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Critical Issue: Technology Leadership:
Enhancing Positive Educational Change

This Critical Issue was researched and written by Gilbert Valdez, Ph.D., senior advisor for technology and codirector of the North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium at Learning Point Associates.

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ISSUE: Knowledgeable and effective school leaders are extremely important in determining whether technology use will improve learning for all students. Many school administrators may be uncomfortable providing leadership in technology areas, however. They may be uncertain about implementing effective technology leadership strategies in ways that will improve learning, or they may believe their own knowledge of technology is inadequate to make meaningful recommendations. Because technology is credited as being a significant factor in increasing productivity in many industries, some people believe that more effective use of technology in schools could do more to improve educational opportunities and quality. Research indicates that while there are poor uses of technology in education, appropriate technology use can be very beneficial in increasing educational productivity (Byrom & Bingham, 2001; Clements & Sarama, 2003; Mann, Shakeshaft, Becker, & Kottkamp, 1999; Valdez, McNabb, Foertsch, Anderson, Hawkes, & Raack, 2000; Wenglinsky, 1998).

This Critical Issue focuses on leadership qualities of superintendents and principals, responses to change, and effective uses of technology as major themes associated with technology leadership. It is not concerned with the more technical leadership provided by information technology and network specialists, however. First, the Critical Issue will examine important findings associated with leadership in general and considerations specific to education. Next, it will provide summaries of major factors associated with change in general and their implications for education. Finally, it will examine research findings and best practices as they impact technology leadership and educational productivity.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Different Viewpoints | Cases | Contacts | References


I. Leadership Overview

This section of the Overview focuses on leadership. It is divided into four sections: Educational Leadership Then and Now, Transformational Leadership, Versatile Leadership, and Relational Leadership.

Educational Leadership Then and Now

This Critical Issue uses several definitions of leadership. In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Heifetz (1994) says leadership is a change or adaptive process "to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face" (p. 22). In The Elements of Leadership, Noonan (2003) defines leadership as "developing potential and building community" (p. 3). In Developing the Leader Within You , Maxwell (2000) defines leadership as simply "influence."

Traditional views of school leadership have emphasized managerial or operational functions. Superintendents and principals were expected to serve as efficient managers, directing the day-to-day operations of the school site or district. Possessing positional and command authority, school leaders directed the operations at the school site or district with business management techniques. This industrial model of school leadership, which emphasized the uniform and efficient delivery of resources, was the dominant view of school leadership until the National Commission on Excellence in Education's publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. This publication was a wake-up call that American education could not continue with business as usual. It clearly indicated that educational leaders could not just be managers but were expected to be leaders in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

During the next two decades, data-driven decision making, test results, and school design were the chief topics of state meetings and professional development workshops for school leaders. School leaders were exhorted to become instructional leaders and focus the staff, students, and parents on student learning by emphasizing effective teaching and learning strategies, use of data for decision making, parental involvement in schools, and more.

Today, more than 20 years later, school administrators are still managing operations while focusing on student learning, standards, high-stakes accountability tests, performance assessments, and restructuring efforts. The shift from operational responsibilities to instructional leadership has created substantial and often excessive workloads:

"At a minimum, we can be sure they [school districts] want someone who can carry out a long list of specific duties. The new principal will be expected to arrange class schedules, resolve discipline problems, administer a labor contract, evaluate teachers, and apply the oil of public relations to points of friction with the community. And that's just in the morning." (Lashway, Mazzarella, & Grundy, 1995, p. 15)

In the 1990s, the emphasis on standards played a central role in school leadership. (For more information on standards, see NCREL's Pathways to School Improvement Critical Issues on "Integrating Standards Into the Curriculum," "Implementing Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Standards in Mathematics," and "Implementing Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Standards for Science Education.") But not enough change could be accomplished with the implementation of standards alone. As a result, there was increased emphasis on instructional leadership and increased investment of time and energy by leaders in this effort.

