From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 3 . . . No 6 . . . February, 1993 Editor: Jamie McKenzie, Ed.D.


Creating Flexible District Technology Plans

by Jamie McKenzie


Even though school district planning for technology often suffers from premature certainty and paradigm paralysis, it need not be that way.

Basic to good technology planning is the concept of flexibility and open-mindedness. Highly detailed plans stretching out over a five year period are fraught with peril because they might serve to lock schools into a sequence of activities which will overlook rapidly breaking new developments and actually blunt the staff experimentation required to provide a bridge between traditional classroom practice and the classroom of the future.

While many districts view a technology plan as a shopping list detailing which pieces of equipment will be purchased in which years for which buildings, the choice of equipment may be one of the least important decisions which should appear in the plan. Some would argue that equipment lists do not even belong in the document at all since most of the items are already obsolete when a plan goes to print. It is difficult for school districts to identify items which are in the new technology pipeline slated for release in the next 24 months, let alone items emerging in 36 or 48 months.

With the fast pace of new product announcements and developments, there is a high likelihood that today's technologies may be a bad investment tomorrow. Look at the big investment many districts are making in wiring classrooms, for example, while many technologists are pushing for wireless systems. Will wired networks survive the decade?

How many districts go out to observe the "latest" technologies in place in some "cutting edge" district and then model their own plan after what they have seen? Chances are that anything in place today is already outmoded.

How many districts which completed a technology plan during 1992-93 have incorporated infant technologies such as Apple's Newton? I have found none so far but would love to hear from one.

Because fully integrated use of new technologies requires fundamental shifts in learning activities and teaching strategies, the most effective technology plan will focus on educational goals and the steps required to create an adult learning community which can shift the culture of the schools over a five year period to support effective technology applications. An effective technology plan will also identify the key characteristics of the information and technology systems most likely to deliver on district technology goals, describing those characteristics in terms which will endure long after today's "boxes" are replaced by tomorrow's.

Clarifying Educational Goals1

In order to guide the decision-making and strategies of school planners, whether it be with regard to technology, curriculum or staff development, a planning team first creates scenarios and then translates these scenarios into a few brief sentences which will shape choices. For a fuller treatment of this process, see McKenzie, Selecting, Managing and Marketing Technologies, Corwin Press, 1993.

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.

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.

"Future perfect" approaches to technology planning2 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.

"Future perfect" planning 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.

Once the district has clarified its educational goals, attention must turn to staff development and the creation of what Senge would call a "learning organization."3

Staff Development for New Technologies4

To develop a technologically competent and literate teaching force during the coming decade, the following principles deserve careful attention:

1. The district technology, curriculum and staff development committees should collaborate to clarify expectations for technological literacy and establish a five year offering of technology-related courses.

Technological literacy means much more than the ability to employ a particular set of software packages. Teachers of the Information Age must have a broader understanding of how information and technologies will be used to support the making of meaning and the solving of problems. District committees should concur on an explicit list of the teacher understandings and proficiencies which constitute literacy and then plan staff development which will guarantee such literacy across the entire staff within a reasonable period of time.

2. The learning of new technologies should attend to the challenge of transferring use to the teacher's classroom.

While many districts have provided a full menu of courses to acquaint teachers with various software programs, there is considerable evidence that teachers have not seen how to make use of those programs to shift their classrooms to include technologically appropriate experiences.5 They may learn how to do a spreadsheet, for example, without anyone showing them how it could be used to empower student thinking with regard to data. All too often the instructor is skilled in the use of the software but basically ignorant of its potential to shift the way students and teachers might work together in various disciplines. The district must invest in researching appropriate applications of technologies to each of the disciplines and make certain that such findings are integrated into the staff development program. Social studies, science and other teachers deserve a chance to see models of technology integration.

3. The learning of new technologies should proceed in a manner to support the strengthening of instructional strategies identified as appropriate by the district's long range educational plan.

Although many districts pass forward-thinking educational plans which call for a change in classrooms to empower the learner and emphasize real-life applications, they rarely construct adult learning experiences consistent with those visions. Technology learning experiences should mirror the kinds of instructional strategies advocated by such visions. If problem-solving is a district theme, for example, the technology course might begin with participants being formed into teams confronted by a challenge which can only, it turns out, be solved utilizing new technologies. Subsequent skill learning will then follow in response to an appetite and a purpose.

4. The learning of new technologies should offer many different options for differing learning styles and levels of development.

