Getting the Best ROI in Technology

Lauren Williams's picture
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
New Milford High School seniors in New Jersey use iMacs, Adobe InDesign and Adobe Photoshop for a graphic arts project.

Do school district leaders receive even close to a full return on investment for 21st-century technologies like online learning, videoconferencing and interactive whiteboards? Technology vendors and their most engaged, enthusiastic customers say that many educators leave significant potential untapped because they are unable to see how technology could be more transformative or are unwilling to make the bold moves necessary to align curriculum with technology rather than the other way around.

Kim McClelland, assistant superintendent at the academy, sits with her team, on right, wearing glasses. Inset:The technology trains on the Macbooks in a corridor at Vista Ridge High School.The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) explains that professional development for the teachers is vital to return on investment. “Getting the ROI on technology purchases means developing a strong plan for communicating with and supporting teachers,” says ISTE Deputy CEO Leslie Conery. “Thinking everything through for the purchase, networking and tech support, and then leaving out the critical element of professional development for teachers is a mistake too often made. Without a proactive and solid professional learning component in place, the tools will not be used to achieve the desired results with learners.”

And the most powerful model for district leadership is when CTOs and instructional leaders work together to create worthy learning environments for students, Conery says. The transformational power of technology is in “making learning relevant, engaging and steeped in the real world, and in understanding that the knowledge and skills of tomorrow are important for students today,” she adds.

Farimah Schuerman, managing partner with Academic Business Advisors, which works with education technology companies, believes that districts need to think strategically about technology ROI, which means putting the superintendent and assistant superintendent of curriculum in charge, rather than the chief technology officer running the show.

“CTOs have become facilitators of the choices instructional people are making,” Schuerman says. “Ten years ago, instructional people didn’t have the knowledge to make technology choices and decisions. … The smart districts are putting a team together to craft the instructional goals and plans, and then they are looking at the technology that facilitates those plans, understanding what you’re currently doing, and understanding what the ROI is for the various technologies available to you.”

Define Goals for Each Purchase

Like so many facets of education, the bottom line of technology ROI is tough to measure and easy to oversimplify. “You’re talking about ROI—what are you looking at?” says Eric Sheninger, principal at New Milford (N.J.) High School and a popular blogger about the topic.

“Many people are looking at test scores, test scores and test scores,” Sheninger continues. “We’re looking at ‘Are students excited to come to school and learn?’ … We’re treating them like adults. All of our purchases here have a specific goal; we don’t purchase technology for the sake of having technology. Teachers have to demonstrate how they’re going to effectively integrate it, then move forward and create a stimulating environment.”

And the implementation of the Common Core State Standards has, in part, prompted districts to take a more strategic approach, Schuerman says. “It’s the internal evaluation of their own goal setting; it’s understanding what they’re doing right and what they need to change, that the really innovative districts are doing,” she says. “Then they go out and solve problems, as opposed to adopting technologies based on trends, or what ‘like’ school districts are doing.”

Small-Group Instruction

Districts that adopt technologies without a strategy to integrate them into the curriculum often end up with expensive conversation pieces, says Michael Maslayak, vice president of marketing for K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based provider of online learning systems. “I’ve been to schools where they use whiteboards as coat hangers,” he says. “There’s nothing more disgusting to me. How many people are using them, and how many are using them effectively? If I had a nickel for every time somebody said to me, ‘It’s not about the technology,’ I’d have enough to take a nice cruise. It’s not about the technology, but the technology has the capabilities. If you marry it to sound pedagogy, you have a win-win situation.”

Technology such as interactive whiteboards provides the capability to move from whole-class instruction to small-group or individual instruction, provided that administrators and teachers are willing to make the structural changes necessary to accommodate such different classroom dynamics, according to Jim Marshall, president of Promethean.

“That’s the technology’s learner-centric fabric that we want to cause to happen in the classroom,” he says. “You can take this journey a variety of places and go a different path based on what those imperatives are you want to deliver.”

Schuerman says that many district leaders start with the wrong idea about what the ROI of technology in the classroom should be. “There is an expectation that somehow technology is going to reduce costs,” she says. Districts assume lower personnel numbers, particularly with regard to clerical positions.

While that’s true long-term, Schuerman continues, “there are always significant costs associated with implementation and integration. Associated with any technology is the maintenance, support and updating of that technology.”

“Districts expect online learning to save money or even make money,” adds Kim McClelland, one of four regional leaders in the district and assistant superintendent at Falcon Virtual Academy, a blended online-physical school in the Falcon School District 49 in Peyton, Colo. (see sidebar). “It’s not about making money. It’s about allocating money in the right way, where it’s going to help kids the most.”

Transforming Culture

Schuerman believes that district leaders’ primary goal ought to be improving students’ educational experience. “The reason you do technology is because that’s the way the world is functioning now,” she says. “If you’re equipping people to go out into the world and work, they need to be able to use those tools.”

Sheninger couldn’t agree more. “The challenge for schools that have not embraced a teaching and learning culture that incorporates technology is they have a culture that is not relevant to our students,” Sheninger says.

At New Milford High, the lone high school within the New Milford School District, administrators have slowly begun to transform the culture over the past three years to accommodate technology better. But Sheninger also agrees with Maslayak that curriculum needs to match technology. “Technology is not a substitute for quality instruction,” he says. “We use technology to support conceptual learning because we want our students to have essential skill sets—communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, global awareness and technological efficiency—that employers will want to see.”