Although the emphasis on standards played a central role in school leadership and reform in the 1990s, Fullan (2002) writes convincingly of the current need for a renewed focus on leadership: "What standards were to the 1990's, leadership is to the future. This shift depicts awareness that standards strategies by themselves are not powerful enough to accomplish large-scale, sustainable reform" (emphasis in original, p. 14).

A second wave of reform (1988 to the present) emphasized teacher leadership and professionalism and decentralized management structures (Kowalski, 2003, p. 256). Efforts related to the development of teacher leadership mushroomed. The leadership responsibilities of teachers are described in Danielson's (1996) Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. In this book, Danielson describes the expectations of teacher leaders as: (1) leading the faculty, (2) contributing to and leading some aspects of school life, and (3) making a substantial contribution and leading a major school or district project (p. 114).

Fullan's (2002) emphasis on leadership is motivated by the increased complexity of school reform efforts and the need for more people to participate in reform to ensure its success. The school leader's role is not to identify and promote any particular reform strategy but to develop leadership and collaborate with the staff, parents, and community members to increase the school's success and improvement efforts over time. This shift in leadership focus—from locating the "right" reform initiative to people development and collaboration—parallels the change in corporate leadership models as well.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership can be thought of as a set of behaviors of individuals who accomplish change. As stated by Lashway, Mazzarella, and Grundy (1995), "Anything that leads to change is transformational " (emphasis in original, p. 60). Transformational leaders make decisions based on a broad perspective, organizational vision and mission, group goals, and network development. Some of the "behaviors" of transformational leaders—applicable in both educational and business settings—may include the following:

Fullan (2002) studied the characteristics of successful business and school leaders and found five qualities or "action-and-mind sets" that distinguish transformational leaders:

A combination of these behaviors and characteristics may yield the most effective transformational school leaders. The following sections address several of these characteristics and behaviors.

Executive Leadership. Barnard's 1938 study of executive leadership (cited in Zaccaro, 2001, p. 11) distinguished the work of executive leaders from other leadership (or management) roles. According to Barnard, executive leaders are concerned with (1) the coordination and maintenance of the organization as a whole, and (2) the purpose and direction of the organization (Zaccaro, 2001, p. 11). These two distinctions reveal the leadership and management aspects of leadership work.

The differences between leading and managing are difficult to distinguish further. Elements of both are present in complex activities. Some leaders refuse to make the distinction and simply use the terms management and leadership interchangeably. One commonly made distinction is that management emphasizes maintenance and coordination functions while leadership involves working with others to prepare for the future and respond to change. Although the term executive leadership typically describes the work of a single individual or a management team operating at the very top levels of an organizational chart, the roles and functions of executive leadership are more representative of the multiple types of leadership.

Decentralized models of school governance with site-based management and decision-making structures require a more inclusive model of leadership to respond to dramatic change and the challenge of school reform. This model requires all educators to be leaders. The following themes are found in the current literature on leadership (Fullan, 2002; Zaccaro, 2001):

This view of leadership is a response to the idea that the future is unknown and no right model or prediction is likely to be right. The only way to prepare for the future is to create capacity for change. A leader must help others develop their capacity to respond to changing conditions and then support and guide them through the change process. The goal is to create a permanent capacity for change through organizational learning and collective leadership. An excellent and more practice-based discussion of these issues may be found in The Elements of Leadership by Noonan (2003).

