By Chris Toy

“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”
William Gibson

To paraphrase William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace: The 21st century is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed. A quick look around our communities confirms that computers, the Internet, and other 21st century technology tools are here to stay. Closer inspection reveals that these powerful tools are, indeed, not evenly distributed.

In 2001, Governor Angus King was the first 21st century governor to connect education, technology, and economic development to a statewide initiative, and he placed Apple iBooks into the hands of every seventh- and eighth-grade student and teacher in Maine. Since then, Maine has been joined by other communities, states, provinces, and countries, but not necessarily for all the same reasons. An Australian economic minister who visited Maine indicated that he was primarily interested in Maine’s technology project because he knew that Australian students would be competing with Maine workers for jobs in the global market place and wanted to be sure Australia’s students had the same access to 21st century skills and tools.

As a principal in Maine when Governor King launched the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, I experienced firsthand how the rapid and widespread introduction of technology affected teachers, students, and learning.

Effective integration of technology is about increasing student engagement and learning. And it’s not just about changing the way education happens. It’s also about changing the way we think about teaching and learning. Technology for learning can be a huge benefit for students with learning disabilities as well. Used well, technology can contribute to increased efficiency and more time for learning. Technology has also changed the way teachers and students manage, store, and share their work to enhance learning. The vital role played by the technology leader can’t be overstated. The goal of the technology leader must be to make digital technology as available and transparent as paper, pencil, and books were in the 20th century learning process. And the following comments from classrooms teachers in schools where technology has been effectively integrated into the curriculum indicate some success in these areas:

Students are 100% engaged. They take pleasure creating presentations and recording their voices. These presentations allow them immediate feedback on their pronunciation. They become less timid. Bringing foreign cultures into our classroom is just a click away. Technology most definitely spices things up and enhances learning for all the students and for the teacher too! Zully Amaya, world language teacher

Before learning with technology there was a 60% pass rate on the basics test. Now it's 85%. Kids who didn’t think they were good at math are being successful and enjoy math again or for the first time. The overall positive atmosphere of my classes has eliminated discipline problems and failing grades. No student has had a zero on homework all year! More and more topics are being designed as discovery lessons, interactive lessons, and multiple solution answers. I could go on and on. Alex Briasco-Brin, math teacher and Milliken Award winner

The most exciting thing about integrating technology is the access it provides for EVERY student to 21 Century learning tools - digital communications, digital idea presentation, global sharing of ideas. We have new things to learn about teaching and learning with technology: reading has changed, the editing of and responsibility for writing conventions has changed, the options for demonstration of learning have changed. Students expect more instant responses to their products. No way can we continue to be traditional in today's classroom! Betsy Sky-McIlvain, literacy teacher

The largest impact technology has had for children with learning disabilities is the support it provides students in being independent learners. They feel more confident and empowered to do work on their own. Learning becomes more spontaneous for them. Technology helps support more teachable moments - those situations that just happen - unplanned. Isn't that when most authentic learning happens? Linda Pritchard, resource room teacher

“I don't have to "waste" time trying to schedule the computer lab. We can make much better use of the "teachable moment" with immediate access to computing, researching, brainstorming, and technologies. Students have more time for learning because they don't have to "wait in line" for a learning tool.” Dan Queior, tech-ed teacher

“We use drop folders to send passages, quizzes and graphic organizers directly to students. They are then able to type into the document rather than write. When finished, they send them back to me. In another example, Journalier has become my easy way of saving student work, thereby creating an instant writing portfolio. Other teachers are using Noteshare for these functions. We're moving toward a significant reduction in our paper trail.” Judy Donahue, language arts teacher

“For me, as a librarian, school-wide access to 21st Century learning technology is great because of the everyday opportunity it gives each of us (teachers and students) for a dialogue about information -- where it comes from, its validity, what its intended use is, its impact, and recently, the way "format" affects that impact or use. With one-to-one computing this dialog can happen about anything, with anyone, anytime, anywhere.” Pam Goucher, school librarian

Getting There

Some early proponents of integrating technology and learning believed that simply placing new technology in the hands of students and teachers was enough— that new laptops, digital cameras, interactive whiteboards, powerful programs, and 24/7 wireless access to the Internet for all students and teachers would magically improve learning. They learned quickly that this was not the case. Many schools reported that teachers were effectively engaging students in rigorous academic activities, including carrying out sophisticated research, writing, collaborating with other schools, and creating high quality presentations and Web sites. There were also troubling accounts of computers sitting closed on teacher desks, being misused or damaged by students, and some remaining unpacked in their shipping cartons in locked storage rooms.

