We’re all technology specialists

I’m a ‘technology specialist’ in a school district, and I think the job title conjures a lot of different emotions within educators. Some teachers hear technology and feel anxiety. Others feel indifference. Some teachers are excited about the burgeoning web based tools available and want to share the latest, greatest software programs they’ve discovered.

My role has different titles depending on the school district. Sometimes it’s ‘Teacher on Special Assignment’ (TOSA). Other times it’s ‘technology coach’, ‘instructional coach’, or even ‘Chief Technology Officer’ (CTO). Whatever the name, the main purpose should be the same:

The point of a technology specialist within a school district is to diminish while teachers’ technological expertise increases. 

My position isn’t temporary, but I think it won’t be necessary forever. The same goes for all the other tech specialists out there. There are a couple reasons for this:

  • As teachers learn, they don’t need as many official or ‘district-sponsored’ professional development sessions because they’ll all learn how to learn about technology on their own.
  • Web based programs are making it easier to create teacher accounts and populate classes with students. Eventually, it’ll be possible for most software platforms to be populated by teachers and students (ex: Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Google Classroom, Front Row, etc.).

It’s possible that at some point, all teachers in my school district will be able to manage their own students’ accounts, use the programs effectively by blending their instruction, and answer each others’ questions. Heck, maybe they’ll even put on professional development sessions for each other during prep periods, PLC sessions, or after school. Meanwhile, I can transition back into the classroom, knowing that I used my time as a technology specialist effectively so the ultimate result occurred: All teachers have become technology specialists. 

Dream big

Listening to a recent Tim Ferriss podcast got me thinking about an interesting reality: Every generation has a major profession toward which smart young people gravitate. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was space rockets. In the late ’70s and ’80s, it was Wall Street. In the ’90s and ’00s, it was tech startups. Today, they build apps.

Is building an app a noble venture for a young person? There’s no doubt that some apps are changing the world. Navigation, communication, purchasing, and learning have all advanced by a large margin–I’d argue for the better–because of ingenuity on the mobile platform. But it’s important to put the present in perspective and question whether we’re inspiring our young people to solve today’s most pressing problems. I mean, someone who goes to Wall Street instead of NASA isn’t doing anything wrong, but choosing to further our knowledge of the world is so important and heroic.

As educators, we must show students the good and bad in this world. They must know the good so that they can marvel and fall in love with learning. They must know the bad so that they cultivate the desire to fix what they can. The 21st century is presenting some perplexing problems that children today must fix when they’re adults. Teaching them to dream big is imperative.

Educational technology

Throughout history, there have been prospectors for gold, oil, and many other commodities. In 2015, the rush will be for a market share in educational technology.

It’s important to note there are organizations devoted to promoting learning for free. The two that quickly come to mind are Khan Academy and Gooru. Helping students and educators at no cost is an extremely noble endeavor, and I hope Khan and Gooru thrive during the upcoming year.

However, for most who have tossed their hats into the fray, it’s a fact that they’ve gotta hustle if they wanna make a dollar. On one hand, I have a lot of respect for companies such as Edmodo, Illuminate Education, LearnZillion, and the many other entities who are hustling for a foothold in districts across the nation. They’re all fulfilling niches that may very well be needed as schools adopt personal devices for students. On the other hand, if I worked for a company that wanted to service school districts, I would feel constant unease due to the fact that educators usually want (or need) services for free, and districts are continually looking for the cheapest alternative–many times at the expense of quality.

But, as we all know, there’s high risk in all business endeavors. I’ve stated the obvious in the above paragraph, but it’s a good way to frame an educational technology conversation in which the following three questions are discussed:

1. For what purpose does an educational technology company exist? 

2. What do schools and districts need? 

3. What do teachers need in their classrooms? 

These questions may seem simple, but their answers are fraught with a high degree of complexity. Too often school districts follow sales representatives down a rabbit hole that leads to nothing but unused products and wasted money. To compound this reality, many companies are trying to find success through a grass roots campaign of making their services free for teachers but not free at a school and district level. This creates a disunited educator base where every teacher finds her favorite platform and fights for its adoption because it’s the ‘right’ choice.

I’d like to address the three above questions. It’ll be an incomplete analysis, but at least it’s a start in the edutech dialogue.

For what purpose does an educational technology company exist?

