[This is a guest post from Doug Green. If you’re interested in being a guest blogger, drop me a note. Happy reading!]

Update: see also Don Watkins’ response to this post.

With the coming of computers to schools, district leaders felt the need to hire district level administrators to oversee instructional and administrative computer systems. After about 30 years, some districts are finding that they can do without their own technology gurus. Has the school district technology director gone from life on the cutting edge of technology in education to obsolescence? The purpose of this article is to explore reasons why this may be the case.

Things Have Changed

At one point is was possible for at least a few educators to have a good grasp of what computer technology could do and understand what it took to maintain stand alone systems. With the advent of school and district-wide networks, however, there was a need to add network specialists to maintain the district infrastructure. As the number of workstations in classrooms and offices expanded, there was also a need for staff that were trained and dedicated to maintain them. This meant that the technology director was leading a growing staff of non educators at the same time computers and other technologies were expanding into every niche of the instructional program.

To some districts it makes no sense to have an administrator who was most likely a former teacher responsible for computer networks. Such networks now resemble other utilities such as electricity, natural gas, and telephone service. They can be purchased from a private vendor or from a local school district service bureau such as the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) system in New York State. As for administrative computer services, the software and support are purchased from somewhere. Rather than going through the technology director, the people responsible for the services like the director of attendance for student information, the principals for scheduling and mark reporting, and the business office for functions like payroll can just deal directly with the agency selling and supporting the service.

On the instructional side, the mere existence of a technology director can allow other leaders to think that they are not responsible for the integration of instructional technology. They see it as something separate rather than a part of the big instructional picture. When principals and teachers see instructional technology as someone else’s job, they are less likely to adopt in an effective manner anything that the “technology person” pushes into the classrooms.

The Great Enabler?

As the job of the technology director has been taken over by organizations like BOCES and other district administrators I have seen people in these position look for ways to be useful which can often enable bad habits among their fellow administrators. In one district I found the person helping the assistant superintendent for instruction count the number of days school had been in session to make sure that the end of year plan would comply with state regulations. His massive spreadsheet made the task seem complicated when all one needed to do what take a calendar and count up to 180.

Studies summarized by Rogers (2003) show that top down decisions are less likely to enjoy successful adoption in education than in other organizations. This is due to the fact that teachers with masters degrees think they know what they are doing and enjoy a sense of freedom that gives them a good deal of control over how they deliver the curriculum. In order to get teachers to implement a new technology effectively, it helps if they feel some ownership for the decision to adopt. The technology director may also be seen as a person who can do things with technology that are beyond most teachers. Teachers are more likely to follow a peer who they feel has technical expertise similar to their own.

In effective schools, decisions about instructional technology initiatives are more likely to come from district or building shared decision-making teams. This gives the decisions a bottom up aspect that increases the likelihood that they will work.

The Data Piece

Another function that can land in the technology director’s portfolio is that of chief information officer (CIO). This is a title that the New York State Education Department has asked districts to use so that they have an entry point for dealing with instructional data including scores on state tests. A look around the central New York region shows that this title can land just about anywhere. While some districts give it to an assistant superintendent, others bestow it on the technology director, and still others give it to a programmer, a teacher, or even a secretary.

In essence, this job has two main functions. One is to lead the district and the individual schools as they analyze test results and other instructional data in order to make informed instructional decisions. As Burdet, City, and Murname (2005) show, this is a job that should clearly run through the superintendent’s office and the offices of the principals and should involve committees of teachers. Giving it to some technology person may produce fancy charts and graphs, but it is not likely to make the kind of instructional impact that in intended.

The other part of the job is caring for the data itself and making sure it is correctly reported to the state in a timely manner. I did this for my former district during the year after I retired so I know what it involves and I have seen how many other districts deal with it. Whoever does it will need rudimentary data processing skills and a modest understanding of relational databases. It certainly should not fall to a high paid administrator. It could even be given to a capable clerk or sent to a regional support service.

All Administrators Should be Tech Savvy

As part of the work I do teaching leadership for teachers seeking administrative certification, I read the job postings each week in the New York Times. I look for common themes and trends so I can let my students know what districts are looking for in the way of knowledge, experience, and expertise in their new hires. Many ads contain a bulleted list of items that include communication skills, collaborative leadership styles, and a vision of how all students can succeed. For the last several years, however, they also usually include something like the following found in a recent posting:

Has expertise in the use of instructional technology and the utilization of achievement data to advance student learning

When microcomputers first entered the classroom in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, many of the members of the administrative class had attended college in a era where they could submit hand written work or pay someone else to do the typing. Even today I still know of administrators who don’t do email simply because they can’t use a keyboard. One even told me that he only wanted “one button to push.” You can imagine how happy he was when I set him up with a computer that had a one-button mouse.

Now the classes I teach feature some students who are almost digital natives as they don’t remember a time when their schools didn’t have computers. As more future leaders show up with computer skills, districts are in a position to expect that their new leaders can manage instructional technology without having to ask a district technology person what to do.

And a Child Shall Lead Them

In 1976 when my district got its first computer, I was the science department chair. I had no time to figure out how it worked so I let some of my students who had an interest “play” with it. I soon became the “adult” expert even though I knew less than the students and within two years became the district computer director. Two years later I was hired by a larger district as their first Director of Computer Services with a big raise and an office next to the superintendent.

As part of my doctoral research I noticed that teachers who learned from their students were often the ones who did the most with instructional technology. With the coming of the Internet, the students had easy access to the world of information which made finding facts like shooting sitting ducks (McKenzie, 1998). As one superintendent told me, “we don’t own the information any more” (Green, 2001).