As important as it is to make connections among the imperatives of education, technology, and competing in the flat world of the 21st century, recent news about some schools reversing their decisions to provide widespread access to computers and the Internet indicate that simply connecting the dots is not enough. What is the difference between schools where digital learning is the “best thing to happen to education in 20 years” and schools where computers and other technology tools became “like a decoration…just sitting there”? Experience and research tells us that a key variable is what the leadership of the school does and says. 10 Steps to Using Technology Successfully The following 10 guidelines will help principals and other school leaders succeed in integrating 21st century learning technology in their schools. This list is derived from conversations with teachers, students, and parents from across the state, around the country, and even from other countries.

1. Principals must effectively and consistently model the use of the same technology tools they expect teachers to use in their classrooms with the students.

Your staff will watch very carefully to see whether you have the strength of your own convictions. If they see that you are unwilling to “walk the talk” about integrating technology as a resource for teaching and learning, it is all but certain there will be less willingness on their part to take risks or to do the extra work required to learn about implementing and integrating technology.

Principals can model integrating technology into their work in a number of ways. Using e-mail to communicate with the staff individually, in small groups, and as a whole staff for short announcements, reminders, updates, or simple scheduling and calendar items is effective and saves time during staff meetings for more substantive conversations that are not as well suited for e-mail communication.

Using the multi media presentation capabilities of programs such as PowerPoint or KeyNote can provide staff with a visual representation of key data and information. Presentations also allow presenters to separate themselves from the message, providing a third-point perspective for conversations that may be difficult or controversial. The growing number of resources on the Internet can expand the knowledge base for any number of educational topics to be discussed during staff meetings or workshops.

A powerful way for a principal to model the use of technology is to integrate it into staff meetings in the same way teachers might in their classrooms. A principal wanting the staff to explore differentiation of instruction (DI) could use a simple “Think-Pair-Share” activity at a staff meeting, asking teachers to think about their understanding of DI. They could then pair up and share their ideas. After coming together as a staff and sharing ideas, concepts, and terms, each teacher does an Internet search of the terms and phrases for a few minutes. Teachers then share the resources they found during their searches. The principal could collect and send them out through e-mail along with the notes of the staff meeting. The staff would have a collection of DI resources to examine and try out to discuss at future meetings or workshops.

Principals could also make use of the interactive capabilities of Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis to extend and archive ongoing conversations about key topics addressed at staff meetings.

2. Principals must be consistent in their decisions and expectations about integrating learning technology in the school.

Soon after the staff of a school voted to set a schoolwide goal of integrating learning technology in all classrooms for the following year, a teacher approached his principal asking for clarification as to whether his department would be expected to begin implementation in the following year. The principal affirmed that all departments were included in the decision. A week later the teacher returned, acknowledging that the staff and his department would be integrating technology in their classrooms next year, but asked if it would be part of his evaluation in the coming year. The principal said that the decision applied to everyone and that he would be expected to integrate technology into his teaching next year. A week later the teacher submitted his intent to retire at the end of the year.

The principal’s consistency was both strategic and humane. If the principal had wavered in upholding the decision and led the teacher to believe that implementing the initiative was at all voluntary, it is likely that the teacher would have taken the opportunity to put off addressing the goal. Teachers who were resistant to the idea—or to change in general—would have interpreted the decision as permission to delay implementation. Fence sitters would see leadership as indecisive and would have backed away from implementing, leaving only those already convinced about the initiative to work on implementing the goal.

The principal’s consistency represented his true expectations about implementation. If he had led the teacher to believe avoidance was acceptable and then expressed impatience about the pace of implementation, the teacher’s frustration would have been justified. The principal’s clear and consistent response allowed the teacher to make an informed decision and to leave on a high note.

3. The principal’s communication about the pace and process of integrating learning technology needs to be clear and reasonable.

One principal learned from the technology leader that teachers were confused about what she meant by “integrating learning technology.” Some teachers believed she intended to throw out all printed materials, textbooks, library books, periodicals, and other books the next school year, while others believed the principal would be satisfied with using technology for occasional word processing and clerical functions, such as taking attendance and grading. Fortunately, the principal learned of the confusion a couple of months before the end of the school year before implementing the initiative. She sat down with the leadership team and formulated a reasonable and clear set of expectations for the staff on the basis of the questions the staff had relayed to team leaders.