Relationship Building. Central to the development of leadership is an equally strong emphasis on importance of relationships and building productive work teams as core leadership activities. Liontos (1992) draws on the work of Mitchell and Tucker (1992) to describe the problems generally associated with leadership when it is defined only as taking charge and getting things done:

"This view keeps us from focusing on the importance of teamwork and comprehensive school improvement. Perhaps it is time, they [Mitchell and Tucker] say, to stop thinking of leadership as aggressive action and more as a way of thinking—about ourselves, our jobs, and the nature of the educational process. Thus, 'instructional leadership' is 'out' and 'transformational leadership' is 'in.' " (Liontos, 1992, p. 1)

School leaders at all levels must collaborate with staff members and school personnel to create a vision for the future and a process for change, ensuring that schools and school districts are viable and thriving learning communities for students, staff, and community members. The focus on the purpose and direction of the organization (as a strategy for change work) is to ensure the long-term stability and quality of the educational program. All leadership roles have some management and executive tasks, and the difference between superintendent, principals, and directors is a matter of degree. The scope of the work and the scale of the operation change at each level of leadership. But regardless of a leadership level, school leaders need to make every effort to understand people in lower positions and discuss with them different perspectives. They must go beyond managerial roles and a "facts-and-methods" view of management and focus on the executive challenges of leadership to survive and thrive.

Vaill (1998) describes the uselessness of the "facts-and-methods" view of management, which tells managers and leaders that once they learn all the facts about management and the correct approach, all problems are solvable (p. 12). He says, "The facts-and-methods of modern behavioral science don't deal with things that matter to more and more people in action roles today" (p. 14) and rejects this view, stating that situations are too complex for a single, "correct" theory for each problem. Success does not necessarily depend on an understanding of management theory. Instead, Vaill states: "Ethics matter. Feelings matter. Community matters. The human spirit matters more and more as terrible consequences of our century's fascination with technology, exploitation, and destruction become more crushingly manifest" (p. 14).

In other words, behavioral science does not address what people truly value: ethics, relationships, and communication. The role of leaders and managers is to " be-in-the-world with responsibility " (emphasis in the original, Vaill, 1998, p. 13).

Complexity and Chaos. School leaders are expected to be both participants in and agents of change in their school organizations as they respond to the increasingly complex and chaotic changes in the external environment, including new standards for student learning and performance, school accountability and school choice, decreased funding for education (despite escalating costs), and the rapid pace of social and technological change. Leaders must understand the impact of complexity, chaos, and disequilibrium as factors for growth and change; they must be mentally and emotionally able to work within increasingly complex situations.

According to Jacques and Clement (1996), "Complexity is a function of the number of variables operating in a situation, the ambiguity of these variables, the rate at which they are changing, and the extent to which they are interwoven so that they have to be unraveled in order to be seen" (p. 17). Increased complexity may lead to chaos. Often, chaos occurs when systems are changing and control is absent. Chaos is caused by a state of disequilibrium in open systems that are "kept off balance so that the system can change and grow" (emphasis in the original, Wheatley, 1999, p. 78).

The environment for leadership is increasingly complex and chaotic, yet the school board and the public strive for order and control. Wheatley (1999) implores leaders to stop searching for control and start searching for order within dynamic systems, trusting in the possibility of self-organizing systems that are replicated in nature. To help ensure order within dynamic systems, executive leaders must carry certain responsibilities and play dynamic roles. The following are performance or role requirements related to the conceptual complexity theory of leadership, based on Zaccaro's findings (2001, p. 64):

This view of leaders and leadership incorporates the idea of leadership as the action and effects of a single individual and as a representation of group collaboration in the collective process of leadership. Leadership is an adaptive process to ensure the survival of the organization. Superintendents and principals, as executive leaders, must serve as agents of change, even in times of chaos and disequilibrium.

Systems Thinking. Conceptual complexity theories of leadership address the need for executive leaders to understand and interpret information with a larger framework using a systems perspective to address "novel, ill-defined, and complex organizational problems" (Zaccaro, 2001, p. 17). Leaders analyze a situation with many different frames to understand it and consider the situation within the larger context of community to interpret its meaning and potential effects.

Situations are understood by examining the context, relationships, and their connectedness to other things—not by analyzing their individual parts or properties. Leaders can draw on systems thinking as one approach to make sense of what's going on. In the systems approach, the properties of the parts can be understood only from the perspective of the organization as a whole. Accordingly, systems thinking concentrates not on basic building blocks, but on basic principles of organization. Systems thinking is "contextual," which is the opposite of analytical thinking. Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the context of the larger whole (Capra, 1996).

