No matter how quickly technology advances, it's up to education leaders to keep an eye on the horizon. Those who play the long game already understand that to equip students for success in a digital world, schools need a commitment to innovation and the ability ride the waves of rapid change.
"Technology is sprinting ahead of us on a constant basis, but education is a marathon," says Pat Skorkowsky, retired superintendent of Clark County School District in Las Vegas, one of the largest school districts in the United States.
"While the achievement factor is essential, we are not just preparing students for a test. We're preparing them for life."
Here are the Skorkowsky's solutions to some of the most pressing difficulties education leaders face today:
1. Community resistance
Within every community, there will be people who resist change, whether they're decision-makers or simply a crowd of clamoring voices. Yet one of the necessary prerequisites to becoming a technology-rich, standards-ready learning environment is to develop an engaged, supportive community.
Without the involvement of all education stakeholders — parents and students as well as teachers and administrators — a technology initiative will never reach its full potential.
"When you come into a district this size, it is a very unique challenge to try to move any situation forward," Skorkowsky said. "When you have hundreds of administrators, everyone has different idea about how they want to run their school. When you put that into a larger system, it makes it a challenge."
When it comes to technology, he added, "It can't be just your vision. It has to be everybody's vision. You have to have a culture of innovation that allows individual employees to have a say in what's happening, and you have to have a structure in place that supports that."
Solution: Use community feedback to create a shared vision.
When Skorkowsky became a superintendent, he vowed to not only accept feedback from the community but to pay attention to it. He began writing down every word people said about his district and ultimately used the feedback to develop a pledge of achievement that declares, "This is what's expected for every student in every classroom without exception, without excuses," he said.
"Instead of me being separated from the district, I needed to open up and be a part of the district. We set up an innovation structure with ways for people to bring ideas forward. Ideas came from the bottom up. It's side-by-side leadership, listening to the people who work with you along the way."
2. Lack of access
Equity is one of the biggest issues facing education leaders today. While providing internet access for every student in every classroom is a necessary starting point, it's no longer enough. Students need internet access at home to get support and continue the learning they're doing in school.
"Education is not a six-hour, 11-minute business. It is a 24-hour business," Skorkowsky said. "We have to have access for every member of our community and every person in our schools."
He acknowledged that even within a single district, delivering equitable access to all students can be a struggle.
"We are not a one-size-fits-all district," he said. "We literally have two-room schools in our rural parts. Trying to get bandwidth to them 60 miles out of town is a challenge."
Solution: Focus on infrastructure, and build slowly.
Without an adequate infrastructure in place, any technology initiative is bound to end in frustration for teachers, students and parents. But district leaders who commit to developing a robust infrastructure can unearth cost-effective solutions even to seemingly insurmountable problems.
Skorkowsky's district, for example, solved the challenge of delivering internet access to rural schools by negotiating an affordable rate for cellular network access. While it's not a perfect solution, it makes a huge difference for students who would otherwise have no access at all.
A frank conversation with just about any teacher will reveal that classroom innovation is often hampered — if not suppressed entirely — by school or district policies. Policies that restrict cell phone use, social media or other emerging technologies may have made sense at one time, but it's getting harder to justify keeping these powerful tools out of students' hands.
"Policies are often the biggest barriers to change," Skarkowsky said. "We had a no-cell- phone policy in schools. We didn't allow it. The minute we brought forward a BYOD policy, our board was not on board with it. They felt kids were going to be online and doing inappropriate things all the time."
Solution: Break down silos.
Policies that hamper innovation often stem from fear. And the key to overcoming fear is to shine a light on it. By breaking down the silos that keep one department from knowing what's happening in others, leaders can demonstrate the positive side of technology use.
"We took our board members into our buildings to show what could happen with BYOD," Skarkowsky said. "We transformed their way of thinking just by showing what could happen with their children on a daily basis."
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.