The principal sat down with the staff and laid out her expectations for implementing the learning technology goal the following year. She explained that the digital tools and resources were to augment and not replace printed material; that each teacher was expected to integrate technology in just one classwide curriculum unit in the first quarter; that implementation could be done individually, with one or more teaching partners, or as a whole team; and that it would be up to the teachers to define the length of a unit.

As the meeting progressed and the principal’s reasonable expectations became clearer to the teachers, the confusion and the tension caused by not knowing what was expected evaporated. The teachers, realizing that they had plenty of time and a significant amount of control over how the implementation of learning technology would take place, were free to focus on possibilities that would work for them and for their students. In the end, the entire staff exceeded the goal the first quarter.

4. The principal must provide appropriate professional development time and resources to support effective classroom implementation of technology.

Another principal arranged with the district’s superintendent to focus most of the school’s staff development resources on summer planning time to pay the teachers, the librarian, and the school’s technology specialist to plan and work together on learning how to use the system’s technology resources to plan curriculum to use in the fall. The individualized planning with familiar facilitators and trainers within their classrooms using their own curriculum really made a big difference in the comfort level for the teachers. They were much more willing to ask questions, experiment, examine new ideas, reflect, and take risks.

The principal also let it be known that requests for professional meetings, workshops, conferences, and courses would receive greater consideration if they were clearly connected to using technology and 21st century skills in classrooms. When the principal is willing to provide considerable resources and additional time in support of a goal, it indicates there is an investment by the school and the system in their success.

5. The principal must support early adopters and risk takers.

As soon as I learned about the Governor’s plan to provide laptops for students in all Maine’s middle schools, I started talking to the staff about their thoughts. As I talked with individual teachers I noted that several teachers responded with additional ideas, “what-ifs,” and possibilities. I remember a science teacher excitedly wondering what it would be like to access information from a prestigious medical school or a national health organization as her students studied body systems or diseases. She was so enthusiastic, wanting to start planning immediately. A social studies teacher realized that he would be able to have students access current events around the world by having them search for world newspapers online.

These are the kinds of teachers and attitudes a principal should acknowledge and support. This can be done in a number of ways, depending on the culture of the school. Staff meetings should be used as a forum for professional development and sharing ideas. This is a perfect opportunity for early adopters to share their ideas and strategies with colleagues. Another way to support staff members who are “on the cutting edge” is to give them opportunities to work together. Allowing them to attend a workshop together so they can interact around new ideas and then return to the building with the shared experience will let them realize they are not isolated. Include a fence sitter with a group of enthusiastic early adopters to provide support and a little extra motivation.

6. The principal must do whatever it takes to ensure that all staff has early access to the very same digital tools that students will be using in their classrooms.

Every staff member should have access to learning technology at least a year before they are asked to use these resources with students. This should include all classroom teachers, specialists, guidance counselors, librarians, administrators, and technology leaders. As you can imagine, it is very difficult to convince staff members to fully support the integration of technology, if they did not have access to it or have time to learn how to make use of the technology before being asked to implement it with students.

7. As the educational leader, the principal must make it crystal clear to the technology leader that all decisions relating to learning technology will be made by the educational leaders with input from the technology leaders. Not the other way around. In the balance between control of the technology and access for learning, the more important consideration must be access for learning.

The surest way for a school to fail in its goal of integrating technology as an effective resource for learning is to lock it down to ensure that it is perfectly safe. One of the clearest differences between schools where the students and teachers moved faster toward integrating technology into the curriculum and schools that struggled with doing so was the degree to which the technology was made easily accessible to the teachers and students. If in the interest of control and safety, students are blocked from using e-mail, going online, or from using multimedia tools to produce and publish online, it is likely they will see very little value in having or using the technology. This will result in students being careless, or worse, abusing the hardware, software, and network as they inevitably spend time and energy trying to work around the controls placed on the technology. It will also result in teachers avoiding the powerful but hobbled tools as they turn to the limited but accessible resources of the 20th century classroom.

Educators are entrusted with the health, welfare, and safety of students every minute of every day at school. There is no reason that this same level of trust and expectation should be different when it comes to accessing technology for learning.