Due to the interconnectedness of most things, it is not wise for leaders to take action without considering any situation within the larger view of networked systems. This larger view helps leaders discover the underlying causes, sources for, and the meaning of any situation. Executive leadership—whether it is viewed from an individual or collective perspective—takes mental agility, systems thinking, openness, and flexibility. It involves a great deal of scanning, conceptualizing, imagining, and studying to expand perspectives and grasp the whole. As executive leaders, superintendents and principals must embrace complexity and recognize the value of systems thinking and imagination. Wrestling with novel problems and mining opportunities become strategies for leadership.

Versatile Leadership

Executive leaders must have more than one approach to leadership and must understand when a particular style or set of behaviors is most appropriate. Successful leaders recognize that each situation may require them to modify their style or even stretch their typical or preferred way of working with others to meet the needs of people and the requirements of the situation:

"Imagine a job that requires an Army officer's leadership skills, a CEO's management expertise, a lawyer's negotiating talents and an educator's understanding of how to teach children. That's what it takes to be a school superintendent [principal or director] in the 21st century." (Hurwitz, 2002, p. 1)

Given the multifaceted nature of leadership, it becomes clear that transformational as well as versatile leadership skills are necessary in making decisions. The social and behavioral complexity theories of executive leadership emphasize the need for leaders to be (1) mature in their personal and social development (adult stage theory), and (2) versatile in their ability to discern and respond appropriately to many different situations. Executive leadership requires highly sophisticated approaches to leadership based on the situation, the context, and the nature of the leader's interactions with multiple constituencies (Zaccaro, 2001). Transformational leaders often have the ability of moving into a future direction with a broad perspective in mind and ensuring some long-term changes. Versatile leaders have the ability to move from one thing to another with ease and readily apply their talents and skills to each new challenge with a fresh approach (Noonan, 2003).

Executive leaders need a sophisticated array of knowledge and skills to be versatile leaders. Cribbin (as cited in Hanson, 2002) argues that leaders need "three guides to action: clue sense, cue sense and negotiating sense" (p. 162). Clue sense is the ability to understand signals, recognize behavioral patterns, and determine what behavior is appropriate in any setting. Cue sense is being able to detect signals from individuals or organizations in the external environment to build a base of support. Negotiating sense is the ability to achieve a viable solution by understanding the diverse positions and goals and gaining support for a position.

Socially adept leaders are able to move within a variety of diverse social situations that require high levels of social and cultural knowledge as well as interpersonal communication skills. Emotionally intelligent leaders are skillful in their interpersonal relationships and use a variety of communication strategies to build relationships with people and entire communities.

Relational Leadership

Perhaps the most important asset of an organization is people and their capacity to learn. A critical component of organizational learning is the development of its people. The role of the leader is to ensure that learning is a core strategy for ensuring the organization's success. The goals of learning involve building knowledge, analyzing systems and problem solving, and generating creative responses to the future. Much of what is experienced as organizational learning is obtained through a process of sharing collective wisdom and creating opportunities for people to develop new perspectives and understanding.

Organizational learning is linked to the pursuit of quality and excellence. The goal of quality is to improve both efficiency and effectiveness through collaboration and learning. This situation has changed the way people are organized (less management, more flattened organizational structures) and the way employees are expected to work together (in teams for learning and change). Many promising practices and technologies are associated with organizational learning.

One of such promising practices is relational leadership. According to Dyer (2001), "Relational leadership involves being attuned to and in touch with the intricate web of inter- and intra-relationships that influence an organization" (p. 28). Six competencies in the area of relational leadership include the following: (1) leading employees, (2) interpersonal savvy, (3) work team orientation, (4) conflict management, (5) managing change in others, and (6) effectively confronting problem employees (p. 29). Dyer's definition of interpersonal savvy is closely related to social intelligence and maturity. A leader with interpersonal savvy "demonstrates skill in building and mending relationships, evidences compassion and sensitivity, is able to put people at ease, and understands and respects cultural, religious, gender, socioeconomic and racial differences" (p. 29).

