Rethinking Technology Leadership

Well, I’ve really enjoyed this week of guest blogging.  As an academic whose professional livelihood requires writing according to lots of strict formatting and content guidelines, I find a lot of freedom in the blogging form.  Thank you, Scott, for giving me this opportunity.

I was going to go for the trifecta and write about technology through another popular non-fiction book, but I decided to just attach a copy of an article I had published last year.  In that article, I make reference to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  In particular, I argue that the Internet, as an embodiment of multiple forms of computer-mediated communications, is a space with properties that correlate with necessary attributes of community.  I won’t go on…it’s all there in the article. (Download 04300_06_becker.pdf)

So, instead of my Bowling Alone/Internet/community argument, for my final post I just want to offer some of my latest musings on the the intersection of educational technology and school leadership.  As Scott has mentioned, there are a handful of professors of educational leadership who think deeply about technology issues.  I have the good fortune of knowing and working with these folks.  We meet at conferences and whenever Scott pays for us to come together (hehe).  One of the topics we discuss regularly is the notion of "technology leadership."  We ponder questions such as: "what is technology leadership?…How, if at all, is it different than other forms of educational leadership?…If school leaders don’t understand technology issues, is technology leadership then just a matter of good distributed leadership?…etc., etc." 

These days, however, I’m thinking those lines of inquiry are misguided.  I think by naming and wondering about this thing called "technology leadership" we may be guilty of doing the sort of labeling and boxing-in that I argue vehemently against in so many other aspects of education.  To suggest that "technology leadership" is a separate leadership domain could set us down a bad path.  A fair analogy would be the world of special education.  In our doctoral program, a critical mass of our students work in an administrative capacity in the field of special education.  At a recent colloquium, many of those students voiced their concerns and displeasure about being treated as a separate entity from general education.  Furthermore, such treatment allowed the general education leaders (particularly the superintendents and building principals) to perform what they thought was distributed leadership but what was probably better characterized as passing the buck.  These special ed. leaders felt strongly that many of the problems they face would be alleviated if the general education leaders knew more about and were more actively involved in special education.

I think some of my colleagues may disagree with what I just wrote, but that could lead to a healthy dialog.  Regardless, given what I wrote, my focus this year is in figuring out how to reach out to a general education leadership audience.  I think we need to think about ways to infuse our existing leadership preparation programs with technology issues.  So, when we talk about supervision and observation, we need to mention mVal and other technology-based models.  In the school law classes, we must address technology-related issues such as data privacy, Internet safety, etc.  When students discuss community engagement, they need to know about the power of computer-mediated communications.  And on and on…

Thanks again, Scott, and to bring this post full-circle, I know that this blog will grow into a vibrant and healthy community.  I’m glad I’m a part of it.

DDDM and Moneyball

I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a long time, but never figured out the right outlet.  This blog, however, is a great space for me to try it out (ah, the beauty of blogging!).  Plus, I think I did reasonably well with my Freakonomics analysis on Monday, so I figure it’s safe to work my thoughts through another popular non-fiction book.

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, is a book about baseball.  So, I don’t know how many readers of this blog will have read the book.  But, for me, the book is about so much more than baseball and the lessons of the book are incredibly applicable to education.  Lewis initially set out to write a book about how the Oakland A’s, a major league baseball team on the low end of the financial resources continuum, managed to compete at such a high level seemingly every year.  There are tremendous disparities in spending across Major League Baseball, and the game has been plagued by the perception that the teams that spend the most money win the most.  The New York Yankees (my favorite team!) were the face of this perception.  The A’s seemed to defy this perception.

What Lewis ultimately discovered was that the A’s, led by their unique general manager Billy Beane, had adopted an organizational commitment to scouting and assessing players using statistical analysis of the loads of data generated by the game of baseball.  These forms of analysis, labeled generally as sabermetrics, had been around for many years, but they were largely written off as the province of geeks and statheads who just happened to like baseball.  Beane, however, came to believe that a sabermetric approach to scouting and valuing players would allow them to make the most cost-effective decisions possible. They were able to figure out which individual statistics were the greatest predictors of team success.  Then they sought players who thrived in those key areas despite being deemed by others as flawed in other areas of the game thereby devaluing their salaries.  So, for example, sabermetricians were able to demonstrate that on base percentage (OBP – the likelihood that a player will get on base in any given plate appearance) was the single greatest predictor of runs scored.  That seems logical since a player must get on base to score a run.  But, traditionally, players were valued based more on their batting average (the likelihood that a player will get a hit in any given plate appearance) than OBP.  Therefore, there were some players who didn’t have great batting averages (and as a result didn’t earn very high salaries), but had relatively higher on base percentages (mostly because they earned lots of base-on-balls – aka walks).  Those players became Oakland A’s.

Most baseball purists and old school baseball people fervently opposed this sabermetric orientation.  They argued that you couldn’t judge a player by crunching numbers.  You had to watch the players play, get to know them as people, etc.; in other words, make value determinations by scouting the old fashioned way.  The numbers were cold and unreliable, they’d say.

