Give this to your IT department: Five Ways IT can help teachers be more effective.

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Let me start this post by stating that I am not a teacher. I am also not a geek in the traditional sense of the word. Now that I’ve discredited myself with both of the intended audiences of this post, let me explain why I might be qualified to give some advice in this area.

In my career I have worked to help organizations either start something big, or make big changes in how they do things. In the last 15 years, I have worked almost exclusively with educational institutions both as a consultant, and for the last 10 years leading their IT groups.

I have watched over the years as IT departments in partnership with vendors delivered educational technology “solutions” that were supposed to revolutionize the classroom and change the way learning happened. The long list of items included Learning Management Systems, Clickers, interactive whiteboards, laptops, tablets, document cameras, wireless networking, classroom management software, video conferencing, chat rooms, social media, etc., etc. etc. And while the promises (and budgets) were huge, the deliverables in terms of revolution were almost inconsequential.

What we did, was add complexity, frustration, and tremendous cost to the academic experience. While there were shining pockets of great technology implementation, as a whole we didn’t add any value or capacity to the teacher’s ability to do her or his job better.

Yet we in IT were undaunted, and were sure that we’d achieve results after the next silver bullet.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Now that I’ve painted such a bleak picture, let me say that it is indeed possible to teach an old IT dog some new tricks.

Two years ago my team rolled out an application that teachers could voluntarily use to deliver their curriculum. Historically we would expect a keener group of 20 to 30% to adopt a new tool, and then have about half of them drop it after a month or so. In this case, we were blown away that over 80% of the teachers in our school adopted this technology in the first month, and after two years we have almost 100% of the teachers using it, and enthusiastically claiming it has changed the way they teach.

What was different in this application? I’m glad you asked. Here are five key points to ensure your IT team can contribute to teacher capacity.

1. Understand the problem. (hint: it’s not about technology)

Too often we try to shoehorn problems into an ed-tech ‘solution’. In our case, we (IT) met with the academic leadership of the school and asked them a simple question “Without using the words ‘computer’ or ‘technology’, could you describe what an exceptional learning experience is made up of?” They went away for two weeks and met with teachers and leaders. They came back and filled several whiteboards with diagrams, lists, etc. that became the foundation for what we needed to build. Not only did we have a good definition of the problem, we had the key success factors defined.

2. Mind the Gap: (Skills gap, that is)

A year before this rollout, I was reviewing the skill sets in my team and realized that we had a huge knowledge gap. My team were experts in their fields, but there was no one who truly understood learning – the process of learning, the pain points of learning, the success factors, pedagogical issues and trends.

Other schools had created Educational Technologist positions, but often they were either technical people who thought they could teach, or teachers who liked to play with gadgets. I determined that we needed to be different and focus on the understanding of learning. So we created a position and filled it with someone who had deep pedagogical understanding, 20 years of teaching experience and several years of leveraging technology in his classroom. We installed him at a desk eyeball to eyeball with our development team. This allowed instantaneous feedback and input on the development of our solution, including information flow, user interaction and reporting.

3. Teachers are busy people.

If you are a teacher reading this, you will agree that there is precious little time left in your schedule for anything that takes away from teaching. Any system that requires complex setup and / or administrative maintenance will likely not be welcomed into your world. Any ‘solution’ brought into your classroom is both intuitive to use and will not require administrative time on your part. The smart people in IT should be able to move all of that administrative work into the system and automate it. So that is what we did. When we deployed our solution, we had reduced the teacher administration down to a couple of clicks.

4. Your version of ‘intuitive’ is different than mine.

A great solution shouldn’t need a four hour training session, but neither will it be completely intuitive to all. In our case, a very short video introduction was all many needed, and there was drop in times set up for teachers to ask questions of our learning specialist. After all, it was one teacher talking to another, not a teacher talking to a techie.

5. Get ready for the ‘But…”

We are regularly adding capability to our system in response to users who say “This is wonderful… but it would be great if…” That ‘but’ always comes. Be responsive. Have a way to incorporate user feedback. Our best ideas have come from teachers.

While not comprehensive, I would hope that you see that your IT department significantly help your school increase teacher capacity. But it likely means doing things a bit differently than they did before.

What was the tool we developed? Our academic leadership described an open, flexible platform for learning that would allow teachers to concentrate on the delivery of their material in a way most suitable for their area (math, science, art, phys-ed, music, etc.) and provide opportunities for students and teachers to collaborate from anywhere in the world, on any device.

Sounds simple? My team leveraged the power of Microsoft SharePoint and OneNote, added functionality to remove all the individual teacher setup time, and came up with the tool described in this video.

By their own words, teachers say this has changed the way they teach. If you were to visit our school, you would see for yourselves what can happen when your IT team learns about learning.

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