Farson (1996) describes how respect is lost when managers manipulate others instead of being open and genuine in their responses:

"It [management] is the ability to meet each situation armed not with a battery of techniques but with openness that permits a genuine response. The better managers transcend technique. Having acquired many techniques in their development as professionals, they succeed precisely by leaving technique behind." (emphasis in the original, p. 36)

Strategic Planning. Strategic planning is a key function of executive leadership. A strategic plan provides a blueprint for achieving educational excellence. The plan needs to address the mission and objectives, desirable short- and long-term outcomes and tasks, available resources for implementing the tasks, determination of implementation responsibilities, and accountability criteria.

Executive leaders must operate in both the present and the future. The present operations, however, must be viable foundations for the future. James (1996) states that future executive leaders need to think in new ways:

"You need to understand how the currents of technological change will affect your life and your work, how economic changes will effect your business and its place in the global market, how demographic and cultural change will alter your self-perception, your perception of others and of human society as a whole." (p. 24)

Leaders who are engaged in change work must understand that situations can vary dramatically; the situation affects what type of leadership is needed—whether transformational, versatile, or relational. One of the difficult issues associated with change is identifying what should never change (the things that make the organization successful) and what must change because it does not support the future. Senge (1990), in his groundbreaking book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, identified five "component technologies" that are vital to learning organizations:

These five component technologies offer a strategy for change and renewal. They can help groups, organizations, and communities to look inside their organization to discover barriers that many hinder or opportunities that support organizational change.

II. Change Overview

Change is not entirely predictable. In his book Leading in a Culture of Change, Fullan (2001) cautions that "understanding the change process is less about innovation and more about innovativeness. It is less about strategy and more about strategizing. And it is rocket science, not least because we are inundated with complex, unclear, and often contradictory advice" (p. 31). Given the complexity of change management, it is no wonder that addressing change processes may become a concern or an issue for school leaders. There is no one solution to take and adapt in each situation; mastering certain strategies to address change may make change more effective, however. The general literature on change has highlighted several strategies or factors that are critical in each situation of change (Bowen, 2001; Hammel, 2002; Kotter, 1995):

Fullan (2001) also noted that "change cannot be managed. It can be understood and perhaps led but it cannot be controlled…. Change can be led, and leadership does make a difference" (pp. 33-34). Keeping this caution in mind, research literature on change has come to remarkably similar conclusions about important variables. Louis and Miles (1990) attributed the following variables to successful educational change:

Even if the above considerations are addressed, however, situations occur that may oppose change. As noted throughout this Critical Issue, change is not easy. There are several reasons why change efforts often fail. Fullan and Stiegelbauer (1991) indicate that the following reasons are especially important to consider:

In the Index of Organizational Change, Mansis Development Corporation (n.d.) indicates that individuals may resist change that affects the following:

In summary, as Mansis Development Corporation (n.d.) notes, people are more likely to oppose change that is not fully understood or is forced upon them. They also will avoid change that affects accepted ways of doing things, violates behavioral norms, disrupts established social relationships, makes them feel ineffective or incompetent, or exposes their personal weaknesses.

III. Technology Leadership Overview

This section of the Overview is concerned with how leadership, change, and technology can interface to maximize the potential for effective use of technology. It uses the definitions of technology determined by the International Technology Education Association (ITEA, n.d.):

There are several reasons why education leaders are expected to know and utilize instructional technology, especially those technologies related to computer use for accessing and finding information and for creating and communicating new knowledge. These reasons include the following: (1) the need to prepare students to function in an information-based, Internet-using society; (2) the need to make students competent in using tools found in almost all work areas; and (3) the need to make education more effective and efficient. School leaders need to help students become technology literate, as outlined in enGauge® 21st Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age (NCREL & Metiri Group, 2003). School leaders also need to consider increasing educator technology effectiveness and modeling it after nationally accepted guidelines, such as the National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers (International Society for Technology in Education, 2000).

