What do schools need from their technology leaders?

By | May 18, 2014

I am often asked by schools to help in the appointment of someone to lead their technology strategy and often the most difficult part is drawing up a job description that is both ambitious and, well, fill-able.

The first challenge is what to call it. Director/ Head/ Leader of…

  • eLearning?
  • Digital Strategy?
  • Technology?

I prefer the latter – it’s all-encompassing, simple and not easily misunderstood.

The next thing to understand is that the role has nothing to do with the curriculum subject of ICT/ CS and should not be conflated with it or manage it. We do not, after all, expect the catering service to run the Food Technology curriculum or conversely the PE department to cut the grass.

I asked a colleague to describe a similar role he carries out for his Academy:

The principles of this post seem fairly uncontroversial:

  • It should focus relentlessly on learning – technology as a utility, not a goal;
  • It should encompass the use of technology across every aspect of school-life – ‘canteen to classroom’;
  • It should be part of the School Leadership Team, as it’s a whole-school responsibility and needs to be tied into multiple other things*;
  • The focus should be on supporting staff development, not on the narrow concept of ‘training’;
  • It should line-manage the school’s technical staff (controversial, but vital if change is to be successful).

and specific responsibilities should include

  • Listening – understanding and integrating the needs of students & their learning into the school’s approach to technology use;
  • Visioning – understanding what emerging technologies make possible, and working out if they could contribute to the school’s educational aims;
  • Strategising – planning how the vision is to be delivered, the when what where who and how of making it come to life;
  • Coaching – supporting classroom staff in the confident and effective use of technology for learning;
  • Training – designing a programme of CPD aligned to the strategy, commissioning & delivering training sessions to groups of staff;
  • Mentoring – developing additional capacity within the school, encouraging subject champions become engines of change within their departments;
  • Liaising – feeding in the expertise and expectations of the school’s governance and wider community of parents, employers and other education professionals.
  • Reflecting – learning from others around the world performing similar roles.

The combination of personality traits and experience needed is quite rare;

  • A great teacher with a passion their chosen career and strong experience of applying technology to enhance teaching and learning;
  • A broad, functional understanding of the technologies used by schools, from the cafeteria to the classroom;
  • Commercial nous, able to manage complex combinations of suppliers, projects and contracts;
  • Emotionally mature and empathetic, with a foot in both camps and able to translate & mediate between teachers and technical staff;
  • A skilled trainer, with great communication skills and educational credibility, able to demystify technology and reveal its relevance;
  • A persistent and optimistic outlook, demonstrating determination in the face of set-backs;
  • The inquisitiveness & inventiveness needed to stay abreast of developments and spot opportunities to innovate and, equally, practical solutions to teaching or technical problems;
  • The ability to monitor and assess both formally and informally the needs of colleagues and pupils, and to respond to them;
  • And finally a strong grounding in what we know about effective learning and teaching, with the skepticism required to apply technology only where it accelerates, deepens, adds value or makes the previously impossible possible.

This role definitely represents a significant investment by a school in the development of technology, but without it, money spent on technology itself is likely to result in limited impact.

What do you think is missing from the description above?

 

 

* Caveat to the SLT point; where a head teacher has an exceptionally strong vision for technology and champions it across the senior team, this role can be effectively carried out by a middle leader.

32 thoughts on “What do schools need from their technology leaders?

  1. Nick James

    We could add:
    A strong communicator who can listen to the dreams and frustrations of the employees and pupils of the school, and address these with definite and practical solutions.
    The ability to “translate” between technical and teaching staff
    An understanding of, and sympathy for, both the unique pressures of the classroom environment, and those faced by the technical staff, and the ability to address both of these.

    Reply
  2. Ben

    Head of technology is so broad but so important…..the pen or pencil was technology not so long ago. Where are we going? Managing that is unbelievably hard…..close engagement with the governors and training of any changes are key. Not a walk in the park…….

    Reply
    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Thanks Ben, agree on governance and will amend above

      Reply
  3. Alex Jones (@alexcj)

    The person needs to have credibility with the technical and the educational teams. That’s still quite a rare combination. A good Network Manager can make that less important if he or she is very service orientated.
    The role needs someone with a good understanding of change management. The hearts and minds of the technical and educational teams need to be recruited before any innovation is going to succeed.

