer disciplinary actions, according to a statement.

The study found a positive correlation between technology use and math and science proficiency for middle and high school students, though there was no correlation for elementary school students.

Technology use had no effect on students' reading proficiency at any grade level. More detailed information about student achievement will be available in additional reports to be released later this year, said Leslie Wilson, founder and CEO of the One-to-One Institute and one of the study's authors, in an interview.

Differences in the effectiveness of technology use across subjects and grade levels could be a result of fidelity of implementation, wrote the study's authors, a challenge to technology initiatives that plagues even high-performing districts.

When districts don't ensure fidelity of implementation, their 1:1 technology efforts are "guaranteed to fail," the authors said. 

The 17 participating districts all applied to be part of the program and were chosen in part based on their commitment to following the Project RED Design, said Wilson. Yet the researchers did not "see the kinds of results we would expect, given their dedication to the process."

Other findings include:

  • The authors found that poor communication in tech implemenation was correlated with low student achievement.

  • Effective use of formative assessment data was "the most important factor in improving student outcomes." Real-time data also helped teachers to evaluate the effectiveness of their practices.

  • Many districts struggled with cost management, as they coped with the costs of 1:1 implementation as well as continuing costs of printing and textbooks. The study suggests that some of these costs were unnecessary.

Focus on Leadership

The researchers argue that change management—preparing, directing, and supporting employees through changes in the organization's environment—is a critical step in implementing tech projects effectively, but it was often overlooked by the leaders of the school systems they studied.

"Where the leadership is not committed to [implementing plans with fidelity], focused on that, understanding of that, we see these districts fail at what they're trying to accomplish," Wilson said.

When principals at individual schools were able to focus on supporting tech implementation, students benefitted academically. Student achievement in math was positively related to principal implementation of change management strategies, the study found. And having a written plan requiring systematic data collection from teachers was positively correlated with students' math and reading scores.

The latest reports relased by the One-to-One Institute build on previous Project RED research, including a survey, that examined the financial and academic implications of digital conversion in districts. Those earlier findings formed the foundation of the organization's framework for this project.


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