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Ed-Tech Implementation Without Supports Cannot Stand

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By guest blogger Rob Dickson

Much like the three little pigs, a "straw house" implementation cannot withstand the elements around it.

Successful ed-tech implementations share several commonalities when you peel back to the core of the project. In most every case the project:

1) Started with a vision

2) Focused on the teaching and learning happening at the student level

3) Encompassed the right stakeholders in the conversation

4) Supported teachers by equipping them with the necessary support

5) Analyzed and reflected on their implementation to allow for corrections throughout the process.

Oh, and somewhere along the way technology came into the conversation! Not as an afterthought or as an oversight, but as a true reflection of the invisibility of the technology in a successful implementation. It is in the background supporting the objectives, shining a light on student learning.

Starting with a vision means having a core focus that is aligned to your strategic plan with the ultimate goal of impacting student success. What is often difficult about defining your vision is the tendency to get hung-up on word-smithing. Trying to find the perfect phrase or the best similes for comparison, when the concept (in any form) is enough to get moving. We have seen districts paralyzed at this step and often recommend circling back on the details while enjoying the 30,000-foot view for just awhile. Another cautionary mention at this step in the process is to recognize that "just because everyone else is doing it" is not a vision. It is not a vision and it is not a reason, but it can be a great motivator in the right circumstances. Districts racing out of the gate with an initiative that lacks a core vision aligned to their strategic plan may be going fast, but they are going nowhere fast, stuck on a circular path without an outlet to any major roadways that would actually move their project forward.

Bringing all key stakeholders to your "visionary" table is an increasingly common and necessary component to all areas of implementations, ensuring the blending of support; leadership, budget, curriculum and technology are all on the same page and aligned in the same direction. Take for example a personalized learning initiative where the curriculum, technology, finance, communications and building leadership teams are all essential players -- the absence of any one leaves a hole in the project.

Breaking down these "silos" within organizations and getting the right people at the table assures collaboration and communication and avoiding as many of those inevitable surprises in your implementation. For example, an IT director is critical to the success of this project because they design the infrastructure necessary to support the devices and software needed for a personalized learning program; ensuring reliability and redundancy within the organization. Meanwhile the curriculum department is equally tasked with the critical adoptions of digital content and curriculum, ensuring the professional development planning and support of teachers. The communication team is busy handling the plan for how to communicate the project to key stakeholders - parents, staff, students, and community members. And, there are still finances to account for, special education accommodations, ELL and a host of other players who touch this project and are needed at different points. Your key players live not only at the start of the project, but are your touch points throughout.

Supporting teachers in implementation rollouts is often talked about as a major part of the planning, but tends to fade into the background with well meaning reasons like "every teacher has a smart phone now, they are much more tech savvy." At the core of supporting teachers is building an understanding for where they are at individually in their use of technology in the classroom - not for texting and emailing but for leveraging and enhancing instruction, embracing the 4 C's and integrating technology into those teachable moments that offer timely, relevant feedback. Building PD into your calendar and having a clear understanding of expectations for learning and using the technology is essential. Providing a framework and skill set that equips every teacher with the right "tools" in their toolbox for integrating technology sets teachers up for success, not surprises in their role in the classroom. Accessible support for teachers is one of the more requested components from teachers we talk with around the country on their implementations. They want a local resource, a guide to turn to, not a scheduled one hour of help on Thursday afternoon from 2:00-3:00.

Assessing your implementation and keeping a pulse on your project is a core focus of the initial key stakeholders, a task force if you will, that regularly monitors the success of the implementation. While success can be defined in many ways, your project vision will allow you to create goals that you can work backward from to determine appropriate benchmarks for success along the way. Defining your measures of success will likely include some truly quantitative data stemming from your initiatives, but equally as important is the qualitative story. What are you hearing as you walk in the halls of your organization? What are you seeing when you are in your classrooms? What is the pulse, the mood and the response from those in the trenches? These frequent checks can act as formative assessments for the implementation; identifying what is working, what we can stop worrying about and what we should begin focusing on to ensure better understanding.

In many ways building a successful implementation is like building a sturdy house. We learned early from the 3 little pigs that a house made of straw or sticks will not withstand the elements at play around it. Likewise, an initiative missing any of the key commonalities is left un-sturdy and open to collapse from a blowing wind. A rollout without the infrastructure in place crumbles when the technology is unreliable and ultimately becomes unused by teachers. A rollout without training and support may appear to stand sturdy when the infrastructure and budget around it keep the lights on, but the cracks begin to appear and the structure ultimately crumbles when we realize without the right support, teaching and learning will not change and student learning outcomes remain the same. It may be dressed in a brick fa├žade, but it's just a straw house underneath.

Looking for a resource in your shift to digital learning? Check out the Blended Learning Implementation Guide 2.0.

Rob Dickson currently directs instructional technology and all technology infrastructure work for Omaha Public Schools as the executive director of Information Management Systems as well as co-founder and president of GreyED Solutions.

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