I recently worked with a doctoral student who was reviewing her work from the early 1990s. This prompted me to make a list of the technological innovations that have arrived since 1991 that I felt were likely to have some impact on instruction.

New Technologies with Possible Impact on Education Since 1991

  • 1991 QuickTime Introduced
  • 1991 First Smartboard becomes commercially available
  • 1994 Netscape 1.0 browser available for Internet surfing
  • 1995 The first Internet Wiki
  • 1996 Cell phones become common in United States
  • 1996 First Mobile cell phone with built-in PDA
  • 1996 Hotmail – Free web-based email for anyone
  • 1996 Java and Javascript programming languages add applications to the Web
  • 1998 The First web log also known as a blog
  • 1999 QuickTime 4.0 supports streaming video
  • 1999 Macromedia Flash 4.0 handles inputs and MP3 audio files
  • 1999 iMovie is free with iMac purchase
  • 2000 Google – The world’s search engine
  • 2000 Instant Messaging starts to take off
  • 2000 PayPal makes it easy and safe to pay for Internet purchases
  • 2001 Douglas Green uses speech recognition to transcribe dissertation interviews
  • 2001 iPods and iTunes become available
  • 2001 Text messaging starts to take off
  • 2002 USB flash drive memory cards become available
  • 2002 The term is Blogoshpere adopted to represent the world of blogs on the Internet
  • 2004 Facebook & Myspace make social networking more available
  • 2004 Podcasting allows new form for media distribution
  • 2004 Duke University gives an iPod to each freshman
  • 2004 GarageBand allows for easier music editing
  • 2005 Eye tracking systems become available for disabled
  • 2005 RSS (real simple syndication) adds a new type of spam
  • 2005 Guitar Hero joins the gaming culture
  • 2005 YouTube allows anyone to publish and access videos
  • 2006 PornoTube adds to the worries of parents and teachers
  • 2006 Student Response Systems (clickers) become affordable for educational use
  • 2006 Flickr available to customers in United States for storing and organizing media
  • 2006 Skype becomes available for free calls and video conferencing
  • 2006 Sherburne/Earlville, NY Schools place a SmartBoard in every classroom
  • 2006 Wii adds a physical aspect to gaming
  • 2006 Twitter adds yet another type of spam for Internet and cell phone users
  • 2007 Wikipedia becomes the largest encyclopedia ever with more than 2 million articles
  • 2007 iPhones are introduced bringing countless capabilities to cell phone users
  • 2009 A USB flash drive costs about $20 for one gigabyte 

A look at this list should lead one to think that many students are more comfortable with some of this technology than their teachers. I have had many of my administrative students tell me that they would be lost were it not for the computer help they get from their own teenage children.

When a technology innovation comes to the classroom by way of the technology director it is likely to focus on the technology. When it arrives as the result of initiatives owned by the teachers, it is more likely to focus on the content. An example from the art department that I have seen in many schools makes this point. If computers in the art rooms have a technology focus the likely result will be courses that teach how to use software such as Photoshop and Illustrator. If the computers are introduced by the art teachers they are more likely to use these tools to focus on artistic concepts and to promote artistic craft.

This month, for example, the magazine Edutopia (Bernard, 2009) has a cover story about an article where students offer lesson plan ideas that feature items from my list. My point here is that any school district looking for ideas about instructional technology is unlikely to get all they need from a single source technology director.

Goodbye Wizard of Oz.

Once a district decides to eliminate the technology director position the next questions is what happens to the person in that position. If the person is seen as bright, hard working, and knowledgeable they can be moved to other positions of leadership. Depending on their talents they might make successful principals or assistant superintendents, which are much better positions from which to promote the use of instructional technology. They might also return to the classroom where they can become a model for innovation technology use. They may be able to retire as I have seen in several local districts or they might be able to secure employment with one of the district’s technology vendors or the local school-support agency.

In 1993 when I held this position I was able to un-invent myself by convincing the superintendent that the administrative and network supervision aspects of my job could be sent to our local BOCES and that the responsibility for the instructional piece should be placed in the hands of the building principals who could look to a district level staff developer for support when they needed to help their staff learn how to use new technology. At the time, the district saved $35,000 as a result of this move.

I should also point out that a reason for making my job disappear was so that I could become a principal in a building were the decision making team had a strong interest in moving ahead with instructional technology initiatives. My goal in writing this article, therefore, is not to put my fellow directors out of work by making them look like modern versions of the Wizard of Oz. My goal is to help schools make more effective use of their technology dollars as they empower all administrators, teachers, and even students in finding ways to allow instructional technology to facilitate and motive all learners. A job that has become impossible for one person can become possible once it is viewed as everyone’s job.

  • Bernard, S. (2009). Kids Talk Tech. Edutopia. June/July 2009, 22-27.
  • Boudett, K. P., City, E. A., & Murname, R. J. Eds. (2004). Data Wise: A Step by Step Guild to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching and Learning. Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, MA.
  • Green, D. W. (2001). The Impact of Internet Access of Elementary Classroom Teaching: A Constructivist Perspective. (Doctoral Dissertation, Binghamton University, Dissertation Abstracts International, 63 no. 01A(2001): p 151.
  • McKenzie, J. (1998). Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Free-Range Students, Phi Delta Kappan, 80(1), 26-31.
  • Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations, 5th ed. Free Press: New York, NY.

Douglas W. Green, Ed.D., was an administrator for 30 years and has 300+ publications in technology, education, and leadership. He retired to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig’s disease and started blogging after her recent death. His blog at DrDougGreen.com features book summaries and news items that makes it easy for busy educators to keep up to date.