Selecting, Managing and Marketing Technology

Chapter Three - The School Administrator as Technology Leader

School administrators will play a critically important role in developing successful technology programs. Leadership may be the keystone without which the full arch cannot stand. Because many schools rely upon the heroic efforts of individual technology enthusiasts which are generally not coordinated by any central figure, technology implementation is too often sporadic, spotty and sputtering. We need less heroics and more systematic innovation.

The central metaphor for the administrator’s role as technology leader will be the master gardener supervising a team of highly skilled folks with mighty green thumbs. This master gardener inspires the team to complete the following functions with imagination and spirit:

I. Cultivating the Soil

Schools are often tradition-bound, caught in time-honored patterns of behavior which are deeply embedded and resistant to challenge or review. They are often set in their ways. If innovation of any kind, technological or curricular, is to occur, the soil must be loosened and turned over. The administrator tills the soil, employing the tools of organizational development to identify and initiate the cultural changes which are required to support innovative thinking.

While innovation requires frequent communication and idea swapping, most schools isolate their teachers. They work in separate rooms and see little of each other throughout the work week. Time is not available to support idea swapping and generation.

The effective administrator pushes the system to free up time, either by strategic scheduling, the use of substitutes or some fancy rule-bending. She or he also uses effective questioning as a spade to free the organizational soil of rocks and clods which might inhibit growth or learning. Questions put old mind-sets out on the table for re-examination. The administrator asks others to provide answers, trusting the soil, carefully prepared now, to generate healthy crops. The goal is development of an organization which welcomes the planting of new ideas.

There is much talk these days of organizations like schools challenging and changing old paradigms or ways of doing things. Barker suggests replacement of old paradigms with new ones, but we are moving into a period of time when no single paradigm will serve us well. It is more likely that organizations will need flexadigms, flexible ways of thinking capable of bending and twisting to match the demands of a turbulent and surprising world. The task before the school administrator is to support staff in the development of such a flexadigm so that schools are in a state of constant renewal, change and growth. Rigidity, decision-making by formula or recipe and reliance upon standard operating procedures are anachronistic.

II. Fertilizing, Watering and Providing Light

It is not sufficient to loosen up the organizational soil, of course. The technology leader breaks down the traditional isolation of schools from outside resources by inviting a rich flow of ideas and possibilities into the school.

Acknowledging that schools have not afforded most staff members opportunities to know and appreciate the innovations taking place elsewhere throughout the nation, even within their own building or district, the leader works to expand those opportunities by bringing more ideas into the school and by encouraging staff to visit or investigate other programs. Because some staff are cut off from professional reading and research, the leader encourages staff to create a professional library in each school and makes certain that key journals and articles circulate freely and frequently. All staff are encouraged to keep an eye out for great articles and send them around when they find them.

In addition to a rich flow of ideas, the leader fertilizes the soil by providing a steady stream of new skills and learning experiences which will deepen and extend the staff’s innovation toolkit. The leader becomes a staff developer now, working to expand the knowledge base regarding technologies and the decision-making skill-base. With the support of the administrator, each staff member develops an annual professional improvement plan which states personal growth objectives in the areas of instructional strategies and new technologies. The administrator, knowing the objectives of each staff member, makes a concerted attempt to match opportunities to objectives. Staff development becomes a daily occurrence rather than a yearly event.

Fertilizing and watering must also be accompanied by sunlight - the administrator making certain that efforts are carefully assessed using formative evaluation - the gathering of data during a project in order to adapt and steer the project toward optimal performance. Too many school innovations have failed because participants believed, "What you don’t know can’t hurt you."

The leader makes certain that the team asks the right questions and collects the right data, some of which will be quantitative (numerical) and some of which will be qualitative (descriptive). The goal is creation of an organization which is reflective in its practice, continually asking "What’s happening? How might we change what we are doing to improve results?"

Collection of data is often viewed with suspicion by staff members who have concerns that the data might be used in an evaluative manner to assess their own performance. The mere hint of accountability raises eyebrows and defensiveness in many districts. In order to avoid such a reaction, the administrator makes certain that the staff members have a strong voice in the design of the study and the collection of the data, providing appropriate training in formative evaluation so that they can see the benefits of data collection for program adjustment and development.

III. Seeding

To plant a garden, one often needs more seeds than will ever germinate and become mature plants. It is the same with technological innovation in schools. The leader makes sure that the building staff can select from a rich menu of program options, software and equipment, counting upon staff to further expand the richness of these possibilities by adding their own insights, their own variations and their own signatures to the original versions.

The leader becomes a technology resource manager, careful to plant seeds where they are most likely to grow. Knowing the quirks, strengths and personalities of all staff members, he or she carefully targets certain individuals for particular opportunities. Sometimes it may require a word of encouragement or some coaxing. Other times the recipient will pounce eagerly.

Basic to this function is the leader’s responsibility to keep an eye on the horizon, always scanning for new ideas, new software, new equipment, new programs and inspirations of any kind. To mix metaphors a bit, the leader climbs up the mast to the crow’s nest and tries to see around the earth’s curves. Of course, crows and gardens do not mix well, so the leader must be careful to provide the garden with scarecrows which will ward off winged predators. The leader also encourages other staff members to scout for great ideas, whether it be the media specialist or a classroom teacher. The more who are on the lookout, the better.