The principal should acknowledge the need for reasonable safeguards and filters. Working with the technology coordinator, the staff, the students, and the parents and taking the time to develop acceptable use guidelines or policies along with clear consequences for individual infractions is preferable to locking down the system for everyone. The principal should make it an expectation that students will be taught how to use technology responsibly and work closely with the technology coordinator to see that such material is included in all orientation materials and sessions for staff members, students, and parents.

8. The principal must set and support the expectation that student work will be done and stored using technology.

This is a key expectation that will encourage both teachers and students to view technology as an effective tool for learning as opposed to “one more thing we gotta do.” If it doesn’t make things easier, more effective, or more engaging, it’s unlikely to become part of the school’s culture.

In reading about and talking with technology leaders and principals about computer breakage rates, I learned that there was a wide range. Some technology projects had rates as low as 1% while other schools were well into double digits. Principals and technology leaders agreed that schools where students placed important school work as well as personal data, including research projects, papers, photographs, correspondence, music, and even games onto their computers, had by far the lowest rates of breakage and problems with the hardware.

9. Principals must ensure that families and the public are kept informed about the school’s goals and progress relating to its use of technology as a learning resource.

No matter what the scope and size of your school’s involvement with technology, it will be much easier to gather support when parents understand the school’s goals relative to improving learning for their children. When parents share the same understanding as the school, they are more likely to become partners in supporting and working towards the school’s mission and vision.

All of Maine’s schools that allowed students to take home MLTI laptops required parents and guardians to attend an evening orientation session with their child before a student was allowed to do so. The overview demystified the program for parents, introduced them to how the hardware operated, and let them know that they had control of what happened with the laptops. If they did not want their children to bring them home or to connect with the Internet at home, that was their decision. Schools generally scheduled multiple evenings for parents to choose from. Some schools even arranged daytime meetings for parents who worked evenings.

The orientation consisted of a short welcome and introduction by the principal. It was then handed over to the technology coordinator and the teachers. This team, with the assistance of the students, walked through an introduction to the laptops and how they worked. Since each student had already placed some work on their laptops, and they were able to show their parents some of their laptop-based schoolwork as they demonstrated how they operated. The orientation wrapped up with questions from parents, an explanation of the process for insuring and signing out laptops, and finally giving each parent their own password that would allow them to access their child’s laptop whenever they wanted. Parents reported that this simple meeting made all the difference in their understanding and comfort with the program, which led to very strong support for the program’s continuation and expansion.

10. The principal must be an active and public, champion for all students, staff members, and the school in moving the vision of fully integrating learning technology for the second decade of the 21st century.

This is perhaps the most important role the principal plays in ensuring that the 21st century is evenly distributed in today’s schools. He or she must continually articulate how the effective integration of technology benefits students. That it is connected to academically rigorous and engaging work for students. The principal needs to spotlight those teachers and practices that reflect the best practices for students in the school. Student work should be highlighted and presented as evidence. This can be done through the fall and spring orientations, open houses, newsletters, features in the newspapers and other media, presentations to parent groups, and reports to the school and district leadership teams, as well as to the superintendent and the school committee. The principal must be willing to open the school up to visitors who are interested in seeing how learning with technology takes place. Not every observer will be in favor of implementing 21st century learning with technology; however, I can report that every visitor who came to observe the MLTI at our school came away with only positive comments and a new understanding of the possibilities of providing each student with his or her own 21st century learning resource. I have heard from many schools that skeptics who were willing to visit actual one-to-one classrooms came away supporting the concept.


This article is not just about principals. It’s really about leadership’s role in helping a group move collaboratively toward a shared vision. I use the term leadership and not the leader purposefully, because although the principal or leader is very important, he or she cannot move the school toward the vision alone. Each of the 10 lessons can serve to expand and support broader ownership and buy-in by the staff of the school. Empowering others to take a role in moving the vision forward is—or should be—the goal of the leader. Whether it’s modeling the use of a laptop to present information and to do research; making sure that everyone has access to a laptop; setting consistent, clear, and reasonable expectations; or publicly advocating for the program, the principal’s application of these lessons will empower teachers to take ownership and make them leaders in implementing the initiative in their classrooms, as they collaborate with their colleagues, and as they talk with parents in the community.

Chris Toy was principal of Freeport Middle School when the Maine laptop project was first introduced and is currently an educational consultant and serves as one of the moderators for NMSA’s MiddleTalk list serve. He can be reached at