The Pace of Change

It was my good fortune to have been able to attend last week’s Consortium for School Networking (@CoSN) annual conference.  It was a great opportunity to meet colleague educators from across the country/world who are truly bridging technology and curriculum in meaningful ways.  I’m sure over time I will have further reflections from my time at the conference.  One immediate takeaway was the pervasive conversation about strategies for implementing 1:1 initiatives – in particular, how quickly to move forward with such projects that require change in practice from the educators responsible for implementing it.

It was interesting to hear the different pacing districts are using to move towards 1:1.  Alberto Carvalho @MiamiSup, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, advocated in his keynote address for a bold and rapid approach to moving forward with a digital transformation in learning.  “You wouldn’t get on a plane when the pilot says we’re going to take off slow,” Carvalho said.

Carvalho
Albert Carvalho in his keynote address #CoSN17

We innovate, he suggested, by doing it “fast and big.”  Carvalho argued this approach overcomes the “gravitational pull of the status quo” by silencing critics and keeping momentum high.

Interestingly (and consistent with his approach), Carvalho argued against pilot projects, saying they aren’t necessary.  He suggested good research and learning from others allowed his district to implement without pilot projects.

Miami-Dade’s rapid approach was in contrast to the strategy used in @BeekmantownCSD, a district I recently visited.  Beekmantown has taken a more measured approach to moving towards 1:1 by allowing instructors to volunteer to participate in the program.  Now in Phase (Year) 3, the district has nearly its entire staff and students participating in the digital learning initiative.  Superintendent @MannixDan, Director of 21st Century Learning Gary Lambert @Dir21KLearning, and others in the district’s leadership argue this volunteer approach has created great buy-in from staff because they were not pressured into using technology and instead were able to become involved at their own pace.  This has led to broader adoption and a snowballing positive momentum from students and staff.

Beekmantown MS
1:1 classroom in Beekmantown Middle School.

So which is a better approach – slow and steady or fast and big?  Clearly, the answer is not an obvious one or all districts would be using it.  While my personal sensibility is more towards building consensus and capacity in a measured way (the Beekmantown approach), I also tremendously appreciate Miami-Dade’s boldness and urgency of purpose.  Miami-Dade is putting tremendous focus first and foremost on students – every minute, day, week, month, semester, and year when innovation and evolution is not happening is time lost from impacting student lives.  The ultimate focus in Miami-Dade is less about the comfort with the pace of change for the adults but more about the needs of the students and the required pace of change to meet their needs.

That said, the Beekmantown strategy also led to a scenario where students and student needs drive the initiative, but in a more grass-roots way.  After Phase (Year) 1 of the initiative, students were advocating their future teachers to volunteer to participate because they didn’t want to move from a 1:1 classroom to a non 1:1 environment the following year.  Students themselves began to create the sense of urgency for the evolution into the digital learning environment.

A number of presenters at #CoSN17 circled their 1:1 initiatives back to the importance of district culture in their successes and failures.  And it’s this culture that may be the determining factor in regulating the strategies (and corresponding pace) of change in a school.  Dr. Tom Ryan @ElearnTom of the eLearn Institute suggested change will be more successful if it’s within a context where “the system can tolerate” the change.  The distinct culture of each district will tolerate a different pace of change and school leaders must be cognizant of this culture when implementing 1:1 (or, for that matter, any educational or educational technology initiative).

Culture
“Culture trumps strategy & culture trumps vision” – Gene Kirchner, Fort Thomas IS

Otherwise, “culture trumps strategy and culture trumps vision” with any change initiative, as Gene Kirchner @KirchnerGene, superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools in northern Kentucky, put it (see slide right). If culture is ignored, it will not matter what strategy, vision, operational plan, or technology is used – the initiative will suffer.

So perhaps there is no right pace of change in schools – the pace may simply vary by the culture of the district.  However, there are still some universal directions all districts should consider, regardless of their distinct cultures:

  1. Initiatives must be student-driven. I understand this statement at face is self-evident.  However, while it is important to build capacity of all of the adults supporting those students, this capacity-building cannot be at the expense of the needs of students.  As noted earlier, a learning moment lost with a student is a moment that can never be recovered.
  2. Simply doing nothing and making excuses about why we CAN’T move forward with digital transformation and new learning models is not an option.  As Beth McKinney @bethmckinney of Athens City School District in Alabama correctly said in her district’s presentation at #CoSN17, “The speed at which you move doesn’t matter – just move!”