Technology Integration | Feature

6 Hard Truths About Top Prep Schools and Tech That Will Definitely Surprise You

In an era of shrinking school budgets and mile-long wish lists, staying ahead of the IT curve is only getting tougher for public school districts, some of which may romanticize just how green the grass is on the other side.

"In many cases it's less about the investments that independent schools are making in technology," says John Palfrey, head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, "and more about being able to focus on creative forms of teaching and learning in the absence of curriculum constraints."

In other words, prep school leaders like Palfrey, who is the author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, aren't necessarily spending more on IT infrastructure and classroom technology, but they are enabling teachers to put those tools in motion in the K-12 classroom setting. Of course, this increased level of experimentation sometimes leads to even more challenges.

Here are six things you probably didn't know about top prep schools and their use of technology:

1. All private school students aren't rich.

Assuming that all students arrive on a prep school's doorstep fully equipped with laptops and mobile devices— and/or the money to buy what they need for class—is the wrong approach, even for a prep school. At Phillips Academy, for example, Palfrey says roughly half of the student population is on scholarships. "There's a fair amount that we do in terms of making technology equitable for students." For example, the school relies on a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) laptop program and provides financial support to scholarship students who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford their own laptops and/or tablets.

2. Social media policies are just as constrictive.

They may not be dealing with the core curriculum requirements and budget cutbacks that their public counterparts are grappling with right now, but prep school teachers do face hurdles when it comes to technology usage in the classroom. Take Facebook, for example. At Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, MA, for example, math teacher Nils Ahbel says the institution's social media policy prohibits  teachers from "friending" anyone on the site who is under 21 years of age. "Facebook is basically out," says Ahbel, who instead uses Skype as an alternative for connecting with students during non-school hours. Ultimately, he says it's up to educators to stand up for themselves against sweeping policies that take potential teaching tools out of their hands. "The administrators and the IT team are not the teachers," says Ahbel. "We need to stand up and say, 'We are mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore."

3. Technology adoption in private schools is not 100%.

Just because they have the resources and capabilities to leverage technology doesn't necessarily mean prep schools have reached the saturation point yet. In fact, technology implementations tend to spread in a similar fashion in the private school sector, where schools like Phillips Academy are currently beta-testing iPads and experimenting with other mobile technologies. "We're seeing experimentation across different departments right now," says Palfrey, noting that recent activity includes science teachers using interactive texts on mobile devices, history teachers using digital maps, and English teachers striving to more effectively integrate video into their lesson plans.

4. Frustration with technology runs high at prep schools, too.

Ahbel knows that iPads are hot in the educational sector currently, but he's not convinced that they—or their tethered predecessors—are the right tools for high school math teachers. "You still can't work with a full-blown Excel spreadsheet on an iPad, nor does it run most of the specialty software that we need," says Ahbel, who is equally as frustrated with the venerable QWERTY keyboard and mouse, neither of which allows students to interact properly with applications and software programs. "As mathematicians our tools are pencils and styluses," he adds, "not keyboards and mice."

5. Prep school teachers don't have oodles of time to adopt technology.

From the outside it may look like prep school teachers really have it made when it comes to integrating technology. Take a closer look, however, and you may be surprised to see an instructor teaching class during the day, coaching a sports team in the evening, donating his or her time to committees, and then living alongside students in a dormitory at night. "The time to develop your techniques can be pretty slim," Palfrey explains. "In reality, there is never enough time in the day for any teacher." To help teachers around that issue, he says the school emphasizes professional development and encourages instructors to leverage that knowledge in the classroom. "It's really a matter of creative balancing," Palfrey adds.

6. It takes more than money to get a new technology initiative over the hump.

Nils Ahbel is the first to admit that he teaches at a resource-rich institution, but that doesn't mean he can roll out new technology initiatives at the drop of a hat. "You still have to be able to articulate a vision of education that's exciting, powerful, and effective," says Ahbel. "Without that vision, the chances of getting the support you need to implement are significantly reduced." Ahbel adds that any school that has a single IT champion (such as himself) or a team of educators willing to "stand at the bleeding edge, deliver the professional development, and serve as the dog-and-pony show," stands the best chance of staying ahead of the curve, technology-wise.

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