Various levels of evidence support these reasons. Relative to reasons 1 and 2, many observers credit technology as a significant force in the improvement of the productivity of business. Stiroh (2001) concluded that "the sharp acceleration of U.S. labor productivity growth and steady accumulation of computing and communication power have led many to believe that IT [information technology] is a driving force behind the U.S. productivity revival" (p. 5). By underscoring the wide variation in both IT intensity and productivity growth across U.S. industries, and by showing a link between the two, Stiroh's industry-level analysis supports the view that information technology is a significant force for enhanced productivity.

Stiroh's (2001) analysis also suggests that the U.S. productivity revival is neither a one-time phenomenon nor just a cyclical one, but rather ongoing:

"Given the large differences in productivity gains between IT-intensive and other industries in the late 1990s, cyclical forces would have to be highly concentrated in precisely those industries that are most IT-intensive to qualify as the whole story. While information technology cannot explain everything about the U.S. productivity revival, the robust link between IT intensity and productivity gains suggests that there is an important economic relationship." (p. 5)

Technology is a change phenomenon that defies belief unless it is put into a context of other things in our lives. Oblinger and Verville (1999) share this comparison of computer power's evolution as compared to the American automobile:

"One reason that IT acts as a change agent is that the speed and magnitude of the alterations it catalyzes are so dramatic. Consider the automobile as an example of the transformative effects of technology. In 1985, the most expensive car made in the United States was a Cadillac. It cost $17,000, averaged 12 miles to the gallon, and weighed more than one ton. If the automobile industry had achieved the same technology trajectory as the computer industry, today a Cadillac would cost $12.63, weigh 14 pounds, get 5,900 miles to the gallon, and be three feet long! In fact, if you are driving a Ford Taurus today, you are 'piloting' a vehicle that contains more computing power than the first lunar landing module." (p. 1)

Much productivity and success, as exemplified above, are due to the quality of technology development and implementation. Technology, however, is not an industrial issue. K-12 educational organizations continue to agonize about how much acceptance and use of technology in schools is appropriate. Part of the delay in adoption could be because the expectations are not clear. Fulton (1998), in an essay titled A Framework for Considering Technology's Effectiveness, notes that "in considering research on technology, several caveats must be taken into account:"

Establishing clear expectations can help school leaders increase successful use of technology in schools. The reasons for technology implementation and possible challenges to such an effort should be made transparent to the educational community:

"In other words, to ask if technology works is almost the equivalent of saying 'Do textbooks work?' Yes, some textbooks 'work,' in some conditions, with some teachers, with some students, but these same textbooks may not 'work' in another educational context. Clearly, the question of technology effectiveness requires us to be clear in what results we seek, how we measure success, and how we define effectiveness." (Fulton, 1998, p. 1)

Most educational researchers, especially those who have examined large numbers of studies (meta-analyses), agree that if used appropriately, technology can improve education in the effect-size range of between 0.30 and 0.40 (Kulik, 2002; Waxman, Connell, & Gray, 2002). In order to make effect size more meaningful for nonstatisticians, Kulik (2002), in a section on methodology, stated the following:

"An effect size specifies the number of standard deviation units separating outcome scores of an experimental and control group. Effect sizes are positive when the experimental group outperforms the control group and negative when the control group comes out on top. Slavin, an expert in educational evaluation, considers effect size above 0.25 large enough to be educationally significant. Cohen, a pioneer in the use of effect size in the social sciences, classifies effect sizes of around 0.2 as small, 0.5 as moderate in size and 0.8 as large." (p. 1)

To get those effect sizes, schools must make certain that there is sufficient availability of technology and appropriate software, that the uses of technology have linkages to important educational learning expectations, and—most of all—that teachers have the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively model and teach exemplary uses of technology. Thus, to be effective, teachers need to be highly involved by interacting and providing feedback when using technology.