    Reply
  4. Dan Bunker

    Those communication skills outlined and reinforced in other comments are going to be key.

    In a primary setting we have to be realistic about workload and in many cases the role of technology director will not formally exist and it will be split between head / deputy and a teacher with specific interest in this area. The challenge here is to ensure that a coherent vision for technology across the school is systematically implemented and evaluated to maximise impact on learning and pupil progress.

    Reply
    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Excellent point Dan. This model of leadership is especially challenging in Primary

      Reply
  5. mikercameron

    This is a good summary of the role which gives any school a starting point for their JD.

    I do (slightly) disagree with one aspect. The first bullet point about experience says:

    “A great teacher with a passion their chosen career and strong experience of applying technology to enhance teaching and learning;”

    In my experience it is usually easier to provide a great teacher with sufficient technological expertise to do this role than it is to provide a great technologist with sufficient T&L understanding. Having said that it is not impossible and on those grounds I would not write the JD such that having been a teacher was a requirement. A few years ago I might well have done so, but technological change is kind of accelerating at the moment (at least at the user end) and this aspect of change management is becoming ever more important. Yes, the role can be carried out by a teacher with good technology support, so I wouldn’t rule out a teacher from the role. I just wouldn’t mandate it.

    One aspect of the role that you have included which I think is absolutely imperative is that whoever is Director of Digital Strategy (my preferred title) MUST line manage the technical team. The role cannot work without this and it continues to surprise me how many schools don’t do this.

    Finally, on the issue of the Head of ICT/CS – I think you can be the Head of ICT/CS or the Director of Digital Strategy. I don’t believe that anyone should be both.

    Reply
    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Thanks Mike, a really valuable addition. I do agree on the teacher bit – I think having taught using tech day in day out prepares one really well for one of the trickiest bits of the role, which is convincing other teachers to take risks and change their practice.

      Reply
  6. José Picardo

    Hi Dominic,

    Really nice summary. I do think it is important for this person to be in SLT (or associate member of SLT at least). This is because, as you rightly point out, technology has a massive impact on all areas of school life. From this perspective, it is crucial that the person is fully involved in the school’s strategic planning. This would facilitate the creation and nurturing of a culture in which technology is not an add-on, but rather an essential aspect of school development.

    I think some of the other comments have picked up on the fact that this person should have a teaching background. I would go one better and say this person ought to be a practising teacher. Teaching and planning lessons, marking work and giving feedback are all areas of T&L that benefit greatly from the effective application of technology. I’m not saying only a teacher can have the insight required, but – I think this point has already been made in the comments above – it is easier to find a teacher with the required technical and technological knowledge than a technical person with the required appreciation of the challenges of teaching.

    One final thing, I’ve always disliked the use of the word scepticism in this context – it has negative connotations in my mind (though note I am not a native speaker), as, in my experience, it is often associated with the blocking rather than fostering of innovation. I’d much prefer the use of terms such as judicious or discerning. But that’s just personal preference.

    Excellent stuff Dominic.

    Reply
    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Hello Jose,

      I spell Skeptic with a K because of its Greek origins (and I’m too lazy to change what Word asserts is the correct British spelling…) In its original sense, it meant to inquire and consider rather than asset and accept. Modern usage has become rather more pejorative though, as you note.

      Reply
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  9. Mike Walker (@mrwalkerworld)

    A great read, some really useful insights from the author and then other contributors. Thanks. I work in a primary school as the ‘ICT Administrator’, however I feel you’ve articulated my job more so than my actual job description. I work alongside the Computing Coordinator and together we have regular meets with the head. I suppose in a way the lines are blurred between the roles we carry out and 85% of what we both do we approach as a team and we’ve found it really works. I’d be really interested to chat to someone else who’s in my position in a primary school as it’s very rare. Thanks again.

    Reply
    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Hi Mike – uniquely challenging too, in terms of the time and resources with which you have to work.

