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3 Action Items to Help District IT Leaders Accelerate Ed Tech Success

Author Daniel Pink and U.S. CTO Megan Smith addressed education technology leaders at the Consortium for School Networking Conference this week.

by Tanya Roscorla / April 5, 2016
Daniel Pink, author of the business motivation book Drive, participates in a roundtable discussion at the Consortium for School Networking Conference in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 2016. Tanya Roscorla

WASHINGTON, D.C. — School district IT teams and their leaders have descended upon the nation's capitol this week for the annual Consortium for School Networking Conference, where top thought leaders, including author Daniel Pink and U.S. CTO Megan Smith, shared their perspectives.

During two keynotes and the conversation with district leaders that followed Monday, April 4, revealed some key ideas that IT leaders can take action on now to better their ed tech environment, embrace a culture of digital options and accelerate success.

1. Let School IT Leaders Work Without Constraints

In a study of artists and creativity, Harvard Business School researchers discovered some interesting perceptions. When artists did commissioned work, they said they felt constrained by the requirements that their clients put on them and couldn't do great work. Artists said they did their best creative work when they designed art for personal projects.

Daniel Pink, the author of the business motivation book Drive, cited this study and talked about its implications for businesses and IT leaders. Most of the work that today's employees do falls under the "commissioned art" category. In other words, their bosses will tell them what to do, and they'll have to do it with a bunch of constraints to bind them. 

"There is no non-commissioned work in the workplace," Pink said. "Almost everything people do is commissioned work."

But some businesses are breaking out of this mold, and Pink suggested that school IT departments should do the same. For example, Atlassian gives software developers 24 hours to work on whatever projects they want to each week, as long as they show their work to the company on Friday afternoon. Even the National Security Agency lets employees take time to work on their own projects on Fridays.

If a large federal agency can make time for non-commissioned work, then school IT leaders stuck in education bureaucracy can make time too, Pink said. So IT leaders in education should carve out time each week to do non-commissioned, creative work for school technology 

2. Give Students in Detention Access to Makerspaces

Speaking of creativity, makerspaces provide places for students to turn their ideas into reality. And they shouldn't just be for kids who behave well, said Megan Smith, U.S. chief technology officer. She called for schools to let students in detention have access to makerspaces. They just might find a genius who can help solve world problems. 

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith gives a keynote address at the Consortium for School Networking Conference on April 4, 2016, in Washington D.C. / Photo credit: Tanya Roscorla

"Scout for those rock star talents out there, let them do their things, especially the kids in detention," Smith said.

3. Don't Fear Failure

In a discussion after the two main keynotes, education leaders and the keynote speakers talked about their views on devices and technology pilots. 

Far from a panacea or something to be dismissed, mobile devices can be helpful in the right contexts. The devices can't be used for every task, Pink said, and ed tech curmudgeons shouldn't say they're not useful at all.

"This device is not some kind of magic talisman," he said. "It's a tool, and like any tool, it has its purposes. It's not for everything, it's for the right things."  

Whether schools try out mobile devices or another type of technology, it's important to create a school culture where it's OK to fail as long as the school learns from its failure, said David Schuler, president of AASA — the School Superintendent's Association — and superintendent of High School District 214 in Illinois. 

In fact, he wants both staff and students to fail at times so they can learn something and try again.

"If every pilot works," Schuler said, "we're not pushing the envelope far enough."

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