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Don’t go to ISTE without a plan

By Al Kingsley

Here’s a phrase you don’t hear often and may never hear again – plenty of school districts have plenty of money to spend on education technologies and services. 

Some of the funds are remaining from Covid-19 stimulus investments, and some districts have seen budget reinstatements and advancements as their local or regional economies returned to vibrancy. Either way, as school doors have started to re-open, so have the checkbooks. 

And as hundreds, perhaps thousands of district leaders, teachers, technology experts and education companies descend on New Orleans for the 2022 conference of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), here’s another phrase you won’t hear often – being flush with education dollars to invest in technology is not always a good thing. Or, more accurately, it’s not guaranteed to be good. 

Let me explain. 

Education technology conferences, ISTE being no exception, brim with platforms, products and promises for sale. Many of them are actually amazing. There will be classroom tools and learning supplements and administrative and communications solutions that can do things that attendees never imagined or thought possible. 

And that’s the problem. 

It’s a problem because technology is complicated. It takes time to learn. To work well, new technology has to integrate with existing technologies, practices and cultures. Technology cannot and should not do its essential work alone; it has to do more than plug in, it has to fit in. And getting technology products to fit in requires planning and forethought and sober analysis – the exact dispositions you’re quite unlikely to find at a technology conference. 

That’s in no way to suggest that school leaders and instructors should not test drive, explore and even buy forward-looking, needed technology products at ISTE. It just means that before they do, before they even set foot in the convention halls, they should have a technology plan. In an ideal world, that technology plan would represent a shared investment and consensus vision of the institution’s needs and goals across the swath of stakeholders as wide as the Mississippi Delta. 

It’s not easy to do. Having done it myself as a school leader, I get that as well as anyone. But when it comes to technology tool shopping, it’s difficult to overstate how important a good, rational and cooperative technology plan is. 

Perhaps you’ll indulge me with a related story that will, I hope, accentuate this point. It is, as I understand it, a true tale. 

The story is that this young gentleman in Australia always dreamed of owning a boat, an ocean-going boat. He wanted to sail the world, literally circumnavigate the globe. He saved his money and found a boat for sale online. He bought it. When he went to go see the boat in person, an inspector was there from the Australian government, as boat inspections as part of a sale are legally required in Australia. The boat was pulled from the water and looked over by the inspector, the young buyer and the seller. 

During the inspection, the government representative asked the buyer how many boats he’d owned, how much yacht racing he’d done. When the buyer said this was to be his first boat, the inspector ordered the seller to put the boat back in the water and cancelled the sale on the spot. 

It turns out, the buyer was about to purchase a delicate, high-end racing yacht, designed for speed not one engineered or built for actual cruising. The inspector knew that putting that boat and that inexperienced buyer together would be a disaster, dangerous even. Years on, that young buyer was deeply thankful. 

My point is that, in the buying of educational technology products, no honest and neutral inspector is going to show up to make sure the buyer is making a good decision based on their needs. Schools and districts will have to make those decisions on their own and, for the sake of their students, teachers and taxpayers, they should invest even more time in the planning than they do dollars in the buying. 

Spending money feels good. It’s exciting. Buying things, especially fun or powerful life-changing things, is a rush. When you have money in your pocket it can be a challenge to slow down and make good choices. 

But this opportunity – schools actually having money to spend – is a rare one. A deep breath is in order. Let’s all be sure that what is being sold and bought matches what’s actually needed or what will actually work best for the buyer, and ultimately for their teachers and students. 

Go shopping at ISTE. The dollars are meant to be spent. But repeat this often – the only thing worse than having no technology is having the wrong technology. Be slow, be deliberative and thoughtful. The cool stuff will be everywhere at ISTE, but the truth is that it’s not going anywhere. It’s perfectly fine to shop today and buy tomorrow. 

Al Kingsley is Group CEO of NetSupport, an author, business leader, a school governor, and co-chair of Workstream 4 at the Foundation for Educational Development, whose mandate is to develop a framework for long-term vision and sustainable planning in England. Al travels the world, speaking about and studying education. He writes about new ideas and experiences he encounters at global education conferences as well as planning and innovation in education technologies and practices.