To accommodate the potential for interactive group learning that technology provides, New Milford teachers provide 10 minutes of direct instruction and then set their students loose on a project—for example, creating a magazine after a quick lesson in such software as Photoshop and InDesign. “We’re moving away from desks and rows and providing more collaborative seating arrangements,” Sheninger says.

Hudson Falls (N.Y.) Central School District hasn’t quite reached the point of changing the classroom’s structure, but Greg Partch, director of education technology, remains hopeful that’s coming. “Teachers are still used to a 14th-century model of instruction where they’re standing up in front of kids and lecturing,” he says. “The hard work is changing the classroom model. There are pockets of excellence and pockets that are not so excellent.”

Online Learning

If used to its full potential, Maslayak says, online learning can provide students the opportunity to learn at their own pace, in their own way, removing the classroom from the equation entirely, or at least to a large extent. “You can put kids on grade level in math, reading and language arts and not worry about having them be in a classroom of 25 or 30 kids with varying ability levels,” he explains. “Kids who would rather work at night can do so.  Teachers can allow kids to advance, or give them more time to do the work if they need it. They can meet 100 percent of the students 100 percent of the time.”

Maslayak says that requires administrators to dispense with traditional scheduling, which some resist, and for state policies or teachers union contracts that have instructional time parameters to be relaxed. “The demands on administrators of the future, who are looking at what technology brings are such that you’re going to be bold, you’re going to be courageous and you’re going to be flexible,” he says. “My biggest concern is with administrators who may not have the courage to effect that kind of change and teachers who may have to look beyond their contracts.”

Online learning also offers the potential for both greater parent involvement and more equitable education for students in inner-city and rural areas. “There’s closer contact with parents [online]; you can have contact every day,” Maslayak says, adding that “it gives every child, regardless of where they live, the same opportunity to access a high-quality curriculum.”

Maslayak sees ROI from online learning not so much through cost savings, which are most likely to be realized over the long term because fewer students will be underserved, as through improved outcomes thanks to the tailored learning that results. “We’ve become much smarter about how we construct the curriculum,” he says. “I’m not calling it a silver bullet. I know that support services and teachers will always be needed.”

Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools, the nation’s sixth-largest district, became the first franchise in the statewide Florida Virtual School and granted the first diplomas from that school in 2004, says Evelyn Weaver, who retired as curriculum facilitator this past summer. K12 Inc. has provided the technology architecture.

Students self-select into the online school, but elementary students first must meet minimum competency requirements in reading, and middle school and high school students must have passed all their classes. In the 2011-2012 school year, more than 400 middle school and high school students and 80 elementary school students participated.
The online program also provides enrichment that students don’t necessarily get in their home school, especially as budgets have gotten tighter. Weaver cites two returns on investment, such as higher graduation rates and higher standardized test scores for students in the virtual school. “We offer a full year of art, science and history, kindergarten through fifth grade. Most of our schools do not get that.”

Videoconferencing

Although it’s been around for a while, videoconferencing is another area that some school district leaders are beginning to use more actively and creatively—and seeing a positive ROI.

For example, when the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) secured videoconferencing equipment for three schools through a poetry slam competition five years ago, the district installed them in the central office and has connected thousands of students across the city with everyone from museum lecturers, to students in China and Mexico, to NASA scientists.

“It gives us the opportunity to bring in subject-matter experts or collaborate with a classroom from anywhere,” says Martin McGuire, digital systems manager for CPS, which uses the Safari Montage platform. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What can be done with this technology?’”

One example is a partnership that CPS and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry established in order to receive a grant from NASA to develop a program called “Mission to Mars.” In this program, middle school students plan an imaginary mission, then receive live feedback from NASA scientists. “It’s a wonderful event that supports STEM education,” McGuire says. “They have discussions with the NASA scientists about where they went to school, for how long, and what it took for them to do what they’re doing.”

Before its online school was launched in 2001, Weaver reports, Broward County Public Schools used videoconferencing to increase the equitability of educational offerings between its more affluent schools and the older, less-well-off schools closer to the coastline. That began in response to a class-action lawsuit filed in the early 1990s because the poorer schools didn’t offer as many Advanced Placement classes.

Weaver recalls that the district decided to assign “live” teachers to schools that had enough students sign up for a given AP class to justify doing so; other schools that didn’t have enough students for a full class participated via videoconference.

The district continues to use videoconferencing for the same reasons Chicago does. “It is more as a support to the classroom teacher than providing a classroom teacher,” Weaver says.

Online students complete their work at a higher rate (81 percent vs. 77 percent) than the district students as a whole, and their graduation rate of 96 percent is higher than the state’s rate of 80 percent. “We have succeeded,” Weaver says. “It’s not just because we take the cream of the crop. We are required, as a public school, to work with students with special needs.”

Although it’s not the main reason why Schuerman advocates investing in technology, the use of cloud-based servers does bring potential for cost savings because students can bring their own devices, with content delivered to their smartphones and tablets. While Schuerman realizes that some students will need to be given devices, she knows that districts need to replace considerably less hardware when students can bring their own.

Hudson Falls has used cloud computing since 2000, before it was even called cloud computing, Partch says. He expects before long to stop buying desktop computers and to instead rely on students’ own devices. “It allows better access to content and applications,” he says. “My vision is that eventually we’ll move out of the data center with lots of servers, and it will transition from the heavy end of servers to more of a network presence out in the cloud. No matter what machine the kids sit at, they have full access to their home folder; they always have the work.”

For Conery at ISTE, aligning technology with outdated curriculum won’t work. “Powerful ROI on technology investments requires leadership focused on creating a digital-age learning culture to achieve systemic improvement,” she concludes.

Ed Finkel is a contributing writer to District Administration.

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