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Essential Conditions for Effective Tech Use in Schools

ISTE’s Essential Conditions provide a research-backed framework for implementing the ISTE Standards.

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The Essential Conditions are seven critical elements necessary for effectively leveraging technology to support learning. They offer educators and school leaders a research-backed framework to guide implementation of the ISTE Standards, technology planning and systemwide change. 

These conditions reflect a deepening body of research in the field of educational technology, as well as ISTE’s nearly 50 years of experience guiding districts, schools and educators as they work to support student learning.

Shared Vision

Create a shared vision for transforming student learning through the effective use of technology with participation from all stakeholders (including teachers, support staff, administrators, students, parents, teacher-preparation programs, policymakers and members of the community), and align that vision to established frameworks or standards.

Why It’s Essential

When a school system is guided by a clearly defined vision and leaders actively collect, incorporate and share input from stakeholders at all levels, a community of understanding and collaboration develops to propel the organization forward.

Without a clear vision for learning, schools and districts risk purchasing technology, materials and building infrastructure without a plan for how they will use it or a set of criteria for measuring success. Similarly, top-down development of a vision for learning – meaning visions developed solely by either a tech- or teaching-centric group – get limited buy-in. Finally, visions for learning drafted without guidance of established standards and frameworks often fail to consider all the conditions necessary for success.

Community participation and partnerships are critical to long-term success. At the planning stage, aligning the initiative’s vision to the community’s shared values, policies and support structures can strengthen its ability to take root. At the implementation stage, many successful schools and districts partner with local businesses and other organizations to secure additional resources for executing tangible goals related to an initiative.


Implementation Planning

Develop a comprehensive plan for building and sustaining technology infrastructure, evaluating and selecting digital learning resources, and providing and sustaining professional learning and coaching.

Why Is It Essential?

School systems that embark on solid planning are more likely to make better informed decisions regarding the procurement of infrastructure, technology tools and digital materials. Thorough planning provides grounded reflection points for measuring progress, reminders of key goals and objectives, and filters for weighing important decisions during implementation.

Without a plan for infrastructure needs, devices and bandwidth will fall short of current and future needs. School systems without a plan for evaluation and selection of learning materials end up wasting resources, losing focus and hindering their ability to evaluate effectiveness. Schools and districts with no clear path to sustained professional learning quickly find themselves with expensive tools that are poorly used.

A key part of any successful implementation plan is identifying funding to sustain digital learning initiatives. Implementation plans should establish policies and formal partnerships with other organizations to bolster expertise and funding.


Equitable Access

Ensure robust and reliable access to digital devices, internet connectivity, capable teachers and technology platforms required to support the learning vision for all students (including language learners, students with physical or learning disabilities, foster or homeless youth, etc.).

Why Is It Essential?

Schools and districts that provide equitable access to devices, connectivity and capable teachers will find that their technology initiatives narrow opportunity gaps among students.

When planning for technology implementation or developing a digital learning plan, it’s imperative to ensure that curriculum choices reflect the makeup of the student body, that every student has access to teachers with digital pedagogy skills, and that families and caregivers are involved in developing digital citizenship skills and creating a healthy tech culture in their homes.


Prepared Educators

Ensure educators and education leaders know how to use technology effectively, aligned to learning research and the school system’s vision for learning.

Why Is It Essential?

Districts and schools need to invest in systemic and sustained professional learning to meet the needs of all learners, evaluate technology tools to ensure they improve learning, and give students a strong foundation in digital citizenship skills.

Levels of support for improving teacher capacity will determine a digital learn plan initiative’s success or failure. At the center of preparing educators are supportive edtech coaches – those who understand learning sciences and how to use technology in the most effective ways.

When they can discern how, when, where and why to use technology for high-impact learning, educators and their school systems are better prepared to meet their vision for learning.


Skilled and Sufficient Technical Support

Ensure technology leadership and sufficient technical support staff capable of maintaining the learning infrastructure and providing technical support for learning.

Why Is It Essential?

Successful school systems ensure appropriate support for teachers and students in the use of digital tools. This includes being responsive to teachers and students in configuring digital tools to prioritize easy access and an intuitive user experience both in the physical classroom and in virtual spaces. Tech leaders engage collaboratively with tech providers to improve the quality of products based on teacher and student feedback.


High-Quality Learning Activities and Content

Select effective digital learning activities and content aligned to standards, and create authentic and creative learning experiences that support the school system’s vision for learning.

Why Is It Essential?

Successful school systems understand that digital learning materials must be high-quality, research-based and culturally inclusive. They consider open-licensed as well as traditional learning materials. These schools and districts build processes to select quality digital learning content aligned to learning outcomes. These processes prioritize digital content and activities that are culturally responsive and support student agency.

More concerning than a lack of digital learning content is a glut of poorly designed or unevaluated content and activities. School systems with no clear, vision-aligned plan for selecting and curating digital learning content and resources find themselves paying for apps and materials that have negligible and sometimes even negative effects on learning.


Ongoing Evaluation

Continually evaluate learning experiences in partnership with all stakeholders identified in the Shared Vision condition.

Why Is It Essential?

Educational technology and the infrastructure that supports it are often outdated shortly after they are purchased and installed. Districts that fail to build processes and set timelines for the review of the alignment, adequacy and effectiveness of their educational technology find themselves firmly rooted in the past.

School systems with effective technology evaluation processes have feedback loops to inform course corrections and allow leaders to measure return on investment. They also provide benchmarks to assist teachers, students and leaders in demonstrating their growth in implementing practices aligned to the ISTE Standards. Additionally, approaches such as A/B studies, rapid-cycle evaluations and cataloging and management of edtech contribute to a holistic picture of the initiative’s success and help administrators pinpoint areas of weakness. The use of free or low-cost systems to evaluate technology use and measure return on investment helps school systems purchase right-sized educational technology that can reduce or eliminate unnecessary costs.