Procuring the Proper Software, Hardware and Teacher Training for Successful Educational Technology Integration – A Funder’s Perspective

By Amy Z. Amiel

[This article is part 1 of the series Continuing Conversations on Leveraging Educational Technology to Advance Jewish Learning. The series is a project of Jewish Funders Network, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the William Davidson Foundation. For an in-depth look at opportunities in Jewish Ed Tech and digital engagement, read Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy. Later this year, Jewish Funders Network will launch a new website to help advance the field of Jewish educational technology.]

When you care about successful technology integration in your local Jewish school, what is the most effective way to provide support? For today’s school leadership and school or community funders, the pathway forward to successful educational technology integration is murky at best. The many choices in this dynamic and still emerging field can be daunting.

One thing common to all (Jewish) schools today: technology is now (another) overwhelming responsibility for school leadership. Gone are the days of technology as merely a budget item relegated to the business manager, when tech costs were a part-time IT professional and some new desktop computers for the lab. Today, technology in education touches every aspect of school life, affecting teachers, students, educational administration and parents. Technology is no longer something used only for school-home communications and an occasional online research project. The field of educational technology has grown to complement teachers and schools in organizing and educating children beginning in the earliest grades.

In Seattle, WA where the Samis Foundation has invested more than $70M over 2 decades into our local Jewish day schools, technology use and integration was not a prioritized focus. To support our beneficiaries in this area, we researched and developed a technology initiative of our own, designing a 10-year, $2.5M initiative to support our schools in enhancing student learning experiences and improving outcomes in all academic areas, including through the acquisition of 21st century digital skills. What we sought was a cultural change in which educational leaders and their faculties were thoughtful experimenters and adopters of technology in service to their school mission and educational goals. But where does one begin when prompting this culture change? Here are some of the select steps the Samis Technology Initiative has taken, along with questions/challenges we are pondering going forward:

1. Site Visits: We made site visits to nearly 20 Jewish day schools and other independent schools to see a range of technology integration. Visiting schools and meeting educational leaders “new to you” provides learning and focus like no book or blog post can. The purpose of the trips was not only exploratory but was also to gain buy-in and excitement from school leadership. We saw Apple schools and Google Schools, cost-conscious schools and schools where donors were supporting a top of the line approach to technology. The best take away these visits taught us: there must be a designated educator in each school, responsible for technology integration, providing professional development to faculty and supporting student learning outcomes. A question we are thinking about: As technology sophistication has progressed in Seattle schools, should we consider another round of site visits?

2. Community of Practice: We began to convene representative teacher-leaders from each of our schools. This group of teacher-leaders formed the core of a Community of Practice (CoP) which began three years ago, meets monthly and is still running strong. These teacher-leaders serve as part-time Technology Integration Specialists in their schools, a position for which we provide funding. This Community of Practice is tasked with directing their own technology driven curriculum, professionally facilitated by a local professor with expertise in digital teaching and learning. Our evaluations of this Community of Practice show that our teachers are growing their personal learning (technology) networks, know where and how to find information and support for technology in education,and are learning to play technology-leadership roles within their school communities. This year we are focusing on peer coaching – on training our committed technology teacher-leaders to work effectively with peers in their schools to strategically integrate technology. A question we are thinking about: Will the technology Community of Practice continue to have meaning and relevance as each school’s educational technology leadership strengthens?

3. Advisory Committee: We formed a Technology Advisory Committee comprised of a select number of thoughtful leaders who care deeply and are still learning about this issue. Our advisors have backgrounds in technology, education, day school leadership and philanthropy. This Committee has been invaluable in providing guidance and oversight.

4. Infrastructure Assessment and Upgrade: We conducted an audit and inventory of each school’s technology infrastructure including wiring, bandwidth, hardware etc. We used this audit and inventory in close consultation with each school to recommend upgrades in infrastructure given their educational needs. We approached this upgrade as a pilot and were careful not to fund them in their entirety. A question we are thinking about: what is the cost cycle of inventory upgrade/refresh at each school and what role will the Samis Foundation play in infrastructure assessment and funding the next time around? How can we promote school self-sufficiency in this area?

5. Professional Development: We have experimented with different models for professional development in the schools we support. This has included exposure to new technologies and a variety of presenters. It has helped carve out time for teacher-teams intra and inter-school to devote to technology dreaming and conversation. More recently, we have offered professional development devoted to the acquisition of specific skills in technology (creating screencasts, exposing faculties to widely used educational apps like Kahoot and Seesaw.) We expose the CoP teachers and others to new and emerging educational software – most of it free – and let each teacher and ultimately, school, determine whether a particular app or software is one that meets their needs and culture. We see clearly that professional development through consultants, conferences and our ongoing Community of Practice, has fostered a technology culture shift in schools. We have data supporting the value of professional development as central to this effort. A question we are thinking about today: Can data link Samis’ investment in Professional Development to increased student achievement? Will we see a marked improvement in student acquisition of 21st century skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, character and citizenship?

6. Hardware Grants: We offered modest grants in hardware to each school. This was no more than $20,000 per school and in some instances, far less. The hardware basically outfitted one pilot classroom or shared devices among several grades. Using this approach allowed the schools and the foundation to maintain a balance between the shiny new computers and “toys” and a continued focus on how to use the technology in the service of learning goals. This approach has whet schools’ appetites and encouraged real consideration on their parts about educational effectiveness and cost. A question we are asking today: What will the next cycle of hardware funding for our schools look like? What percentage of a school’s budget might we reasonably expect each school to spend on technology including hardware?

7. Program Provider Partnerships: We have experimented with funding schools to partner with quality program providers. We have tried bringing in outside providers to teach coding and robotics but it was not successful. However, even our failed partnerships helped our initiative and each individual school to grow and learn. For example, a failed partnership with a coding company led a school that was previously skeptical of the value of teaching computational thinking to see the value and hire a teacher with coding skills. Another school, resistant to rearranging their Middle School schedule to accommodate coding courses has overhauled its model, making time for student learning in coding, engineering and a design lab. A question we are thinking about: How else can we partner our schools with one another and with (national) initiatives to provide excellence and support?

8. Teaching Technology Skills: A related area with which we are still wrestling is supporting teaching technology skills like coding and robotics. Our small schools largely do not have teachers on staff skilled in those subjects. A partnership with the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education is exposing our schools in a professional and supportive way to the value of embedding some of these subjects in the curriculum. A question we are thinking about today: How can we provide support and know-how to teach computational thinking skills? How can we encourage schools to grow in-house experts in these areas?

In the not too distant future we hope to support our schools in technology planning. Now that the schools have some in-house leadership who are thoughtful and knowledgeable about “technology in education,” there is a team in place in most of our schools to lead this effort. A school with a doable technology plan that is rooted in measurable educational outcomes will be one of the Samis Technology Initiative’s greatest achievements.

If you’re thinking about supporting schools in this most worthwhile, cutting-edge area, I encourage you to be hopeful: you too can meet with success. Strengthening school-based educational technology leadership through professional development focuses funders and schools on the most precious technology resource: our teachers! Coupled with strategic financial support to provide both relief and guidance, funders can measurably impact the quality of education in Jewish day schools.

Amy Z. Amiel is a native New Yorker living in the Pacific Northwest. Amy serves as the Senior Program Officer of the Samis Foundation, a Seattle-based funder focused on local, quality Jewish day education and State of Israel funding. There, she develops and leads a technology change initiative designed to improve educational outcomes in schools through strategic use and integration of technology.