Pass This Along: Technology Solutions for Busy School Administrators
I’m not a Luddite, or even a technophobe. I just don’t have time to waste on technology that promises the world but fails to deliver. I’m the “show me” administrator, the doubting Thomas of school leaders. I write not about the latest and greatest technology for those administrators on the avant garde. Rather, this is a cautionary tale about letting the digital cognoscenti dash ahead to pastures new while we figure out how tried and tested technology can help us now.
As busy school administrators, time is our greatest resource. Unfortunately, time is in short supply, and many of us live with the simple reality that we can’t get it all done. Technology holds the promise of increased productivity, but it often devolves to just another task to manage. It can devour time, not save it. How many of us have tried a new gadget only to put it down in frustration as it fails to work with what we already do?
Time Is of the Essence
Many of us administrators recognize the inherent capability of technology to improve productivity, but we feel bewildered by the clamor for attention from the latest gadgets that promise to change our lives. We retreat. This engenders a feeling that we are not quite keeping up. To compound this guilt, we see our newer teachers on the cutting edge of technology. These early adopters put us to shame with the facility with which they use the latest tools to interact with their professional and personal world. And, of course, the only world our students have ever known is a connected technological one.
I was once on the cutting edge of technology. As a mentor teacher in instructional technology, I tried out the latest and greatest hardware and software. I had less time for that as I moved into administration, and some of those technological skills atrophied. However, an underlying philosophy, learned the hard way through hitting technological dead ends, remained. A lot of technology vies for my attention, but I use the following principles to evaluate what I will actually use:
1. I must talk to early adopters and learn from them.
2. I must avoid the first generation of new devices, software or apps.
3. Any tool I decide to use must enhance my productivity.
4. The cost must be directly proportional to the tool’s utility.
Finding the Root of the Problem
With this in mind, I take a pass on much of the technology I read about. Instead, I try to identify obstacles that prevent me from working efficiently and effectively, and only then do I look to a possible solution via technology. But I talk to my tech-savvy administrators first! If you don’t know one, go to one of the administrator blogs; you’ll find a willing expert there. With this in mind, here are a few problems that tech-savvy and efficiency-minded administrators have addressed by using technology. In many cases, they have adopted newer technology to enhance the technology they already find useful.
I need to open multiple files on my computer, but when I do this, the screen gets cluttered.
Do you need a bigger monitor to view the multiple files open? No. Add a second computer monitor. I know, this sounds like overkill. The first time I saw a principal with two monitors attached to his office computer I joked about how it looked like he was piloting a plane. Following my principle of speaking to early adopters, though, I was soon convinced. I have two monitors in my office, which have greatly enhanced my ability to produce more work. I can look at two documents simultaneously. This may not be earth-shatteringly new or innovative, but I can work faster sliding documents across each screen. Merging documents and cutting and pasting become much easier.
My email accumulates so quickly that I struggle to keep up. I am out of my office often, and it is difficult to keep up with email. I tried using a smartphone to check email while I was out and about. It was very handy for reading short emails, but I actually groaned when I got emails with attachments. I needed something bigger than a phone but just as mobile. While a laptop was too bulky, an iPad fit the bill. For email alone, the iPad is worth the investment. It is easy to use, syncs over a wireless or 3G network, and the screen is big enough to read lengthy emails and attachments. In addition, the email client groups messages by subject so that you can see responses to an email subject by responder. This is really handy, as you can often avoid a response if somebody else has had the final word already. Also, it seems to be more socially acceptable in meetings to keep your iPad open to scan email than pulling out your phone constantly.
Most administrators are part of multiple teams. We share drafts of documents to produce a final product. Individual team members often work on the document in isolation and pass it on to the next person on the team by email or over shared drives in a local intranet. This is an inefficient way to share a document because the process is too linear. It does not allow for people to capture ideas spontaneously. Location is often fixed; the best idea might emerge outside the office or work hours when you don’t have access to documents on the office computer or local intranet server. There is a better way.
Adopting the Cloud
Innovative educators have identified a lot of time-saving ways to use the cloud efficiently for shared projects. As second-wave adopters, we can learn from them. Products like Apple’s iCloud and Google Docs are free applications that allow you to store documents in the cloud. As documents are stored remotely on the Web, they can be accessed anywhere from any device with an Internet connection. Documents are relatively secure and require a login. The applications for busy administrators are numerous. Any document hosted on the cloud can be modified by those granted access to it. This is a great way to collect data from multiple sources and to work collaboratively.
For example, the administrators at Los Alamitos High School in Los Alamitos, Calif., created a form on Google Docs to record data from walk-through visits of classrooms. As the form is in the cloud, team members use iPads or smartphones to fill out the form as they visit classrooms. They look for things such as levels of student engagement, student-teacher interaction, and evidence that teachers are meeting teacher and school goals for the year. Grant Litfin, principal at Los Alamitos, says that this free tool is just as good as commercially produced products. He shares the data gathered with school leaders to identify patterns and improve practice. It is nonevaluative and helps staff identify what is really happening at the school.
The tools are not as robust as full suite software and can take some getting used to, but the flexibility afforded for collaborative work outweighs these drawbacks.
I work on documents at work and at home. It is hard to keep track of the most recent version. Many simply email the latest version to themselves, or they carry it on a portable USB drive. This is cumbersome and can lead to multiple versions of the same document. If you add a smartphone or tablet device to the mix, this will compound the problem. Is there a simpler way to work on the document on each f the multiple devices in different locations? Cloud-based solutions like iCloud and Google Docs store the document so that it can be modified on any Web-enabled device. Alternatively, applications like Dropbox allow you to create a “drop” folder on each device, sync these folders, and drop the latest version of a document into the folder on the device on which it was created. It is then automatically updated in the Dropbox folders on the other devices. EverNote and Microsoft OneNote are other options that sync documents to multiple devices.
I can’t keep up with professional articles. It is a struggle to find time to read professional articles or lengthy documents that arrive by email. Most of us put these documents aside to read later. We might bookmark sites, print hard copies, or archive email. Our stuff is in many different locations, and we don’t have it at hand when we actually find time to read. The iPad or other tablets offer a very handy solution. Apps like Instapaper allow you to save Web sites, PDF files and emails in one handy, organized and searchable place on your iPad. The key is to organize the articles in a way that makes sense. I have three folders on Instapaper: Read Soon, Read Sooner, Read Now. I click on a Read Later button on the favorites ribbon of Safari, and the article is saved for later. Apps like iAnnotate or GoodReader allow you to write on and mark up PDF files on your screen, and then store them for future reference. With the iPad, I have my reading list with me at all times.
I take notes but have multiple notebooks. Tools like EverNote and Microsoft OneNote are very effective note-taking tools that sync automatically with all of your devices. If you take notes on your tablet device, the notes will sync with your computer so that you can add to them there. The apps allow you to add text, PDF files and Web sites to your notes. You can take pictures with the camera on your tablet or smartphone and drop them into notes. You can go back to add to notes on the same file.
Technology can certainly be a time-saver that enhances productivity, but it is OK to lag behind the leaders and adopt solutions that are tried and tested. Mobile tablets like the iPad really hold great promise for allowing administrators the chance to keep up with work tasks while out of the office. They have been out for a while and look like they are here to stay. It might be time to make that leap.
Eamonn O'Donovan is a former principal and an assistant superintendent of human resources in southern California.