There are significant differences in the ways adults prefer to learn anything, and the most effective programs offer choices which allow the learners to match style with experience. As long as the proficiencies attached to technological literacy are clearly expressed and measured, it matters little which path individuals select. All too often districts offer nothing but formal training sessions, but we know that many people learn new technologies collaboratively or individually. We too often sit twenty or more teachers down in a computer lab and lead them through a prescribed sequence of steps which holds back some and frustrates others. This practice reflects the pre-occupation with the learning of software rather than the exploration of educational potential.

If our goal is to support the comfortable, skillful integration of technologies into regular classrooms, we must acknowledge that most teachers pass through stages from survival to mastery and then to impact (which means substantial infusion into the classroom activities).6 Mandinach calls the most advanced stage innovation, in which a teacher goes well beyond "the mandated scope of the curriculum toward a complete restructuring of teaching and learning activities." (p. 12) The learning experiences offered to teachers must be varied enough to meet the different needs of people at various stages.

5. The learning of new technologies should involve participants in the invention of classroom applications.

Too many staff development programs are built upon the assumption that teachers are only tool-users. Such programs present a package of skills and strategies to be learned and practiced by the teacher. Often these packages are promoted as being "teacher proof," - in other words, individual teachers cannot "mess things up." The implication is that the strategies will work in just about any classroom. Yet the wise teacher twists and changes the strategies (breaks and shapes the tools) to fit the special demands of Room 236.

There is danger that inattention to invention will undermine the chances of achieving executive control. The novice returns to the classroom with a limited supply of effective classroom practices learned during the workshop not knowing how to modify them to fit local conditions and not knowing how to construct new activities once that small supply is exhausted.

If we expect to see large percentages reach the mastery and innovation stages described by Mandinach, then invention must be made an explicit part of the technology staff development experience.

6. The learning of new technologies should involve participants in team-learning both during and subsequent to actual workshops.

Because Joyce has presented compelling evidence that the transfer of new techniques to the classroom is far more likely to occur when the teachers work in pairs and employ peer coaching, technology programs should take advantage of such strategies to increase the likelihood that participants will achieve executive control.7 A case can also be made that cooperative learning reduces the isolation often associated with the technologies and models the kinds of technology uses we hope to see teachers employing with their students.

7. The learning of new technologies should involve participants in experience-based opportunities, with learning resulting from doing and exploring.

Teachers - like their students - too often sit passively listening to staff development messages. The assumption seems to be that one quick look at a new method or approach is sufficient to empower the audience to turn their classrooms upside down. The research reported earlier in this article exposed the fallacies underlying such an assumption. Substantial shifts in perspective and behavior depend upon active involvement, experience and role-playing. Although workshops using such methods will necessarily take longer than traditional workshops, this time investment will pay greater dividends over a longer time period. Active involvement in exploration, which results from wrestling with experiences and attempting to integrate them into one's understanding leads teachers to feel more committed to the discoveries made and more comfortable with the process of changing perspective.

8. The learning of new technologies should involve participants in questioning outmoded classroom paradigms.

Because many of the new technologies make possible a more student-centered classroom, teachers must spend some time asking how their classroom practices might be shifted to welcome and support such a shift. All too often the new goals will be subverted by relatively subtle factors such as the arrangement of classroom furniture so as to make group work difficult and frustration. If teachers can anticipate which classroom structures and traditions need shifting in advance of the actual experience, the chances of success are enhanced.

9. Staff development must consider the feelings, fears and anxieties of the learners.

Especially when they are breaking new ground, exploring new territory or trying new technologies, many teachers will feel some degree of anxiety. Like novice scuba divers descending for the first time with a tank of air, teachers may experience heavier breathing and a sense of risk. Courses should be constructed with this phenomenon in mind. The instructor or group leader should have specific strategies for identifying anxious learners as well as strategies for easing their anxieties.

For example, one staff developer found that one way to combat computer anxiety was to encourage name-calling. "Call the machine names!" she urged. The body language of the learners relaxed dramatically as they came to view the machine as a person or animal instead of some all-powerful technological marvel. When the learners were supported in their natural inclination to make the computer less threatening and less mystical, they made greater progress with the skills being taught.

In a similar vein, staff developers have noticed that many participants reach an early saturation point when covering new ground. Pacing becomes an essential issue. It pays to curtail grandiose expectations in favor of learner comfort. In teaching word processing, for example, it is wise to teach novices four or five commands in the first lesson, just enough to support them in creating an impressive document. Once they understand the commands, they should write and write until they announce, "This is easy!" Additional commands and skills are best introduced in small doses until the foundation of confidence has been firmly laid.

10. Staff development must be adequately funded and comprehensively planned.

When districts plan for technology, they may set aside funds for purchase of equipment, but they rarely recognize the rule of thumb that every dollar spent on equipment probably sets in motion the need for another dollar to cover staff development, maintenance, etc.