Is this starting to sound familiar?  Purists, traditionalists arguing that we should not rely on numerical data to make decisions?  Numerical data are cold and unreliable, and they can’t tell you what you need to know about people?  These are the same arguments you hear from those opposed to what has been labeled "data-driven decision-making" (DDDM) in education. 

I could stop here and argue that the Oakland A’s commitment to sabermetrics and cost-effective decision-making has been highly successful (just look at how well they’re doing in this year’s playoffs!), so everyone should buy in to DDDM in education.  But, that’s not the real point I want to make.

For me, there is another perception problem here.  The popular sports media has, for the most part, portrayed this so-called Moneyball philosophy inaccurately.  The popular sports media would have us believe that sabermetric analysis is an opposing paradigm to traditional baseball scouting methods.  But, the fact is that sabermetric analysis has been used by the A’s (and now many other teams as well) as a complement to more traditional methods of scouting and player valuation.  It is not as if the A’s have fired all of their scouts and hired all statisticians; their scouting department includes a few number crunchers in addition to all of the scouts who do what they’ve always done.

Similarly, in education, "data-driven decision making" is the label given to the movement to making decisions based on the scores of numerical data that are now available to educators as technological means (computers, databases, etc.) have intersected with a climate of standards and assessment.  But, to suggest that DDDM is a new movement or idea in education implies that before now, decisions were made in a vacuum; decisions were made in the absence of data.  That’s not the case, though.  Decisions, particularly those about individual students, were made based on professional judgments (teacher perceptions, observations, etc.).   Like sabermetrics in baseball, (statistically oriented) DDDM is a complementary approach to professional judgment in education.  They are epistemologically different approaches, but they are not mutually exclusive. 

Finally, the Oakland A’s needed to add sabermetric analysis to their organization because they were playing on an uneven playing field with respect to financial resources.  As a result, they have been able to compete successfully against the big spenders.  Education is a notoriously uneven playing field with respect to financial resources.  I hope schools and districts struggling with relatively low per-pupil expenditures see DDDM as a way to make more cost-effective decisions.

What does “technology integration” mean?

This question is at the heart of a dissertation one of my advisees is undertaking.  In fact, she successfully defended the proposal today (congrats, Jennifer!), so I thought I’d share some thoughts on this while the ideas are fresh in my mind.

The genesis of the study was my observation that I had heard the term "technology integration" used regularly, had read a lot about it, and had even studied it, but did not really have a firm grasp of what it really meant.  A quick review of the literature made it clear that most of those who studied and/or wrote about technology integration failed to define or operationalize the term.  Furthermore, where there were efforts to define technology integration, those definitions varied greatly and were either too vague or too narrow (in my opinion).

For me, this was enough justification for a study that would systematically create an operational definition of technology integration.  But, most of the discussion at today’s dissertation proposal hearing revolved around why such a study was important.  In other words, why is it important to create a theory/model/definition of technology integration?  My advisee did a nice job of addressing these sorts of questions, and ultimately a number of reasons were discussed.  Certainly, there are empirical reasons for creating an operational definition of technology integration.  That is, for those of us that study technology integration, it would be helpful to have a comprehensive framework or template or lens to use.  For the world of educational practice, though, the main justification for this study is that clarity and/or understanding leads to action.  Or, vice versa, a lack of clarity and/or understanding can stifle action.  So, the argument goes, if we want technology integration to happen (and we do!!!) it is important to provide teachers and administrators with a clear and comprehensive road map or picture of what technology integration looks like.

Interestingly, the Superintendent of the district in which my advisee works has convened a technology roundtable to revisit/revise the district’s "Technology Integration Plan," which, itself, fails to really define what is meant by technology integration.  So, this study will satisfy the requirements for a dissertation for my advisee, but the findings will also become a real reference piece for the district’s technology plan.  I love when dissertation work has real and practical implications.

Ultimately, the theory/model/definition of technology integration that comes out of this dissertation will emanate from the data yielded through a deep and systematic review of the literature.  However, I have some biases going in.  One major bias is that I think a theory/model/definition of technology integration must be broad and comprehensive.  My sense is that most educators and researchers think too narrowly about technology integration.  For some, the focus is on access and infrastructure (i.e. we’ve integrated technology if we make it a part of our teaching and learning space).  For others, the focus is on curriculum and teaching (i.e. we’ve integrated technology if it is used to support teaching and learning in the content areas).  For me, technology integration includes both of these aspects…and more.  According to the American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (as referenced on, integration is defined as, "[t]he state of combination or the process of combining into completeness and harmony." 

I hope that the theory/model/definition of technology integration that comes from this study takes into consideration notions of completeness and harmony.  I look forward to seeing what the data say and to sharing what my advisee and I learn.

A Freakonomic Analysis

If you haven’t read the popular non-fiction book Freakonomics, I highly recommend it.  Or, if it’s more your speed, you can visit the website associated with the book.  The authors of the book, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, even have their own blog!

