What should come first: the technology, or the need for it?

I have been kicking this question around in my head lately, but I'm not sure that there is a correct answer. Instead, what I'm really searching for is the logical response that I can buy into and support when I propose ideas or help to make decisions about technology purchases in my district. Understand that what I'm really looking for is a space to flesh out my own thinking in order to find a logical response to a question that requires an answer.

The question is simply this: Does the availability of technology in schools encourage the end users to put the technology to use (if you buy it, they will come), or is the purchase-upon-request model more likely to yield the greatest use of educationally focused tech?

Questions like this feel heavily philosophical, and they aren't often taken seriously by people who have the luxury of pondering the question and then flushing it from their minds. However, the moment my philosophical pondering of this question was faced with the reality of a financial purchasing decision that was influenced by the way I answered it, I found out that sometimes philosophy has palpable implications.

At the core of this question is really the issue of human motivation. Are educators, a collectively resourceful group by both nature and training, likely to utilize the technological tools if we provide access and adequate training (the latter of the two is the key, and often the most heavily overlooked element of any technology purchase)? Is access enough to motivate their curiosity or to spark their internal motivation to explore in the hopes of finding a more efficient or engaging way to teach? Can we "buy and train" our way to more engaging classroom instruction? The "buy it and they will come" model of purchasing educational technology is built upon a foundational belief that teachers will gravitate to and adopt the most effective and efficient educational tools if they are given access and exposure to them. It also leans heavily upon the belief that when hurdles, pitfalls, or perceived limitations are removed, people are more likely to explore, learn, and grow.

Alternatively, we can take the road more commonly traveled (well, I guess that depends where you teach). In this model, teachers make requests for some technological marvel that they believe can support learning in their classroom. The district accommodates and often leaves the teacher (or the small pod of teachers who requested the tech) to their own devices to put the technology to work. While the initial purchase may include some professional development dollars, these teachers are often left to fend for themselves, and to promote the "good word" to their colleagues if the grand experiment succeeds. This model subscribes to the belief that people are requesting due to an already present intrinsic motivation. Relevance is key here; the technology they request is somehow more relevant to their role as a classroom teacher, thus they are more likely to put the purchase to use immediately, appropriately, and for a longer duration of time. Of course, there are obvious procedural limitations placed upon staff members in this model. The "exploration" of the tech that exists is forced to take place outside of the school day (for most teachers), and those who are uninterested in participating in the exploration are far less likely to issue requests for technology.

By now, the downfalls to each should be fairly apparent.

In the open access model of tech purchasing, there is no guarantee of any return on investment. The purchases could become the next hot item at the school. It could also become another one of the dust collectors in the technology graveyard at your school. For this reason, visionary leadership and a sensitive pulse on the curriculum, teaching styles, and attitudes of the staff are essential qualities of the lead person making the purchasing decisions. Obviously, those aren't qualities that are easy standard in most people, especially many of the technologically savvy people that tend to head into the computer science field.

The other major issue with the model is the issue of justifying the funding. Many tech purchases are heavy financial decisions that need to be weighed (often by a panel of board members). Advocating for the purchase of expensive laptops or wireless infrastructure or the latest gadget is a tough sell when the proposal is littered with phrases like "we think," "we hope," and "ideally they will." This kind of blind faith in the sanity and vision of a district's technology leader takes time to develop between the board, the staff, the techies, the families, and the community. Without that kind of trusting relationship, this model of equipping our schools becomes a much tougher financial sell.

Even more apparent are the downfalls of the purchase-upon-request model. The statement, "You don't know what you don't know," has been made to me far too many times this year as I lead professional development sessions (I bristle at the statement; we live in a period where our surplus commodity is accessible information). This comment suggests to me that many educators feel victimized by the pace of change that accompanies the advancement of technology. In a time where cash flow is limited in schools, the logic of these teachers may go something like this: "Even if I'd like to try out that tool I heard about at the conference, the reality is that I don't know enough about it. With all that I'm expected to do to perform my job well, I don't have time to learn a whole lot about it, and I would hate to waste funds to buy something I'm really not sure about. I know I could use those funds to buy something for my classroom that I am sure about." The resulting action is inaction. They fail to make the request for new technology. In this model, there are no anecdotal stories and experiences from colleagues they trust to sell them on the value of an element of technology (and let's be honest...those anecdotal pieces are often the impetus for many of the technology purchases made in school districts; look to the interactive whiteboard craze for evidence of this).

