The Real Barriers to the Necessary Digital Transition in Education

LeiLani Cauthen

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series


A majority of schools are still acting like everything is totally normal in education. The fact is, prior to the pandemic, everything seemed normal in most schools, the same schedule, grades-by-age batches and structure of the last hundred years. This structure includes buildings and bells ringing, summer breaks, parent-teacher meets, sporting events and class pictures in yearbooks. It’s a great legacy, embedded deep in our collective psyche making change and particularly technology change, very hard.  It’s all very normal, but in most areas of the country, that “normal” has been slowly failing. 

Test scores and achievement nationwide are down. Where only two years ago there was a bit more leisurely approach, today most school and district administrations are breathlessly unable to keep up as accountability rules, laws and the need for virtual and digital learning solutions reign supreme. With the addition of the pandemic, the urgency is now undeniable. Today’s environment demands we identify barriers that prevent us from making the necessary changes, and then unlock these barriers once and for all. 


Barriers to change: by-the-numbers

Number 1: Lack of Leadership

In every national survey by the Learning Counsel, one subject that always comes up is, lack of leadership. This takes many forms, but one consistently mentioned is the fact that education institutions have a frequent “changing of the guard” in the superintendent position. The average tenure of a superintendent nationally is five to six years. The average tenure of a superintendent in a large district is barely three years. The result is that lower-level executives and teachers have learned to ignore new programs with which they aren’t in agreement until the problem (and the leadership) goes away.

The leadership issue boils down to setting a direction and then actively driving each and every tactic.  The problem is, where to lead? Most leaders are “fixers,” swept into whatever the hottest problem is of the day. Very few look at the scene they inherit from an inside-the-tech-shift awareness, which would allow them to change structure and staffing very differently.   

Tips to overcoming the barrier of lack of leadership, as a leader:

  • Look before you listen. A great leader should observe the entirety of the educational scene from both the outside and the inside, before listening to opinions. Hard data and observing from a distance often reveal primary truths about the condition of things. 

  • Listen before you act. Any leader at any level needs to listen to the organization’s internal as well as external voices before acting. In most cases, it is the external view, the “fit” to the current culture and expectations that matters the most. Opinions about what should be done will be many, but many of those will be red herrings because they come from a single viewpoint and do not encompass the whole of the operation. 

  • Think without preconceptions. There are a host of preconceived notions about how education should look, how learning or teaching should be done. These include multiple theories about how to teach any one subject, how to follow political trends, and the value of historic patterns (how we have always done it). None of these helps lead an institution out of the past and into the future.

  • Be decisive. The reason “lack of leadership” comes in at #1 when ranking barriers to success in schools and districts is because it typically comes from the view of those who are not leading. Being decisive in the face of those critics goes a long way towards showing strength and quelling naysayers. 

  • Be effective. Any so-called leader can set up a false promise of bringing better organization with lofty vision statements and little to no execution. Don’t let hobby-horse issues rule, involving only your inner-circle of managers. Take the necessary time to go deep and develop the holistic reorganization needed to enact dramatic change.

  • Learn to utilize strategic planning. An authentic strategy plan has a goal and individualized department tactics, each with well-defined action steps. All of these then feedback information to the leader who routinely verifies the execution of each part. 

  • Communicate.  And they communicate again. Good leadership requires great communication. Spoken and especially written communication that is passed without alteration to every corner is essential.

Tips to overcoming the barrier of lack of leadership, as a manager or teacher:

  • Inform instead of complaining. When staff are prone to complain about leadership, they have neglected their role of informing the leadership about conditions on the front lines. Leaders can’t lead properly when deprived of information. 

  • Insist on having strategic plans in writing. A free-for-all vision without planned steps of execution will fail and the leader will fail. Request plans in writing, and then give your leader what he or she needs by getting it done.

  • Lead where you are. Be a fine example of planning and achievement in whatever role you have. 


Number 2: Unwillingness to comply

One of the biggest barriers to change in an education organization is blatant unwillingness, especially when it comes to using technology. It is important to remember that the most efficient process may not be the most effective process. The most effective one is the one that works. Teachers will especially hold on to processes that have been proven to work. Tech that is portrayed as being more efficient must also be proven to be more effective. This is the only way to win over the unwilling. Luckily, most new tech, especially the professional-grade software and courseware, is being proven daily to be not only more efficient but also more effective.  [c1] 

Another form of this same barrier is good old “lip-service.” Staff and teachers will act like they are set to comply, and then they just don’t do it. This lack of compliance doubles the work of executives who must constantly inspect that real actions are taking place. Harping on people to comply gets half-hearted results. A better way is to require demonstrations of application and then make a big deal out of creativity and other aspects during any show-and-tell. Validating positives begets positive action. 