All great organizations have members who are introspective and want to exist in order to bring value in a field in which their services are needed. It’s also important for school districts to ask what the purpose is for a service. Finding a product’s necessity is only possible after a district has already answered many important questions, such as: Do we want fully digital curriculum? What, exactly, is a learning management system (LMS)? Do we want our LMS to house student information, take attendance, function as a grade book, and contain district made curriculum? Does the same LMS need to perform all these functions? Is there a difference between an LMS at the school and district level compared with the classroom level? (I’d answer with a resounding ‘yes’ to this last question–more on that in a bit.)

A district can probably grasp why an educational technology company exists, but it’s hard to figure out if the service is necessary, which leads me to the second question:

What do schools and districts really need? 

At a school or district level, the technological services most in need are on four fronts: how to house digital curriculum, how to track student performance on formative assessments, attendance, and a grade book. (I will leave out programs used by payroll and special services, mainly because I’m not familiar with these divisions.)

Digital curriculum: To the chagrin of many, digital curriculum is coming. Districts need to figure out whether they will continue the traditional textbook adoption or transfer to a service that provides content in a web-based solution. Also, will districts create their own curriculum and publish it with the web 2.0 tools that are available for free, or will they pay for curriculum that is created by an outside company?

Student performance: The importance of formative assessments within education may be unparalleled, and it would behoove the school or district that promotes this type of checking for understanding by finding a service that not only assesses students quickly and efficiently, but also provides teachers and principals with easily discernible data that can drive instruction. There’s a lot of wasted PLC hours every school year, and a way to gauge whether or not students are learning is in high demand (or at least should be).

Attendance and grade book: These two are much more straightforward than how to solve the digital curriculum and gauging student performance quandaries. The hard questions lie in how students will be assessed, especially when studies show that grades hinder student learning. (Feedback, on the other hand, it extremely important and not the same as a traditional grade.)

Schools and districts have their work cut out for them. There are no easy answers, but fortunately, I think the answer for what’s needed in the classroom is a lot easier to solve.

What do teachers really need in their classrooms? 

Simply put, they need ‘digital infrastructure’. What I mean is teachers need a way to assign assignments digitally, collect assignments digitally, flip the classroom with video, and administer efficient common formative assessments with an LMS that provides easily discernible data for student achievement. So, if you’re a teacher who’s wondering what’s needed in an LMS, follow this checklist:

  • Does the LMS assign assignments easily?
  • Does the LMS collect assignments easily?
  • Can you provide the students with links to videos–especially videos that can be watched at home?
  • Can you administer common formative assessments easily and share data painlessly with colleagues during your PLC meetings?

If there is a ‘no’ to any of these question, look for another LMS.


This post barely scratches the surface for what’s facing districts, schools, and teachers in regard to educational technology. Nevertheless, the questions posed are necessary when evaluating nascent services that are attempting to capitalize on 1:1 devices trickling into classrooms. There’s a lot at stake, and as always, we need to offer more questions than answers before making big decisions regarding how students will learn and produce work in 2015 and beyond.

Skills and products

One of the best memories I have from the book Let My People Go Surfing is Yvon Chouinard’s emphasis on developing a skill–whether it’s crafting a surfboard or tailoring a jacket. Learning how to do something that’s valuable for society will always put food on the table and provide a sense of self-worth.

I’d also add that it’s not just important to learn a valuable skill or two, but to also work on a creation or object that can be perceived. In the field of education this has often been elusive. Yes, an educated student can be considered a “product” of instruction, but teachers in the past rarely had lesson plans or assessments that stood the test of time. And at the end of the day, the chalk board was always erased.

Not anymore. Now teachers can produce a YouTube video that teaches viewers worldwide about photosynthesis. Textbooks can be written and shared as ebooks. Students can read blog posts as often as they want. Websites can be created. Podcasts can be heard.

The main struggle now is what product of learning should be created first.


Of course, mistakes should be avoided, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try something just because the chance of messing up is present.

When the inevitable mistake does occur, it’s important to view it two ways:

  1. What can I learn from this mistake?

  2. What can be created out of this mistake?

Mistakes that can be turned into accomplishments are powerful.

Students don’t care about making mistakes when they’re young. They push buttons and pull levers just to find out what will happen. Unfortunately, in certain instances along their schooling career, this curiosity and boldness goes away and is replaced with fear of making mistakes. All successful people will tell you that an environment that hinders creativity in order to lessen mistakes is a dying environment.

We must teach our children to not shy away from difficult problems–they must embrace the possibility of mistakes. And when the probable mistake does arise, they need to view it as an opportunity to create something beautiful.