Digital Transformation in schools – it’s not all about the technology

by Nathan Mielke


Home » Articles and insights » Digital Transformation in schools – it’s not all about the technology

Over the last year, I’ve done a great deal of reading on Digital Transformation in schools, businesses and other organizations, and nowhere in what I’ve read has there been a focus on devices, storage arrays or core switches. Quite the opposite.

Scholars and industry experts write about how organizations are focussing on strategy, alignment and leveraging agile methodologies to get the right solutions for their business. How can they create value for stakeholders? How can businesses disrupt their industry?

In The Digital Transformation Playbook by David L Rogers, he is clear that this isn’t about technology at all.

“It’s about strategy, it’s about leadership and it’s about new ways of thinking.”


This Wisconsin manufacturer needed to modernize its IT infrastructure to support rapid business growth.

Discover what they did
David L Rogers

Rogers and other authors go out of their way to state that digital transformation isn’t about technology. Sure, you may need to build out infrastructure to meet the needs of the business, but you’re not buying everyone a MacBook, paying someone to train staff on “personalized learning for two days and hoping your whole instructional delivery model changes over a week in August.

Transformation is about the core of the organization and how digital technologies can support it. Reading on the topic has given me a moment of clarity on something close to my heart, Digital Transformation in schools and how they have rolled out their own understanding of the vision. The focus should be on what’s happening with the student and not on how the vendor tells you their product will improve achievement – it likely won’t.

Most are doing it wrong

To borrow a line from Scott McLeod in his latest book Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning,

“Let’s face it: most schools struggle with their technology integration efforts.”

Scott McLeod

Never have I read a sentence in a book about education that cuts right down to the core of the problem.

Let’s go back in time.  This is an Ed Tech retelling of history, based on my best memory of the last decade. It’s a story told in three parts:

  2. Ummm…what’s bandwidth?
  3. Okay, now what?

A small disclaimer: everyone involved certainly had the best of intentions. Folks were excited, and rightly so, at the potential of what could be achieved in the classroom with devices in students hands. This was a major shift compared to the computer lab model of the late 1990s through the early 2010s. About this time computerized testing was also starting to ramp up, cutting off the computer labs for large periods of the school year.

Regular access to devices was potentially a breath of fresh air.

Some districts have been very deliberate about not branding anything as technocentric – such as calling it a 1:1 learning initiative or focusing on deep learning. That is where the focus should lie because schools are in the student learning business. Despite good intentions and thoughtful branding, looking back you need to at least raise questions about the execution.

Devices – yes!

At the dawn of the 1:1/BYOD movement in education there was a big push, led mainly by vendors, to deliver “Digital Transformation in Schools”. Here is a synopsis of those plans:

  1. Buy devices from us
  2. Buy apps from us
  3. Pay our professional development people to come to train your teacher and Ed-tech coaches
  4. Rinse and repeat

I understand why device vendors tried to make this model work – owning as much of the process and device estate as possible is what any business would want. The only thing lacking is supplying the fiber, switches and wireless access points. More on that in a bit.

Another prominent part of phase one of 1:1 was the rollout of personalized learning via route learning applications. I remember more than one district that branded personalized learning around a math app that everyone used. While not a focus on physical devices, this approach centered on the application as the solution for teaching a discipline, rather than the mode of instruction that could reach as many learners as possible. You don’t need to be a child psychologist to appreciate that if you give adolescents a computer, an application, and say “go learn at your own pace”, it’s great for some, but not so great for most others. To claim that one way to learn is personalizing learning goes against for the very spirit of the statement.

Ummm…what’s bandwidth?

“Wait, why won’t the internet work? Why can’t we all download apps? Why can’t we all stream video simultaneously in one room? How many of these blinking fire alarm-looking things do we need in our school to help everyone get online?”

If you didn’t know about the importance of infrastructure and a solid backbone to ensure connectivity before, you most likely did after 1:1.

The one thing that’s worse than no access to any technology is access to technology that doesn’t work! Many schools learned the importance of a reliable infrastructure with the appropriate wireless density needed to manage access for 30+ devices in a relatively small space. Most medium to large businesses don’t have the wireless density needs of a school. The concentration of devices per square foot is so much higher.

Schools aren’t lined with gold, so they wanted to try and get the best bang for their buck with the network. Neglecting the network left them coming up short for the needs of both students and teachers.  I saw a district with a 500 Mbps fiber connection, but with a firewall that was limited to 250 Mbps of throughput. One 802.11 N access point for 4 classrooms and 802.11 B access points trying to manage 30 devices at once.

What a nightmare!

In the end, the IT teams were able to get the financial support needed to make it go, but they came out of it all pretty battered and bruised by the process.

Okay, now what?

I’d guess the average school district is somewhere between 3-7 years into some sort of 1:1 or BYOD program. If the program has survived, the infrastructure has been addressed. It may be getting long in the tooth at this point, but if there isn’t a robust wireless infrastructure, the student computing initiative is dead. To recap, the devices are in place, some PD has been done, and the infrastructure is reliable.

So what changed? From the examples below you can see that it wasn’t the ACT Scores:

Average ACT Scores2012-20132016-2017
District A2524.9
District B23.823
District C21.719.2
District D21.219.6
Digital Transofrmation in Schools - digital student

Not every district claimed that technology = increased achievement. Many plans were around “engagement” or the old standard-bearer “21st Century Skills” (whatever that means). In this sample size of 4 districts in the state of Wisconsin, we can see that nothing has changed regarding outcomes. Scores are consistent. Some would point out that the State mandates for all Juniors to take the ACT helped drive scores down. In 2012-13, only juniors who wanted to take the test, took it.

This isn’t just a technology thing either – there have been RTI initiatives, PBIS, a push for STEM offerings, college and career readiness…the list of initiatives that have come and gone is substantial. What has it impacted?

The focus of this post is, what is the technology doing? Are ACT scores a fair benchmark? I’d argue it’s providing efficiency in the lives of overbooked teenagers. Students can type much faster than they can write (with a pen). No one is waiting to get research done at the card catalog. Project work can be completed on personal devices. Much can get done in what used to be dead time. While efficiency and improving productivity is a good thing, it’s not the be all and end all that educators wanted out of the Digital Transformation in schools.

Now’s the time to ask your schools – “Okay I’ve seen the 3D printed tank at open house – now what?” How is the school going to harness the tools they have to disrupt what they are doing, for the sake of students?

Nathan Mielke

Nathan Mielke

Nathan is an educational technology leader working in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin. He’s passionate about building reliable, efficient systems to support student learning and school operations and writes about continuous improvement in IT services and educational technology on his personal blog Nathan has worked with Source One Technology in multiple school districts.

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