The Impact of Distributed Technology Leadership Teams’ Membership and Practices at Four Laptop Schools
In this posting I share the results of a study of laptop schools in two states. What I write here is drawn from a paper I recently prepared for the 88th Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 9-13, 2007 in Chicago, IL. A copy of the full paper is posted at http://edtechcases.info/analysis/tech_leadership.htm
We know from many educational studies that leadership makes a difference in producing positive school and student outcomes. The principal’s involvement in technology leadership has been shown to positively influence teachers’ and students’ uses of technology. The technical support structures that are required for laptop programs as well as the enormous monetary investments they require are likely to focus leaders’ attention on implementation issues. Thus, schools with laptop programs can serve as opportunities to learn about what leaders must to do in situations that demand strong technology leadership.
At the majority of schools in the U.S., there is a team of people involved in leading the planning and support of technology uses. Nearly 80% of U.S. schools have a technology committee and technology support is, on average, provided by a team of two to three people. Team members typically include the principal and a technology coordinator, and nearly half the time (47%) the additional others included teachers. While this research establishes it is a team of people, probably including the principal, technology coordinator, and teachers who will carry out technology leadership at a school and that such leadership will need to attend to the purpose of the technology and its access and support, there is little knowledge of how these leadership functions and interactions should be shared and coordinated among the technology leaders. That is, who does what in such a way that it helps teachers integrate technology?
The results I report here draw upon case studies at 4 different schools with one-to-one laptop initiatives. One school was in California and three schools were in Virginia, with two of these three in the same district. During site visits administrators, teachers, and students were interviewed, and classrooms were observed by me and a team of three other researchers.
The full report at the web site has more information about all of the data collected and our analysis methods, as well as descriptions of each of the four school sites and the leadership team at each location, including the team members' respective roles and responsibilities and the influence this had on the teachers’ understanding of the team’s work and the laptop initiative itself. In this posting I discuss the three main points I drew after doing a cross-case analysis of all four schools.
The purpose of the laptop initiative at each school site set the main direction for the technology leadership team at the school. This direction then drove what staff members were a part of the leadership team, the collective expertise and authority levels represented in the group, as well as the team’s practices (e.g., the committees, meetings, and communication processes). Of consequence was the nature and degree of teachers’ opportunities to shape the school’s laptop program.
At one middle school the district leaders initiated their laptop program in terms of providing computer access to students, and did not include in their vision strong curricular or pedagogical components. The classroom teachers at that middle school were not involved in the technology leadership practices, such as membership on the technology committee; the principal’s and two teachers who served as technology coordinators’ limited technology leadership interactions were focused mainly on technical support issues. In contrast, the other three middle schools defined their purpose for technology in terms of student outcomes, which necessarily included curricular and instructional concerns and led to greater teacher involvement. Teachers were a part of the leadership team; sometimes these members were volunteers who were most interested and willing to serve. In two of the schools these members were drawn so as to produce grade level or departmental representation. These representatives then served as the conduits of information between the classroom teachers and the technology leadership team, whether through informal interaction or the regularly scheduled grade level or department meetings.
Thus, the degree to which there was an instructional emphasis in the vision for the laptop program influenced teachers’ membership on the technology leadership team, and therefore whether or not teachers’ voices were a part of the team’s deliberations as decisions were made. Teacher membership on the team also then dispersed knowledgeable teachers throughout the school that can provide other classroom teachers with direct information from the leadership team, as well as take in their input.
At all four sites it was the classroom teachers’ direct experiences with team members, largely via the team’s technology leadership practices, that shaped their opinions of how coordinated the leadership team’s efforts were and the teachers’ own opportunities to give input about technology at the school. Teachers named specific procedures and processes through which the team completed its work as evidence of coordinated effort and as an invitation to provide input. Further, the teacher’s personal level of understanding about the vision for the laptops influenced their opinion of the team’s coordination; to some degree, it seemed that their personal level of agreement with the vision determined some teachers’ opinions about whether or not their input was invited. At all four schools when classroom teachers reported that their input was not solicited and that leadership teams’ efforts were not coordinated they gave personal reasons such as not having a clear indication of what they should be doing with technology, or else not agreeing with the direction that had been set.
Thus, it appeared that teachers in this study looked for congruence between the stated scope of and purpose for the technology leaders’ roles and the related practices in which these individuals engaged. How the leadership teams’ practices “bumped” directly into teachers generates their impressions of how well leaders are working together and taking teacher input. This congruence and these experiences seemingly contribute to these teachers’ sense of understanding about the purposes of the laptops. To the degree that teachers’ opinions of leaders’ capabilities and efficiencies matter, these data suggest that technology leadership teams should manage their work and where teachers will interface with it so that teachers understand the vision for and purpose of the technology initiative.
The classroom teachers’ direct experiences with the technology team members also shaped their sense of who was a technology leader or not. At each of the four school sites the teachers did not list the whole range of people involved in technology leadership as the school’s technology leaders, but rather mostly the people in technology-specific roles who they most often saw and heard “doing” technology. At all four schools the district-level administrators initiated laptop programs and the school’s administrators interacted regularly with the district office about technology. Yet, when asked who the school’s technology leaders were the school and district administrators were rarely mentioned by teachers as being a part of the technology leadership team. In addition, a few teachers at each site mentioned a small number of other teachers who were not formally on the technology leadership team as leaders of technology.
Thus, it was mainly team members who have technology-specific titles and roles and who interacted with them directly that teachers identified as technology leaders, and presumably from whom they would be more likely to take input from and direction about the laptops’ uses at the school. It appears that titles and /or team membership designations do matter in that they invest authority in and direct attention to technology leaders. In creating a new position, such as technology coordinator, a technology-specific title is easier to assign. But when administrators and classroom teachers serve as technology leadership team members and it is desired that the other school staff members look to them for direction, these data suggest that adding a technology-specific title or designation and regularly communicating the team’s membership may influence teachers’ opinions of who the technology leaders are in a school. In that teachers did not name general leadership positions such as the principal as technology leaders, perhaps teachers feel that an individual must also demonstrate technology expertise in order to be considered a technology leader. This suggests that when principals wish to advance an initiative like technology integration in classrooms, they may need to develop expertise and not just hire it so that they can leverage their authority.
The cases presented here support the notion that technology leadership should be considered a school characteristic: It is distributed across a team of people that altogether provide technology expertise and decision making authority and who take responsibility for in setting direction, developing people, and making the organization work for educational technology. The cases illustrate an interactive effect among the leaders, the situation, and the followers, and how leaders’ practices are distributed across the school’s social and resource context. Because leadership practice matters and teachers’ actions determine what aspects of an innovation get implemented or not in a classroom, it follows that teachers’ understanding of who the technology leaders are and so from whom they look to get and give input about technology uses for teaching and learning also matters. Teachers most readily identify individuals in technology-specific roles as technology leaders, and base their opinions of the team’s coordinated effort and interest in teachers’ opinions off of their direct, personal experiences with these individuals. In these distributed leadership situations the teachers’ stance might be described as “show me the leadership.” Team-based leadership (i.e., with roles and responsibilities distributed across the team) increases the opportunities to provide more direct experiences with leaders, yet suggests a need for a specific design for the team’s membership and its practices so as to maximize the impact the team can make, since this effect is constructed individually by each teacher through his or her experiences.