      Reply
  10. Deborah Welsh (@galloised)

    Excellent, thought-provoking piece.
    My school has just advertised for a Director ICT, not an educator, and I was appalled. I’m on the side of the “It should focus relentlessly on learning – technology as a utility, not a goal” belief and the leadership team has paid little attention to where the teachers are in terms of ICT and pedagogy. As long as there’s an iPad it doesn’t matter if it’s being used as the new slate. All form and no substance. Maintaining the balance of pedagogy and shiny stuff is difficult, but as long as the outlook is authentic, and the goals genuine, mistakes along the way can be considered learning. I’m not implying the ICT role can only be carried out successfully by a teacher, but surely the strategy must be based on the prominence of learning.

    Reply
    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Hi Deborah,

      Yes, the strongest theme in the feedback I’ve had has been the ‘sine qua non’ of learning as the starting point

      Reply
  11. Bruce Wilson

    Good post Dominic and a description of everything I’ve thought was the right way forward for a number of years. I’m not sure I’ve got too much to add to the descriptors – but some additional points:

    The person, must, in my view have taught. Otherwise your point about “where it accelerates, deepens, adds value or makes the previously impossible possible” becomes at best difficult and at worst impossible.

    There is a debate to be had about – should they still teach and if so how much? Maybe this is not a point for the description but needs to be considered. Recent experience tells me that the job you rightly describe above is full on and can not and should not be done as a ‘bolt-on’ at weekends and or evenings. A 50% timetable, which appears to be the norm, may, in my view be too much.

    It would seem, as some have pointed out, the such a person may be quite rare? What can schools do about seeking them out / growing home talent / managing talent?

    I’m guessing also that ICT, can in some quarters, be regarded as a little niche? In other words we should be conscious of where such a job might lead to in a school context. It is clear where an AHT role say for pastoral care or T&L might lead onto – but where might / could this go.

    Hope this helps. Good to read the post and comments from others.

    BW.

    Reply
    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Thanks Bruce. Recruitment is certainly a challenge. I ended up fulfilling a role like this having failed repeatedly in my attempts to help the federation of schools find someone suitable

      Reply
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  13. Mark Anderson

    It’s a good piece that covers the bases from what I can see. I was thinking too however that someone in this pivotal role would have to be reflective, echoing the sort of work that you do via this very blog. The key qualities of multipliers (see: http://www.amazon.com/Multiplier-Effect-Tapping-Genius-Schools/dp/1452271895/ref=sr_1_sc_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1401056164&sr=1-2-spell&keywords=multipiliers) are important too in order to ensure many of the things you talk about are possible. As alluded to in your more recent post for the TES, it’s definitely a truism that even if you appoint someone with all of the qualities, skills and experience you mention above; if the conditions, culture and ethos in the organisation aren’t right – chances are your man/woman in the job isn’t going to make as much impact as they otherwise would. The ICT Mark correlation mentioned in your other post holds this up.

    Cheers,

    Mark

    Reply
    1. norrishd833 Post author

      Can you say a bit more about the multiplier effect, Mark? It is more than charismatic & energetic leadership, I guess?

      Reply
          1. Mark Anderson

            I have. And the Multipliers book from a while back too. Found it resonated particularly with my business / economics background.

          2. norrishd833 Post author

            I’ll have to add it to the pile then! What are the key characteristics of multipliers?

          3. Mark Anderson

            The multiplier effect is basically a phenomenon where you get a better return than you would otherwise expect because of a particular intervention. In the book they talk about multipliers being people who are:

            Talent finder – attract and optimise talent
            Liberator – create space for thinking
            Challenger – extend / stretch challenges
            Community builder – debate then decide
            Investor – instil ownership & accountability

            Multipliers are people who get more out of others partially because their high expectations demand it. This is as opposed to diminishers who don’t.

          4. norrishd833 Post author

            Thanks Mark, that’s really helpful

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  15. Paul

    Dom, a great post thank you. As it so happens our school have just decided to recruit for the post described above. If possible could you please email me directly, I’d like to ask you a few questions, I’m thinking of applying for the post. pcrowe03@qub.ac.uk. Many thanks

    Reply

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