The technology committee, if it wishes to see the technology used in an integrated fashion, must translate the principles listed above into a working system with costs identified and attached. Given education's chronic underfunding of staff development, the committee is well advised to seek non-traditional sources of time, redesigning the school day, for example, to reduce non-professional tasks and replace them with ongoing site-based adult learning.

The Identification of Key Planning Concepts

The final planning document should present a list of key concepts, many of which are drawn from the district mission statement, which will guide future technology decisions rather than providing a list of premature decisions themselves. Several examples follow:

1) Connectivity

The Mission ISD will establish information systems and infotecture which will maximize connections between individual students and other people throughout the world, simultaneously making available all electronic information resources in the world (museums, libraries, databases, etc.). The goal is to make all such connections "real time" and independent of location. Learning should be possible wherever and whenever questions arise.

2) Community

The Mission ISD will emphasize technology applications and information systems which strengthen human bonds and collaborative problem-solving rather than isolating individuals from one another.

3) Coherence

The Mission ISD will establish learning programs and systems which support each other in meaningful patterns, much as the sections of an orchestra play different notes but manage to do so with harmony. The right hand will know what the left hand is doing. Students will see the various elements of the system fitting together and making sense.

4) Balance

The Mission ISD will seek distribution of information and technology resources in ways which support all segments of the learning experience. No individual fields or departments will be allowed to dominate.

5) Integration

The Mission ISD will emphasize technology systems and applications which support the district mission statement throughout and across all curriculum areas, seeking, whenever possible, jointures and bridges across disciplines.

6) Expressiveness

The Mission ISD will emphasize technologies which extend and enhance the expressiveness of students while foregoing an uncritical reliance upon such technologies when non-technological talents and skills might serve better.

7) Access

The Mission ISD will create systems which maximize student, staff and community access 24 hours each day if possible.

8) Equity

The Mission ISD will monitor technology opportunities and usage patterns to make certain that all students receive their fair share of the resources.

9) Flexibility

Recognizing that almost any installation can rapidly become outmoded as experimentation proceeds and new technologies arrive, the Mission ISD will build as much flexibility as possible into all installations, avoiding, when possible, the temptation to bolt items down or cement things in place.

10) Value

The Mission ISD will avoid using high powered (and costly) technologies for tasks requiring little power and will schedule technologies so as to maximize the benefits associated with the power available. Groups will collaborate across lines to facilitate such scheduling.

The Shopping List

After all of the above is clarified, the committee may still feel enormous pressure to identify the actual machines which should be purchased each year for each school. Perhaps the district is going to the voters for approval of a technology bond referendum. The voters will want to know what they are buying. Unfortunately, the time line between the inception of a plan and the passage of a referendum almost guarantees that the original list will be obsolete by the time funds are approved, contracts are issued and installations are complete.

The wise technology committee offers up a list of actual systems and machines as examples but carefully educates all constituencies to the likelihood that the actual systems will be different and states that intention clearly in the report. "The district is expected to substitute more advanced technologies wherever appropriate and feasible within the funds committed to the project.

The Accordion Plan

Given the uncertainty of educational resources during a time of slow economic recovery, the technology plan might propose several different scenarios and time schedules for technology acquisition so that the plan responds to circumstance. At the same time, the district would be wise to seek extraordinary resources by creating an educational foundation and seeking the support of influential citizens and businesses as outlined in a previous issue of From Now On.


Many districts have no technology plan at all. They buy when they can and figure out to do with it after it arrives. This is the Helter-Skelter model. Other districts concentrate on shopping lists or package plans such as ILS clusters. Most of these districts encounter serious difficulties with integration of technology use across and throughout the disciplines. Here and there a district begins with educational issues and then asks which technologies will deliver most effectively on those educational aspirations. This article argues the primacy of creating clear mission statements, developing comprehensive staff development systems and identifying governing principles to guide technology decisions in order to provide maximal flexibility and impact. The author would appreciate hearing from districts which pursue such a course.


1. McKenzie, J. (1993). Selecting, Managing and Marketing Technologies. Portions of this section were excerpted from the first chapter. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press.

2. Davis, S. (1987) Future Perfect . Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

3. Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

4. McKenzie, J. (1993). Administrators at Risk. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.

5. Cuban, L. (1992, November 11). Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom Wins. Education Week, pp. 36, 27.

6. Mandinach, E. (1992) The impact of technological innovation on teaching and learning activities. Paper presented at AERA annual meeting. Princeton: ETS.

7. Joyce, Bruce R. (1988) Student achievement through staff development. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format educational, non-profit school district use only. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Index Page


This site is produced by Jamie McKenzie
Editor of From Now On