Chapter One - Future Perfect District Technology Planning

Attention to planning prior to technology selection can save districts a great deal of money, protect them from embarrassing mistakes and deliver impressive educational results. Unfortunately, many schools buy equipment first and then plan as an after-thought. Assess your own district's level of planning for technologies by completing the District Technology Assessment Form in Appendix A. If your score comes out below 45, you will find this chapter a good place to begin making changes.

Because Future Perfect Planning (FPP) is especially well suited to thinking about innovation, this book begins with an introduction to its techniques and promises.

FPP is based upon the work of Davis, who offers it as an alternative to strategic planning, which he criticizes as being too wedded to past habits and mind-sets.[1] Because strategic planning relies heavily upon projection of trends, he argues, it is ill prepared to help us with innovation and often hinders significant change. It does not anticipate or prepare us well for "discontinuous change" like the break-up of the USSR.

Break-through technologies promise to establish entirely new learning systems which will operate beyond the assumptions and the boundaries of the old ones. The challenge is to unleash the full potential of new technologies to support student learning unhampered by what we might call "smokestack" conceptions better suited to a factory-based economy. FPP, to be described in the next few sections, empowers a district to view the future with imagination and an open mind.

Step One - Creation of Planning Team

Before thoughtful decisions can be made about which technologies to purchase and how to use them, the district must clarify its learning priorities and preferences. An educational planning team comprised of teachers, students, administrators, community members and board members should spend a year or more clarifying the mission of the district in what will be fairly simple but compelling terms.

Step Two - Development of Scenarios

The most important difference between FPP and strategic planning is the perspective from which each views the future. Strategic planners stand in the present looking ahead toward the year 2005 asking how present trends may twist and turn during the next decade.

FPP places us in the year 2005 and asks us to imagine what learning might be like for a 7 year-old or 14 year-old. FPP encourages us to taste, smell, and see learning as the child might, free of any barriers or restrictions. After months of creating, swapping and clarifying such images of educational futures, the planning group moves toward shared scenarios, two or three prime stories which contain the most important aspirations held by members of the group.

Schwartz offers a five step guide to the building of scenarios which can serve with Davis' book as key resources to guide the planning process.[2] He explains that scenarios are stories which help us break past our mind-sets to see futures which might otherwise be blocked from sight. As far back as 1981, prior to Glasnost, he and fellow scenario-builders at Shell Oil foresaw the break-up of the USSR using such techniques.

Appendix B provides an example of a brief educational scenario describing two young girls using a hand held computer with voice recognition to tackle a challenging social studies research task.

According to Schwartz, the planning group should pass through each of the following phases:

1. Articulating Your Mind-set

What are they key values and belief systems which have tended to dictate behavior in the past? They are often submerged and hidden from view. Schwartz urges us to uncover and then examine them to see if they are still valid.

2. Information Hunting and Gathering

Many organizations are blind-sided by their tendency to gather data selectively - data which serves to confirm their old mind-sets and visions. Data which might force a reconsideration is often screened away, according to Schwartz, and so he recommends intentionally wandering far afield to collect items which might alert the group to the driving forces and uncertainties mentioned next. Schools have traditionally ignored workplace realities, for example, and need to send their employees out to see how technologies are transforming the ways problems are solved and information is handled, so that we can move from the trailing to the leading edge.

3. Identifying and Exploring the Driving Forces

Driving forces differ somewhat from trends because they are often hidden from view, creating a stir of some kind not easily tied back to the original cause. In addition to Schwartz's list of driving forces, Tucker outlines ten driving forces such as choice, lifestyle, discounting and value-adding well worth the reader's time and attention since they have great implications for schooling during this coming decade.[3] The planning committee's awareness of such driving forces will be instrumental in laying the groundwork for thinking about possible and likely futures.

