Balancing Innovation and Standardization
No leader wants to be thought of as an impediment to progress. It’s tempting to say “yes” to everything. But leading a technology division is a zero sum game. Adding more flexibility and choice will cost you in supply and support capacity. The inevitable compromises are tricky to decide. On the one hand, we want innovation to flourish. On the other hand, we are faced with the practical needs of providing and efficiently maintaining large fleets of technology.
Thompson School District (TSD) is a medium-sized Colorado school district encompassing 362 square miles, serving approximately 15,000 students with a ratio of one-to-one devices for all. The district's territory includes all or parts of five municipalities and three counties. With 30 K-12 schools, a career campus, early childhood center, and two charter schools, there are many diverse opinions about how and what technology should be used. The group charged with supporting TSD technology is the Innovative Technology Services division (ITS). Its staff of thirty does their best to provide the hardware, software, systems, and support needed to fulfill the district’s educational mission within the fiscal bounds of a typical school district.
We believe in the importance of innovation for teaching and learning. “Technology integration in education can be successful only when the human element is taken into consideration. This then integrates innovators, implementers, educational leadership, professional community and, certainly, the learners” (Serdyukov 2017). This begs the question, what can we reasonably do to make sure teachers feel supported and empowered to innovate within our fiscal and support limitations?
We also know that technology has the potential to lead the way to larger systemic innovation, but if implemented poorly, can also drain the school district of valuable resources. “Technology innovation will eventually drive pedagogic innovations” (Serdyukov 2017). This is our dilemma. We know we have a responsibility to foster an environment of innovation, yet we need to be responsible stewards of precious financial, human, and tangible resources. How do we do both?
To strike the right balance, we give teachers and schools a defined sandbox of hardware and operating systems they can choose from. They have wide access to software to try out but it must be submitted for approval before it can be used with all students to ensure it meets requirements for systems compatibility, functionality, data privacy, curricular alignment, and catalog redundancy. The TSD Catalog of Digital Resources (https://sites.google.com/thompsonschools.org/tsd-digital-catalog/home) has over 500 vetted applications to choose from, categorized by type, grade, and content area. The vast majority of these titles came from a teacher trying to innovate to improve their practice. They’re our test pilots. For instance, while our student iPads are locked into apps that we decide to scope to their grade level, teacher iPads have full access to the App Store to explore and test out whatever they think might work. The same goes for our chromebooks. Then teachers submit their findings to ITS for further evaluation and approval.
Hardware is another matter. Our goal in TSD is to provide enough variety to meet everyone’s needs while ensuring good quality at a reasonable cost. “When it works, standardization can be very effective. Districts can negotiate better pricing for hardware, software, and Web-based applications when dealing with a limited number of vendors. Training costs are lower when technicians are able to focus on limited amounts of hardware and software, and technicians can be more efficient when dealing only with products they know well” (Brooks-Young 2005). In TSD, we prefer that school leadership teams choose their own student device type(s) among three choices. They can choose one or a mix of two including iPads with keyboard bins, flip chromebooks, or the traditional clamshell chromebook. Choice gives schools agency and buy-in to help them get off on the right start when we deploy new devices. Furthermore, specialized labs are standardized to two types of high-end workstations. For staff devices, we provide a choice of two types of laptops, an Apple or Windows PC. They are classified as “good” quality. We also offer high end laptops for staff with a demonstrated need.
Technology is certainly not the only path of innovation. But it’s a critical one that often enables other innovations. Our TSD teachers are encouraged to take risks and try new methods utilizing combinations of software and hardware. Even when staff request technology that is not within our set of choices, we’re open to changing our standards and looking for alternative sources of funding and support including grants, philanthropic partnerships, and student support clubs. Striking this balance is always a work in progress. We strive to provide a climate of innovation while ensuring we can afford and support technology effectively.
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