Research studies (Chang, Henriquez, Honey, Light, Moeller, & Ross, 1998; Mann et al., 1999) indicate that technology may be most effective when it is used in:

Technology is very important for a diverse population of students, especially for those who do not have access to computers at home. To illustrate the role of schools in addressing the digital divide issue, a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2001) reported the following:

"Among the group of children and adolescents who access the Internet at only one location, 52 percent of those from families in poverty and 59 percent of those whose parents have not earned at least a high school credential do so at school. In comparison, 26 percent of those from families not in poverty and 39 percent of those with more highly educated parents do so only at school." (p. 7)

In addition, the use of assistive technology is extremely helpful for students with special needs. (For more detailed information on assistive technologies, read NCREL's Pathways to School Improvement Critical Issue "Enhancing System Change and Academic Success Through Assistive Technologies for K-12 Students With Special Needs.") Technology also has proven to be an effective motivator for students with specific learning needs (such as language learning) and for accommodating learning styles. Students working in collaborative team-learning settings appear to function better when learning events are accompanied by technology use. (For information on effective uses of technology with limited-English-proficient students, read NCREL's Pathways to School Improvement Critical Issue "Using Technology to Support Limited-English-Proficient (LEP) Students' Learning Experiences.")

Another important use of technology is to provide distance-learning opportunities to students who otherwise would not have access to course offerings. Distance education is especially important to students in rural settings because courses are less available due to lower population densities. For additional information on e-learning visit NCREL's E-Learning Knowledge Base.

Obviously, addressing the needs of all students through technology use is a long-term and systemwide effort. School leaders, therefore, are expected to possess not only general leadership skills but also technology leadership skills. Technology leadership is a combination of strategies and techniques that are general to all leadership but require attention to some specifics of technology, especially those related to providing hardware access, updating rapidly changing technology, and recognizing that professional development and the use technology are constantly evolving.

Leaders who are seeking to make technology more effective in improving learning are fortunate that a great deal of thought has been given to creating technology standards specifically for school administrators. In the introduction to Technology Standards for School Administrators (Adobe® Reader® PDF 3.6 MB), James Bosco, chairperson of the Collaborative for Technology Standards for School Administrators, notes:

"These Standards enable us to move from just acknowledging the importance of administrators to defining the specifics of what administrators need to know and be able to do in order to discharge their responsibility as leaders in the effective use of technology in our schools." (Collaborative for Technology Standards for School Administrators, 2001, p. 1)

These standards have been accepted by the International Society for Technology in Education as National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for Administrators. Given the representative membership of the Collaborative for Technology Standards for School Administrators and the effort involved, these technology standards require serious consideration by educational administrators who are working to make use of technology in schools more effective.



School administrators, school board members, and teachers can take the following steps to ensure effective technology use in schools.

School Administrators

The Collaborative for Technology Standards for School Administrators (2001, pp. 6-7) suggests the following technology responsibilities for school administrators:

Additional technology leadership responsibilities may include the following:

School Board Members


In National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers, the International Society for Technology in Education (2000) suggests the following technology responsibilities for teachers:


Implementation pitfalls that are factors in other change efforts also may affect the success of educational technology leadership. Failure to have a shared vision, clear goals, and objectives with defined measurable outcomes can doom a change effort right from the beginning. A poorly designed implementation plan that fails to define tasks, responsibilities, and ongoing benchmarks also will result in the change effort failing. Clearly, failure to assess progress and challenges and to make needed changes is an implementation pitfall with dire consequences. Administrators who do not communicate with stakeholders about successes and challenges also dramatically increase the risk of failure.