4. Uncovering Predetermined Elements and Critical Uncertainties

Some factors, such as demographic trends bringing an increasingly mixed population, are essentially predetermined and highly predictable. In the case of education, the source of funding would be an example of critical uncertainty, as school finance suits in many states turn the funding rules upside down and as many national leaders such as President Bush push for school choice and the use of vouchers. The possibility of schools operating on a free market basis with parental choice is very real.

5. Composing a Plot

Having passed through the previous four stages, the group begins the story writing, selecting one plot from among Schwartz's list of classic plots, such as "winners and losers." It often pays, according to Schwartz, to build three scenarios, one optimistic, one pessimistic and one in the middle.

Appendix C provides instructions for conducting a visualization exercise to set the scene for scenario building, and Appendix D gives an example of a participant's response to this exercise. Once completed, the planning team should proceed through the phases listed by Schwartz and move toward creation of the two or three prime scenarios mentioned earlier. The collection of scenarios should embrace the major themes which are most important to members of the group.

Step Three - Creation of an Educational Mission Statement

In order to guide the decision-making and strategies of school planners, whether it be with regard to technology, curriculum or staff development, the planning team must translate its scenarios into a few brief sentences which will shape choices.

Mission statements should not be confused with board of education philosophies, which attempt to cover all possible goals. Mission statements focus upon a few key goals which will receive special attention, and they should also clarify some process issues.

An example follows:

"The Mission Independent School District will help students become well-informed, imaginative and effective decision-makers, capable of working independently or collaboratively to create workable solutions to complex problems like those they will encounter during the Information Age. We will encourage them to act in a caring, compassionate and empathic manner. Toward those ends, we will stress activities which challenge students to do their own thinking and learning."

The reader will note that the first two sentences identify key skills and attitudes which could be translated into outcome statements and assessments. The third sentence suggests what would be a dramatic shift for many schools, an emphasis upon students making their own meanings. Each district should have its own statement tied to the priorities and views of the planning group and the board of education. This statement should then work to help other, newly constituted planning groups in areas such as technology, to sift through the options and possibilities which lie ahead.

Step Four - Using the Mission Statement for Technology Planning

It works well to convene a separate group to do the technology planning, a group which also contains representatives of key stakeholders. It is wise to involve a cross section of people with a variety of attitudes, not just those who love technology, since it will be the responsibility of this group to help guide the entire district forward, not just the pioneers.

This group might well use the metaphor of building a cathedral to help guide its thinking and planning. No cathedral stands much chance of withstanding the attacks of time and nature without solid foundations and flying buttresses, and yet the real beauty of the structure might lie in the spires stretching to the sky, in the stained glass windows capturing wondrous images, or in the services and music contained within the structure. It is much the same with technology.

Effective technology programs require electronic infrastructures somewhat like a cathedral's foundations and flying buttresses. Planners should be asking what kinds of electronic networks should link the students and learning centers of the schools to the rich information resources of this society, especially if one of the district goals is development of student information insight skills. They should be asking what kinds of equipment will support the program they envision.

As infotects, much like the master builders and architects of old, they should be asking which elements of the foundation are most likely to withstand the tests of time, avoiding short-cuts and false economies which end up being far more costly as the system needs frequent maintenance or redesign. They must seek technology which is flexible, powerful, adaptable and expandable.

FPP approaches to technology planning are especially well suited to questions regarding the software and learning experiences which might be supported by the electronic infrastructure. Here the planners must avoid the creation of thick, highly detailed planning and curriculum documents which can act to block learning, experimentation and innovation. Once the infrastructure is in place, its use will far exceed anyone's expectations and visions, provided that a climate of responsible experimentation is encouraged by the administration.

FPP encourages open-minded planning with a focus upon scenarios. The technology planning committee should spin out learning scenarios to fit new technologies - scenarios consistent with the district mission statement. These scenarios should be viewed as images of possible futures which set the basic direction but leave much room for playful program development as the players first have a chance to use the equipment.


© 1993, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.