Along with the rest of the staff, the administrator establishes a web of idea collecting mechanisms and nets, subscribing to many journals, participating in computer bulletin boards, attending technology oriented conferences, developing networks with similarly inclined school leaders, and mining the rich resources available through online databases which allow one to store "alerts," which are standard searches repeated monthly on various topics of high interest to the school. If videodiscs are a priority, for example, the leader can automatically receive a listing of current articles as they roll off the press and into the databases. But once ideas are collected, someone must orchestrate the discussion and consideration of those ideas.

IV. Connecting/Linking Rows for Irrigation

As mentioned earlier, isolation of teachers in classrooms and a lack of time for meeting and planning in groups has contributed mightily to school stagnation. The administrator must emphasize staff connectivity in every way possible to guarantee cross-fertilization, pollination and irrigation. There will come a day when every staff member has a hand held computer like Apple’s "Newton" to carry around in school and at home which will make such staff connectivity and communication omnipresent and omniscient. In the mean time, leaders must establish whatever formal and informal networks they can within the resources which exist, recognizing that the work day schedules of teachers usually conspire to block communication and idea swapping.

It is not enough to structure more time for meetings and exchanges. As mentioned in the staff development chapter, the staff must possess the group process skills so that meetings are productive and innovative in nature. In many schools where the culture has not been particularly collaborative in the past, staff must be shown how to explore ideas in a non-adversarial manner, using what Senge calls "dialogue" rather than discussion.[1] Otherwise, in the words of one observer of site-based decision-making, they are ". . . like newly freed East European countries suddenly faced with solving massive problems."[2]

V. Weeding

Just as not everything which grows in a garden is worth keeping and just as some plants and weeds can draw nutrients away from the real crop, some technology experiments will prove unsuccessful, undesirable and worthy of elimination. The administrator must play a central role in helping the staff to develop evaluation criteria which will guide decision-making about pulling up some experiments by the roots so that others can thrive and grow. This is not to suggest arbitrary wielding of power by an individual. The key element is the set of collectively established criteria which can be used to judge the effectiveness and value of experiments in an objective manner.

Once again the value of data collection and formative program evaluation is clear. Implementation without such evaluation data throws the school into risk since it will be difficult to distinguish between hybrids on the one hand and weeds on the other.

VI. Inoculating Against Disease, Warding Off Insects and Scaring Away Crows

Computer viruses are not the only kinds of disease against which an administrator must protect the system. The more complex the systems linking classrooms and delivering services, the more vulnerability to threats and contamination of one kind or another. The administrator keeps a watchful eye on the systems, providing adequate security for files, proper ventilation and cooling, alarms to guard against theft and public relations efforts to keep critics and naysayers from undermining the integrity of the effort. In keeping with the stress upon collaboration, the administrator makes this a shared responsibility, engaging staff members in protecting the integrity of their own program, encouraging all to be public relations spokespeople. Dirty laundry belongs at the meeting table where it can be handled constructively and positively.

VII. Rotating Crops

The wise leader makes sure that the opportunities and the responsibilities associated with innovation are spread around and rotated in such a way that there is equity and no one group or individual is overloaded or treated with favoritism. Over-reliance upon a few heroes and pioneers may weaken the overall success of the innovation, creating resentment as well as harmful schisms and cliques.

VIII. Pruning

Even good programs, like bushes and trees, can benefit from careful and timely pruning. In conjunction with research data, the administrator leads the team in asking what changes need to be made in the original plan. What elements should be eliminated, cut back and modified? This function also suggests that programs are more likely to thrive if they are not allowed to grow too fast and too large. Sometimes success is a program’s own worst enemy as pressures mount to expand beyond the system’s capacity to function with quality.

IX. Planning for Fallow Fields

A constant diet of innovation and turbulent change can leave staff members weary and resistant. The leader has some responsibility for supporting a reasonable pace for change, providing times when the fields may rest fallow and regain their strength. The leader encourages the group to keep an eye on organizational resilience. It is an ultra marathon, not a sprint.

X. Grafting

Some programs with limited or moderate promise may become superior programs if merged with the elements of some other program. The leader is always on the lookout for such combinations and is quick to support the combinational thinking of team members. Creativity and innovation is often a matter of rearranging the parts of what already exists in novel ways.


There are some who argue that because school administrators have little training in the kinds of leadership outlined in this chapter, school restructuring has little chance of succeeding: " . . . ideas such as vision and developing shared leadership are quite beyond most of those who occupy administrative positions in our schools."[3] The competencies required by school leaders are quite different for the coming decade than they were during the smokestack era:

Beliefs and Values about Education.
Cognitive Maps of Factors Influencing Schooling.
Information Processing and Decision Making Styles.
Setting Direction.
Organizing and Implementing.
Developing Staff.
Managing Relationships.
Adapting Actions to Context. [4]

While the challenge of creating appropriate leadership may be enormous, we have little choice, and the time has come to make such proficiencies a matter of certification and licensing just as this book called for information and technology literacy as a job requirement for teachers. Just as teachers deserve 3-5 years to "get up to speed," this generation of school leaders deserves a grace period during which they can acquire the skills they might have missed during their years of earlier training. As with most professions today, leaders and workers alike must be in a constant state of renewal in order to keep up with the rapid rate of change.


© 1993, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.