Of course, this leads to the other major issue with this model: pockets of excellence and pockets of despair. Educators who are capable of identifying tech that will assist them or their students in the classroom are likely to be more dynamic teachers to begin with. This assertion stems from this group's general awareness of the technology that actually exists in the first place. That may be a result of their ability to research and sift through information, or their ability to network, connect with, and learn from others, but those educators with these skills are likely to be the ones advocating for themselves and their students regarding the request of technology. Any way we slice it, those submitting requests for technology are likely those who are motivated enough to put the technology to use. The other educators (those unwilling to submit requests for new technology) are not. This results in a greater disparity between the teachers who teach effectively with technology the teachers who avoid technology.

My underlying assumption here is that technology provides something to any learning environment that cannot be achieved without that technology. I understand all of the arguments that can be made suggesting that effective teaching and learning can happen without technology. I understand that meaningful education happens with or without technology. What I also understand, though, is that technology offers opportunities that are not present without the technology. Conversing with (and seeing) a group of students across the country during the regularly scheduled school day didn't regularly happen before Skype existed. Collaborating and collectively crafting presentations, articles, and projects without planning a face-to-face meeting time didn't happen before the days of wikis and learning management systems. For this reason, teachers that request and put technology to use in their classroom create opportunities for their students that other students lack as a result of lacking access to that same technology.

Perhaps the higher ground is to take a diversified approach to the technology purchasing strategy at any school. By maintaining a pulse on the wave of widely adopted/accepted technology, we can make reasonable predications about the technologies that have caught on and the technologies that are still kept at arms length by the general public. For instance, A crystal ball isn't necessary to see the trend in wireless technology. The expectation for most tech users is open access to the Internet. Outfitting our buildings and learning environments with the wireless infrastructure (complete with a guest network) is certainly a justifiable cost with most school boards. Providing a laptop/net book/tablet for each teacher is also one of those increasingly obvious purchases, primarily because the public has generally accepted these technologies as an element of workplace productivity. These are wise "infrastructural" investments because they open up possibilities for experimental adoption/trials of other less accepted technologies.

However, more controversial purchases, such as a 1:1 laptop initiative for each student, perhaps should be reserved, at least at first, to a per request purchase process. That kind of significant financial investment needs to see a legitimate return on investment. That means that teachers with the intrinsic motivation to use that technology regularly should be the ones to trial it first. First impressions matter, and when a school outfits its students with hundreds of iPads or net books, only to have many of them vastly under utilized, it becomes a tough pill for parents, taxpayers, and board members to swallow when the question of continued support of the program rears its head.

Non-negotiables exist in this conversation, though. Regardless of the model that any organization adopts, honesty, trust, and open communication must exist between those who purchase and support the technology, and those who put that technology to use. Tech departments that do not listen to and address the needs of classroom teachers and students invalidate the value of either purchasing model. When end users do not feel adequately supported, they are less likely to take risks in using new technologies. When end users don't feel trusted, they are less likely to form a working relationship with their tech department, thus decreasing the likelihood will engage in the meaningful communication that must exist between the two groups. Until both sides feel that they are working toward the same goals, meaningful experimentation cannot take place.

The last non-negotiable element is having a rock solid, consistently reliable technology infrastructure in place from the beginning. It is the foundation on which any technological advancements take place, so there is simply no room for inconsistent or unreliable performance. I equate this to the infrastructure of roads and bridges. Due to the reliability and consistency of this infrastructure, most Americans can focus on the type of vehicle that suits their personality or lifestyle, not on the type of vehicle that will allow them to travel through the terrain of their daily commute. End users should be able to depend on their tech infrastructure in the same way, allowing them to make decisions based upon goals or purpose, not based upon access or reliability.

I hope this rant has helped you think through the question I posed at the beginning. While a correct answer doesn't exist, a logical rationale in a district's tech purchasing model is an essential starting point.