How Independent School Leaders’ Instructional Visions Shape Technology Choices

Technology is at the heart of distance learning efforts across the country.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 across the United States, school leaders’ instructional decisions are increasingly made based on technological concerns. How can we engage students in effective, high-quality distance learning efforts by video? What instructional platforms are available to track and monitor student growth? Can our school provide enough devices for all students and staff? For how long?

While many of these questions are unique to the current moment, leaders’ technology choices have increasingly begun to reflect their broader instructional visions, and vice-versa. For example, with the wider availability of inexpensive student devices, 1:1 Chromebook-student ratios are becoming more common across the country, prompting independent school leaders to consider a broad range of technology options when executing their schools’ unique instructional visions.

Student devices often support multiple instructional platforms across subject areas.

Continuing our Chromebook example, the wider availability of these devices significantly impacts instruction across subject areas. This is especially true in the era of distance learning, as departments ranging from math, science, and even art have embraced remote instruction due to public health concerns. 

Rather than simply using their Chromebooks to draft essays or conduct internet research, students increasingly use platforms like Dreambox to engage mathematics content, Newsela to access dynamic, complex ELA text sets, and, especially for younger learners, BrainPop to browse instructional video content. Each of these platforms, moreover, can actively differentiate instruction for each learner to varying degrees, allowing classroom teachers to better address the unique needs of each student.

Even textbooks, hallmarks of the American schooling experience, have ceded ground to online resources.

The same phenomenon holds for one of the hallmarks of American public education: the course textbook. In addition to their lower cost, online textbooks allow teachers to differentiate instruction among their learners, scaffolding content to more effectively help each learner achieve content mastery. 

Faced with these developments, independent school leaders may begin adjusting their hiring criteria. Rather than simply looking for teachers who can provide engaging, whole-class lessons, schools may increasingly seek educators who can monitor independent student learning at various academic levels. Indeed, the image of a teacher in front of a class of students, hands folded perfectly on top of their desks, is quickly becoming a thing of the past, replaced by a more dynamic model in which teachers frequently interact with individual students who largely direct their own learning. 

Data and assessment platforms give independent school leaders unique insights into students’ academic performance.

Layered on top of these online instructional resources, data and assessment platforms like Illuminate can also give school leaders greater insight into students’ academic performance, allowing them to quickly gauge the success of their school’s instructional programming. 

In addition to digitizing traditional pen-and-paper assessments, the latest generation of data and assessment platforms can produce student- and family-facing letters that provide a snapshot of academic progress, but otherwise disparate instructional datasets into conversation with one another, and more generally streamline the data collection and analysis process for administrators, all of which provide a feedback loop between leaders’ instructional vision and student performance.

Applications like Class Dojo support both social-emotional development, as well as parent communication efforts.

In addition to meeting strictly academic goals, many online platforms now offer social-emotional and parent communication features, enabling leaders to weave technology into their non-academic school culture priorities. Class Dojo, for example, allows teachers to easily communicate with students’ family members from their phones and give students points for various social-emotional milestones. 

Depending on their instructional visions, independent school leaders may choose to prioritize training for applications like Class Dojo during their regular PDs, sometimes displacing more traditional modules focused on specific content areas. In such cases, leaders’ technology choices can fundamentally re-shape their broader professional development efforts, as well as the aptitudes they expect teachers to demonstrate during regular classroom instruction. 

For independent schools with special populations, assistive technology can help close opportunity gaps.

With greater flexibility—and often capacity—to address the unique needs of their students, independent school leaders can also leverage technology choices to meet the unique needs of students with special needs. Voice-to-text features, for example, can allow students to quickly communicate with their teachers or classmates without needing to type. Video lessons and online instructional platforms that engage students through non-traditional means may also be able to meet the needs of special populations to a greater extent than traditional instructional methods. 

Customized curricular choices often demand customized technology solutions.

Within the independent school landscape, this wider range of technology choices allows school leaders the opportunity to embrace customized technology solutions. Freed from the procurement or other bureaucratic guidelines of traditional public school systems, independent schools often have more autonomy to source and purchase technology that meets the unique needs of their school communities.

Several arts-based charter schools, for example, have rapidly scaled their graphic design programming—and the requisite technology that accompanies it—to fulfill their stated mission. Similarly, STEM-focused independent schools have funneled their technology dollars toward the procurement of advanced data analysis and lab-specific platforms. As a result of the additional flexibility granted by their board or state charter authorizer, independent school leaders are able to select these and other custom technology options for their student populations.

E-rate funding is a critical part of independent schools’ technology decision-making process.

Of course, these additional options—as well as online instructional platforms and textbooks—cost money. For charter schools and certain independent schools with limited access to public funding, this financial burden underscores the importance of the E-rate funding process.

Working with an experienced E-rate consultant and service provider, some independent schools can access federal dollars to supplement their existing technology funds, offsetting the costs associated with more robust student technology programs. E-rate can be especially useful for schools that need to invest significant funds into their IT infrastructure, such as switches, WAPs, and cabling, that form the backbone of their technology programs and which, in many cases, demand significant financial investment. 

As independent schools expand, their technology planning processes become increasingly complex.

For school leaders adding an additional site, grade, or simply expanding their enrollment, instructional visions directly impact their concomitant technology choices. In the case of a new building, independent schools face the daunting task of outfitting their new site with the requisite cabling, wireless access points, and other “invisible” IT infrastructure that support student learning. As they hire entirely new staff and enroll a new cohort of students, device purchases, depending on the school’s policy, can begin to significantly impact the new site’s budget, not to mention the additional costs associated with SMART boards, projectors, and other classroom technology staples. 

While adding a grade or increasing enrollment is generally less costly than adding an entirely new site, these actions still have direct impacts on technology purchasing: more students mean more devices, more classrooms mean more technology accessories, and additional teachers will undoubtedly need laptops of their own. Subscription costs for online instructional platforms will also likely increase as additional students require access to programs like DreamBox or Newsela, for example. In some cases, additional IT infrastructure may be required to support increased device traffic, especially if a school’s expansion includes physical additions to an existing site that lack wireless access points or cabling. 

Depending on their facility, independent schools may have to make significant investments in technology infrastructure before opening. 

In crowded urban areas, where charter schools often lease former churches, historic traditional school buildings, and even office space, outfitting a facility to match the instructional vision of a school leader can present enormous challenges. Older buildings may lack cabling, wireless access points, and other infrastructure necessary to support hundreds, or even thousands, of individual devices. Space may also be scarce, with little room to store Chromebook carts, much less closets to house servers.

If co-locating with an existing school, leaders may have to engage in sensitive negotiations to upgrade a building’s existing capacity, which already serves a population of students. Even if the upgrades positively impact an entire building, an independent school may have to shoulder all—or at least the vast majority—of the cost. 

At CTS, we partner with independent school leaders to identify technology solutions that align with their unique visions. 

Our team has worked with more than 60 schools across the United States to align their instructional visions with their technology choices. From start-up technology purchasing to ongoing consulting and expansion efforts, our team is versed in the diverse range of technology challenges facing school leaders today.

In the era of remote learning, school leaders’ technology choices are more important than ever, forming the bedrock of student learning and family communication efforts that are central to maintaining a school community. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help you fulfill the unique vision of your school.