Levitt and Dubner are running a series of articles in the New York Times Magazine that read much like the chapters in their book.  The most recent article (free registration required, sorry) ran last week and sparked a number of thoughts about the issues around which this blog revolves.  So, I thought I’d use this post to share those thoughts.

The article is about one doctor’s efforts to improve hand-hygiene compliance at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  Dr. Leon Bender, the hospital’s Chief of Staff, along with other hospital staff, devised a number of incentive schemes to get doctors to be more diligent about washing their hands.  They tried the usual campaign of memos, e-mails, etc.  They formed a "Hand Hygiene Safety Posse" that walked around the wards handing out Starbucks gift cards to doctors caught in the act of washing their hands.  These efforts increased compliance to about 80%, but they needed 90% compliance to satisfy their accrediting agency (really?  only 90% compliance is sufficient?). 

So, one day, during a meeting of Dr. Bender’s Chief of Staff Advisory Committee, the hospital’s epidemiologist took a culture of the hands of the committee members.  The members pressed their palms into agar plates, and the plates were cultured and photographed.  When the results came back, the images were apparently "…disgusting and striking, with gobs of colonies of bacteria.”  The hospital administration decided to use the power of those images by making one particularly disgusting image the screen saver on all hospital computers.  Suddenly, hand-hygiene compliance shot up to nearly 100%.

Dr. Bender’s explanation is what struck me the most.  He said, "With people who have been in practice 25 or 30 or 40 years, it’s hard to change their behavior.  But when you present them with good data, they change their behavior very rapidly.”

There are obvious implications of that quote for DDDM, but I’ll pass on that discussion until Thursday’s post.  For today, I’m more interested in the implications for school leaders trying to facilitate technology integration (a term of art, BTW, that will be the subject of tomorrow’s post).  One of the greatest challenges facing technologically-inclined school leaders is getting veteran teachers (even those who’ve been teaching the same way for 10 or so years) to change their behaviors.  After Dr. Bender’s explanation, the NYT article goes on to say that "some forms of data, of course, are more compelling than others, and in this case an image was worth 1,000 statistical tables."

So, the question for me is, "what kinds of ‘data’ (broadly conceived) can we present to teachers that would compel them to change their behaviors and to integrate technology more into the teaching and learning process?"  I like to show my students a PowerPoint slide that contains two photos side-by-side.  One image is of a classroom from the 1880’s; the other is of a classroom from the 1980’s. 

Classroom_1880_1    Classroom_1980

(photos from Raymond Bial’s One Room School and PBS’s evolving classroom series)

Not surprisingly, the classrooms look nearly identical.  That photographic juxtaposition is usually pretty compelling.  I also think David Warlick’s letter from principals is a compelling artifact.

What other data can you think of?  Are there other "frightening" images or artifacts we can use to "scare" teachers (and administrators, for that matter) into changing their behaviors?

Another guest blogger

My name is Jon Becker and I am an assistant professor in the Department of Foundations, Leadership and Policy Studies (FLPS) of the School of Education and Allied Human Services (SOEAHS) at Hofstra University.  You might wonder why Scott is willing to have me guest blog this week…and your guess is as good as mine.  It’s probably because Scott knows I have a lot to say on matters about which he and I care deeply and he’d rather read it than hear me talk.  Regardless, as I begin my guest blogging stint, I’m inspired by those who’ve blogged before me.  David WarlickWill Richardson.  And, now, on this site, Scott McLeod along with previous guest bloggers David Quinn and Steve Poling.  Thanks for having me, Scott, and I hope I can add some value to the ed. tech. blogosphere.

For today, here are some snippets about me and my beliefs that might engage you enough to keep you reading for at least the rest of the week:

*I am what Will Richardson calls a “nomadic learner.”  Like Will, “I graze on knowledge. I find what I need when I need it. There is no linear curriculum to my learning, no formal structure.”  I firmly believe there are millions of kids who are like that too, but they are forced to attend schools that know nothing but sequence and boxes and compartments and labels.  For me, the only boxes I care about are those that have a microchip in them.

*Ed. tech???…Frankly, I’m tired of the excuses.  “We don’t have time for that.”  “We can’t afford that.”  “That’s not what we do.”  Nonsense!  How can you/we NOT afford to bring the institution of schooling in line with our 21st century society?  And, in this asynchronous world our children live in, what is time anyway?

*I’m annoyed by the “technology as tool” mentality that permeates the K-12 world.  Tools are limited in their application.  Technology, on the other hand, makes possibility limitless.  As my colleague and mentor Dale Mann once told me, “digital is different.”  Most people are afraid of different.

*But, some have embraced difference.  Districts like Lemon Grove, CA and Plano, TX are glorious educational technology lighthouses, and I’m moved by the possibilities they represent.  But, they are WAY too few and far between; they are the examples, the exceptions.  We need to make them the norm.

I could go on…and I will, but no more today.  It’s been a formal day of atonement for me.  I look forward to starting this (Jewish) new year in blogging mode.