How to transform technology departments to be focused on teaching and learning

Changing the culture requires creating a vision, understanding your resources and using a balanced approach

In any workplace, a technology department provides strong enterprise-level support, with highly trained and extremely knowledgeable staff. But schools are not like most other industries. Our mission is to support students, and the talented educators who help them learn and grow. How we leverage technology in a school district must be different. We are truly building our futures in education.

So how does a technology department change its culture to focus first on learning and teaching?

Create a vision
Technology department staff members may not have degrees in education. However, understanding the school environment is vital as staffers aspire to make better decisions, develop clear processes and build strong systems. This requires a clear vision and understanding of the role that technology plays in a district. Technology staffers need to understand the compelling “why, what and how” questions about technology use in the hands of students, teachers, and leaders, not just in school buildings and during the school day, but anytime, anywhere.

Here are five ideas to consider when creating a shared vision for your technology department:

  1. Involve department staffers in creating a vision road map, including the destination and the journey to get there.
  2. Use a protocol, such as the National School Reform Faculty’s Futures Protocol, to inspire the vision. How will students be using technology in three, five or 10 years?
  3. Have teams of technology staff members adopt a school in your district for a defined period of time. Work with school leaders to see how staffers can volunteer and help.
  4. Go on “learning walks” in schools. How are students using technology? How are teachers using technology?
  5. Use focus groups to get input from various stakeholders. Some districts already have groups of parents, students and/or community members who meet regularly.

Audit your resources
We love technology tools. Our tools even have tools. What tools or resources are being used in the technology department? How are they being used? Chances are, there are multiple tools that serve the same or similar purposes. Take the time to do a thorough inventory of what you have and use in schools, district offices and the technology department. Make note of how different tools are being used and their features, and ask for stakeholder feedback.

“When teachers conduct an initial assessment of any technology, they assume there will be some investment involved—usually related to the amount of time it will take to learn the technology and incorporate it into practice. So there’s little motivation to even consider the potential investment if there’s no guarantee of a return.” (Carlson, “Here’s Why Teachers Adopt New Tech — and Why They Don’t”, 2019).

Regardless of whether you are auditing an old resource or evaluating a new one, look at it through the eyes of students and teachers. What does this resource provide? Can it give the user agency in their learning and teaching? Or instead, is the resource built with the technology department in mind, which can be technical and inflexible? All technology should serve as classroom empowerment tools. From the web filter to the hardware to an online math program, there must be a return on investment for teachers and students.

Marlo Gaddis is the chief technology officer of the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina.

Use a balanced approach
To be clear, we should not throw out all technology solutions and approaches. Instead, we should apply a balanced approach. Interoperability, data privacy and security, and technical requirements are obviously important. But they are not the only considerations, and they should not drive the adoption or denial of a resource.

As you make progress transforming the culture of your technology department to be more focused on teaching and learning, consider these questions:

  • What problem is the technology resource trying to solve?
  • Is the resource currently working to solve the problem?
  • Is there a resource available now that works better?
  • How do we define the success or failure of the technology resource?
  • What do we do if the resource succeeds or fails? When will we know?
  • Will our student data be safe and secure?
  • How will our students and teachers access the resource?

Each district is different. How you shift the focus to learning and teaching in a technology department will vary. The key is to have a plan. Create a vision and a road map that develops ownership and alignment throughout your community. And most important, remember that you serve educators and students.. We all have the ability to change the trajectory for a child. Make it your mission.

Marlo Gaddis is chief technology officer of the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina and a featured speaker at FETC 2020.

*Carlson, T. (2019, May 29). Here’s Why Teachers Adopt New Tech — and Why They Don’t. EdSurge. Retrieved from

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