Tips to overcoming the barrier of unwillingness and lack of compliance: Show effectiveness, not just efficiency to help staff and teachers get behind using tech of any kind. Create a “show-me” culture so that individual innovation is constantly put in the limelight and all parties get a chance to win acclaim.


Number 3: Devices or infrastructure

Many times, schools face barriers with devices and networking infrastructure. The inability to get all students online or having a shortage of power to devices can make any lesson go wrong quickly. In addition, normal device issues like unexpected updating that makes a machine unusable while the updates are occurring can also derail actual work. These are real issues that require altered approaches. 

Tips to overcoming device or infrastructure barriers: Where possible, build out capacity of devices, power and networks. Many students have smartphones fully capable of backing up notebook devices for accessing digital content and even typing essays. “Phone firsters” are a large part of the student population, who use smart phones for everything provided the application has been built for mobile interface. Also, have teachers manage lessons with the full knowledge of issues so that they have students share devices, do work requiring device use at another time, and have back-up plans for when networks go down.


Number 4: Budget

All educators complain of not enough budget, even though there is more money in education today than ever before. The encumberment of funds into unusable areas is a reality, making creativity in finding appropriate funding for technology very important today. Many times, staff attrition can free up funds that can be used instead for tech efficiencies that leverage the remaining staff. This is an important point for many schools today because of the nationwide teacher shortage. Doing more with less now often means also doing without the headcount you may have needed in the past. While tech doesn’t replace teachers and the human dynamic in learning, it can help fewer do more. You can also bring in teachers over the Internet as needed, without the need of additional full-time employment. 

Tips to overcoming budget constraints: First, be willing to do what it takes to change methods. Second, remember that you can’t get what you don’t ask for, so ask, ask, ask for the money needed from the usual sources and any other avenues possible.


Number 5: Parents

Schools nationwide are encountering resistance from parents when they deploy technologies.  Remarkably, this resistance often comes from the wealthiest schools and districts. The Learning Counsel’s investigation has revealed that those parents were typically successful in life, and therefore wanted “the same” education for their own children. Conversely, poorer areas are more often all-in on all the tech their children can possibly use. They also see stronger gains in learning because of tech. 

Another point parents often make is that they don’t want “kids on screens” all day, even as they allow their children many hours on screens playing games or texting after school. Many parents have been propagandized against screen time. Screen learning has been questioned by many, but a study in early 2017 showed there actually is a sweet spot for how much screen learning works, beyond which there is an issue of “too much.” That spot is roughly 30 percent of the typical period of awake time, or a 16-hour day. That time is four hours and 28 minutes. Since students will also use their smartphones and gaming consoles outside school, the target time is two-and-a-half hours of in-school learning, or approximately 40 percent of the school day. The study published January 13, 2017, in the Association for Psychological Science, analyzed data measuring screen time and well-being collected from 120,115 fifteen-year-olds. The study was so enormous that few social scientists would question its usefulness. Schools will need to determine the appropriateness of this data for younger ages. 

It is important to note that an accepted definition of “screen learning time” is a student actively reading with a purpose of learning, working in courseware doing things like manipulating objects to show math comprehension, or taking a test. This is not the same as using a device to take notes, write an essay, or work collaboratively on a project with another student. The difference is that screen learning time is similar to sit-and-get lecture time, textbook reading, and other more passive ingestion of information versus using a device as a tool in the same way pencils and paper were once used. In any case, individual screen learning should be limited.   

Tips to managing the parent barrier: Give them the research that data that verifies the numbers: 4 ½ hours of screen time – reserving 2 ½ hours for the school and the other 2 hours for after-school use. For the no-tech parents, create a document about the local industries with high-paying jobs where tech is used. Also include a global perspective for high-paying current jobs and projections for the future.


Coming in Part Two

In part two of this series, we’ll explore additional barriers to the digital transition and the strategies that you can use to overcome these barriers. Individually, these obstacles may not seem daunting. But when faced all at once, they can combine to derail any leader’s plans to successfully enact change and improve the lives of our learners.


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