HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Making the Most of Technology in Small Schools

by Russel Neiss Issue: Size Matters

The author argues that for all that they may lack in funding for technology, small schools may have an advantage in getting it right: introducing technology where and when it supports strong education.

Many Jewish day schools, challenged by rising costs, increased competition, and a need to remain relevant, have begun to implement more robust technology integration into their curriculum and management. These technological initiatives are often sold to schools with the promise that they can simultaneously cut costs and increase the quality of instruction to students. While evidence to support the veracity of either of these claims is still lacking, it’s clear that digital technologies are here to stay. That being said, smart administrators must consider the possible benefits and risks of how and to what extent these digital technologies should be implemented, and always think about how these technological tools help achieve the overarching educational goal of a school.

While this is true for every institution, it is especially true for small Jewish day schools, which lack resources such as adequate staff support, network enhancements, customization of software, equipment costs, to say nothing of keeping everything and everyone in the building up to date with the current best practices. Given this paradigm, one might assume that the best course of action for a small day school would be to look to their larger peer schools for inspiration; i.e., if a blended learning program works in a school of 800, why wouldn’t it work for a school of 150? If the Los Angeles Unified School District can successfully roll out a 1-to-1 iPad program to 640,000 students, can it really be that difficult to roll one out to in a school with 64 middle schoolers?

The truth is, it’s not self-evident that the cost savings that large urban charter schools are able to realize with blended learning will directly correlate on a per capita basis to small private schools. It’s not a foregone conclusion that just because many large private schools with 1-to-1 programs have dedicated help desk IT techs on staff to troubleshoot laptops that every small school should also. It’s not clear that because some teachers with large class sizes have had success flipping their classroom, that other teachers will too.

We know that the size of the school matters. But why do we keep on treating technology implementation as if it were the same no matter what size the school is?

Smaller schools may be at a disadvantage because of their inability to take advantage of economies of scale, but their small size allows them to invest more effectively in human capital. Often administrators, teachers, parents and other stakeholders get caught up in the shininess of new hardware or a particularly slick piece of software, but forget that at its core technology integration still relies heavily on the humans who implement it.

The paragraphs below explore this idea more in depth and offers some practical advice and guidance, paying particular attention to how smaller schools are better suited than their larger counterparts to effectively make the changes and investments in human capital necessary to ensure that even if a school doesn’t have the latest and greatest “stuff” that they will nevertheless be able to transmit the skills and knowledge students need to learn to live effectively and productively in an increasingly global and digital world.

You don’t need a hot-shot techie for a tech director

Often times smaller schools lament the fact that they’re unable to hire an educational tech director with “technology bona fides” and instead find that their head of technology ends up being the teacher who just happens to know a little bit more than everyone else. The truth is, this isn’t a bad thing.

It is almost always better to have an experienced educator making educational technology related decisions at an institution. The voice of technology leadership at a school needs to be able to speak the language of teaching and learning and be able to translate between the rapidly growing and increasingly complex technological world in which we live but don’t always understand, and the educational space that teachers are pretty masterful in. While this means that certain technology functions and specialty tech needs will likely have to be served by private contractors, given budgetary constraints a small school will get far more bang for their buck from an educator who can push other faculty members to embrace digital learning tools rather than a technologist who might be more efficient at troubleshooting why a laptop doesn’t work. Put another way, hiring an educator as a tech director might not ensure that technology is used the most efficiently at your institution, but it does help to ensure that technology will be utilized in the most pedagogically sound ways throughout the school.

Technology decisions need to be made at the top levels of a school’s educational administrative team

Once upon a time when integrating technology into a school meant wiring classrooms to create school networks, buying large desktop computers and desks or tables to place them on, or making sure that there was storage space available for required servers like student management systems, many schools (particularly larger ones) treated technology as part of facilities management, and any technological staff would report to a school’s facilities director rather than the academic head of school. Small schools, particularly those that never invested in these systems to begin with because the economies of scale didn’t make them worthwhile, aren’t burdened by this problem.

And while this distinction of head of facilities and head of academics often doesn’t exist in a small institution where a head of school often serves every administrative function in the known universe, according to NAIS’s Principles of Good Practices for Teaching & Learning in the Digital Age technology decisions at the school need to be made by someone with the “training, authority, and support needed to influence key areas of policy development, decision-making, budget, and management” within an institution. If this doesn’t occur, you’re going to end up with a lot of expensive “stuff” locked up in a lab or closet, or laptop carts gathering dust, or being used ineffectively or in pedagogically unsound ways.

Create a “Nation of Priests”

At Mt. Sinai, God tells us to be a “nation of priests,” which is somewhat puzzling since other parts of the Torah focus on all of the special roles that kohanim play in terms of ritual worship for the Jewish people. How can we all be priests if there’s already a special group of people endowed with the skills and power to do this work for us? A similar paradigm is required for us if we want to successfully integrate technology in our schools. Technology knowledge cannot simply be the domain of one or two specialized individuals—it needs to be the entire school community. Schools need to promote an environment of professional learning and innovation that allows educators to experiment with new techniques and tools.

One easy initiative I brought to the day school I worked in New York City was a biweekly “sandbox” session where teachers could just come during a prep-period and play with new tools with their peers. There was no agenda to these meetings, but simply creating a space and a time that was dedicated to this small initiative produced significant gains in teachers” comfort with technological tools and synergies between disciplines and teachers that previously didn’t exist. This means being willing to see beyond sometimes arbitrary distinctions between teachers (Judaic studies versus general, teachers of younger grades versus older, etc.) and just letting people get together to share best practices and experiment, but again, a smaller school here has an advantage over larger schools that require more bureaucratic infrastructure that may not allow for this sort of ad hoc experimenting and free flow of ideas.

By investing in people instead of things, and by playing to the strengths that small schools have over their larger counterparts, smaller schools can demonstrate effective technology leadership and help make their schools models for learning and living in an increasingly digital society.♦

Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist and activist, and currently serves as the director of educational technology for G-dcast. russel.neiss@gmail.com

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Small schools, particularly those that never invested in these systems to begin with because the economies of scale didn’t make them worthwhile, aren’t burdened by this problem. ISSP practice tests

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Size Matters

In the Jewish day school ecosystem, schools can range from a few dozen students to more than a thousand. How does school size impact education, school governance and administration? Articles in this issue address a range of challenges and successes found in small day schools, while looking at the issues large schools face as well.

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