In addition, some pitfalls unique to technology leadership may require special attention. One of the most significant is the need for professional development for both administrators and teachers. Because they often may have not received adequate preparation for technology use in their preservice experience, many educators have had to learn at the same time as they try to use the technology.

Technology use, if it is to be successful, needs to be implemented systemically rather than in isolation. Failure to tie technology use to the required curriculum may result in technology being perceived as an instructional add-on. Teachers may be frustrated when they realize that to use technology effectively, they will need not only to learn technology use and integration but also to modify their instructional and assessment practices. Administrators need to share the change process, beginning with why the change is necessary, what the benefits expected are likely to be, and what the consequences are of not making any changes, with respect to the emphasis on providing a full education to all students. Administrators need to encourage and support professional development opportunities related to technology. Because some teachers are less comfortable with technology than with other aspects of their teaching, they need constructive feedback that will enable them to take risks using technology in even more ways.

Lack of appropriate technology infrastructure and support also can cause implementation problems that can be most fatal. Teachers and students should not be expected to be experts in technology infrastructure and support. The equipment should be dependable and easily accessible. Teachers need to experience technology as something that they can build lesson plans around. They should not have to worry that their planning efforts and schedules may be frequently impossible because of equipment failure or unavailability. A few negative experiences will lead teachers to believe that technology use is more problematic than helpful and will likely reduce their technology use.


Many authors have made attacking the use of technology in schools their personal mission, and some have important messages about technology use in schools. Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (Cordes & Miller, 2000), Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cuban, 2001), and The Flickering Mind (Oppenheimer, 2003) are the three most recent critiques that have received considerable attention as serious criticisms of technology use in schools. The main criticism in these three books focuses on whether computers are as cost-effective as other interventions such as smaller class size. They also note the obsolescence factor of computers and the ongoing costs of upgrading both hardware and software.

Some critics indicate a belief that many hardware and software companies purposely design products to become quickly obsolete and thus require updates so that schools continue buying. It is their belief that educational technology is too much in its infancy and not yet reliable enough for use by most students.

Some critics (Kirkpartrick & Cuban, 1998) indicate that technology equipment requires extensive support structures that take money away from basic expenditures for other and better uses in the classroom. They believe that this money should be invested in the arts, science laboratories, shop classes, and anything else that involves more hands-on ways of learning.

Some believe that technology literacy is highly overblown in its importance and that people who need to use technology will learn by using task applications involving "real" work. This criticism is especially strong for computer use by younger students. Some critics believe that with the exceptions of assistive technologies for special-education students, students younger than the third grade should not use much, if any, technology.

Some critics give examples of schools in which uses of computers are actually making education worse. They note that in many cases, teachers use computers to entertain students with irrelevant and unconnected activities because it makes their teaching lives easier—not because it benefits students in learning important content.

In response to such criticism, several other people have written very enlightening articles. Two articles that are especially informative are "Myths and Realities About Technology in K-12" (Kleiman, 2000) and "Strip Mining for Gold: Research and Policy in Educational Technology—A Response to Fool's Gold " (Clements & Sarama, 2003). Kleiman (2000) indicates that there are realities to some of the criticisms but that many of the criticisms are caused by poor implementation of technology. He notes:

"The central theme underlying all these myths is that while modern technology has great potential to enhance teaching and learning, turning that potential into reality on a large scale is a complex, multifaceted task. The key determinant of our success will not be the number of computers purchased or cables installed, but rather how we define educational visions, prepare and support teachers, design curriculum, address issues of equity, and respond to the rapidly changing world. As is always the case in efforts to improve K-12 education, simple, short-term solutions turn out to be illusions; long-term, carefully planned commitments are required." (p. 20)

Technology will always have critics. Some believe that technology reduces hands-on and active participation on the part of the student. Others believe technology reduces important human contact. In the final analysis, one can conclude that identified uses of technology can have different critiques depending on one's personal values and perspectives of what is good and bad in education.



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Date posted: July 2004
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