Administrator’s role in professional learning for computer science instruction

In the Digital Education Leadership masters program at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), we are examining the use of digital age best practices in professional development and program evaluation.  This is in support of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) coaches standard.  One of the questions raised in this standard centers on how leaders and administrators at our educational institutions can best support educator’s learning experience, particularly in the presence of ever-changing technology.  I want to focus my research on this topic to computer science instruction in higher education.

In previous posts, I focused on the impact that education technology can have on both the teaching experience and the student experience for computer science instruction.  However, teachers and students are not the only ones that are impacted by innovation in education technology.

Moving to learning enabled by technology can mean a shift in the specific skills and competencies required of leaders.  Education leaders need personal experience with learning technologies, an understanding of how to deploy these resources effectively, and a community-wide vision for how technology can improve learning. (NETP, 2017)

Education leaders and administrators have a unique role to play in identifying, adopting, managing, and maintaining learning technologies.  The aspect that administrators focus mostly on today is the management and maintenance of learning technologies.  Many higher education institutions have adopted learning management systems (LMS) to improve the learning experience.  These systems require administration and regular maintenance to continue to operate successfully – as do many of the other technologies used in higher education.  Education leaders and administrators are responsible for administering and maintaining all of the learning infrastructure – not just the LMS.  This is a very large and important task, and is core to making sure that learning technologies are successful in higher education.

Infrastructure needs in education technology
EdTech Infrastructure

However, the responsibility for the identification and adoption of learning technologies is not as clear cut.  Many education leaders and administrators are former teachers, and may have a very good handle on which learning technologies would work best for a particular subject area.  For example, the dean of computer science at my institution is a former computer science instructor, and is familiar with the needs specific to computer science instruction.  But this is not always the case, and education leaders and administrators can not be solely responsible for identifying and adopting new learning technologies.  This is where educators need to take an active role in working with education leaders and administrators on identifying possible learning technologies as well as defining the professional development and learning needed to adopt any new learning technology.

Teacher voice was very present in determining the direction of professional learning. This increase in teacher voice was characterized as “agency”. Teachers regularly saw themselves as being responsible for their own professional learning.  (Bishop et. al., 2016)

Teachers are busy people.  While it may be the case that one teacher is able to take on the task of learning and introducing a new learning technology to other teachers at the same school, this may not always be possible.  It may be necessary to call on a professional development (PD) instructor or coach (see previous article) to help out with this task.  For example, computer science students are best able to learn a new programming language by writing a lot of code.  This requires the instructor to read and grade a lot of coding assignments.  This can be a very time consuming process.  The instructor may identify this issue and have a PD instructor or coach investigate the use of an auto-grader to automate the process of grading programming assignments.  Another path could be the use of an interactive textbook with coding assignments that is capable of posting grades automatically to the school’s grading system.  In any case, the PD instructor or coach’s work can be leveraged by all of the computer science instructors – rather than have each individual instructor own the investigation and adoption of a new learning technology on their own – a large amount of redundant work.  The University Innovation Alliance is a great example of how higher education can pool resources across institutions to achieve even greater results.

Another hurdle is a shift in thinking from working alone to working in teams when historically this has not been the approach. Mutual accountability and working together requires a shift in how professional learning and teaching practices are considered. (Bishop et. al., 2016)

The education leader and administrator, along with educators, do have a role in the identification and adoption of learning technologies.  The leader and administrator represent the investor in such technologies.  The leader and administrator are responsible for making sure that the technology integrates with existing technology and that it has a positive impact on the student learning experience.  In short, the leader and administrator must make sure that they are getting ‘a bang for the buck’ for any new learning technology.  This requires that leaders and administrators monitor and measure the impact of these learning technologies.  In this role, the leaders and administrators become data scientists responsible for collecting and analyzing the data needed to answer these questions.  Although this sounds obvious, I have often found that even when such data exists, leaders and administrators do not always perform the analysis work needed to measure their investment, often claiming lack of resources – both time and money.  This is a poor excuse, as without this analysis, a leader and administrator can never know if they are making forward progress.

In my research, I found many examples of the positive results a new learning technology can have on a specific subject area.  For example, Rensselaer college in Troy, New York has developed a fascinating way of teaching Mandarin Chinese to students.

The [RPI] students learn Mandarin Chinese by conversing with A.I. avatars that can recognize not only what they say but their gestures and expressions, all against a computer-generated backdrop of Chinese street markets, restaurants and other scenes.  […] Students in the immersion lab mastered Mandarin about twice as fast as their counterparts in conventional classrooms, said Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer.  (Marcus, 2020)

Many people assume that institutions of higher education are the pinnacles of learning technologies, as many of the technologies are developed first in university labs.  However, many things have to happen beyond just the invention of a learning technology to make a successful adoption of a new learning technology.  If any of the steps above – from adoption to maintenance – are missed or fail, the institution is left with a technology that serves no purpose.

If history is a guide, the flashiest notions being developed in workshops in these places won’t get far. University campuses are like archaeological digs of innovations that didn’t fulfill their promises. (Marcus, 2020)

The success of a new learning technology is very much dependent on the work of education leaders and administrators, not just the work of educators.  The education leaders and administrators play a crucial role in the learning technology cycle – from identification to adoption,  through management and maintenance.  Finally, educators must provide proper support of our education leaders and administrators in order for any new learning technology to have a chance at improving the student learning experience.


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