Top-Down vs Bottom-Up: 2 Ways to Approach EdTech Implementations
In his book Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail: How to Create Your School's Education Technology Strategic Plan, Darryl Vidal stated that "more than 80 percent of technology projects fail" due to the violation of "scope, time, [or] budget" constraints. That's despite 91 percent of teachers surveyed in the United States (a small group but still a significant percentage) agreeing that technology helps them tailor learning to student needs and enhances learning opportunities.
Those figures seem almost contrary, don't they? So many teachers are seeing success using technology in the classroom, yet the chances are their institution's technology initiative failed.
Click here to see a webinar about the pros and cons of two common edtech implementation strategies and how to make each one a success.
One possible lesson to pull from this is that teachers appreciate and invest time in technologies in which they find value, but just having access to such a technology, as they might with an institution-wide implementation, doesn't guarantee they will discover its value. Ultimately, the approach an institution takes for a technology rollout is everything.
Let's look at two ways to do this—top-down and bottom-up strategies.
Top-Down vs Bottum Up: Two Ends of the EdTech Implementation Spectrum
In a top-down implementation, the initiative is created and driven by centralized leadership. When implementation is undertaken from the bottom-up, an institution moves forward based upon building stakeholder consensus and culture at a grassroots level.
There are pros and cons to each of these approaches. In this webinar by Adam Larson, Director of Educational Strategies at Schoology, and Dr. Will Deyamport, Instructional Technologist at Hattiesburg Public Schools, the pros and cons of each strategy are discussed at length. For top-down implementations, major advantages include leaders being allowed to lead, the implementation occurring across the board so educators aren't working in isolation on different initiatives, and that it can be a powerful binding force for the district.
There are also challenges inherent in a top-down approach. Leaders must be careful not to force compliance at the expense of culture. Another roadblock may be the mandating of a particular learning management system (LMS) that is not aligned with the needs of students or instructors. Top-down approaches can also stifle individual creativity, limit discussion, or create non-productive dissent if leadership is not prepared to respond to feedback.
Conversely, Adam and Dr. Will discuss how the bottom-up strategy may position front-line instructors as the technology decision makers for their classrooms, instead of receiving a strategy from on high. This approach helps to win the hearts and minds of invested educators by honoring their experience and expertise. Enthusiasm can also grow and develop naturally, as educators share ideas with other educators more organically.
Bottom-up strategies can, however, be too dependent on a scattered group of individual users. Without focused leadership, the pace of implementation can be slow due to "late adopters" and "laggards," and a generally lackadaisical attitude toward taking meaningful action has more room to develop.
Both the top-down and bottom-up approaches have merit, but missteps can occur when institutions only use one or the other and don't take steps to overcome challenges or mitigate potential negatives. In a perfect world, you'd take the best aspects of both approaches and blend them together to get the result you want.
Blending Is Best: Why You Need Both Implementation Strategies and What the Benefits Are
Ideally, you would want to take the best of both strategies mentioned above. Enthusiasm for an edtech implementation strategy can be generated at the grassroots level or by soliciting front-line feedback, followed by top-down action to ensure that the implementation occurs in a reasonable time frame with shared accountability. Or, to channel Rick DuFour's "loose and tight" concept, an institution could say, "We will implement an EdTech strategy" (tight), then go to the grassroots level to develop what the resources and implementation strategy will look like (loose), returning to the district level for implementation and follow-through (tight).
Project RED discussed seven findings related to the benefits of a properly implemented edtech strategy:
- There are nine key factors linked most strongly to success in education, including frequent use by students and integration into both intervention periods and core curriculum, administrative leadership and the provision of time for educators to learn and collaborate, and the use of online formative assessment on a regular basis.
- A properly implemented strategy will save you money. Technology for technology's sake can bexpensive and unproductive. Like the 'binder-on-a-shelf' strategic planning phenomenon we all know and loathe, the computer in the corner—unused or not aligned with instruction—is just as wasteful.
- 1:1 schools focused on effective implementation strategies perform better than other 1:1 schools and schools in general.
- Leadership is key. Educational leaders must support and be able to lead meaningful change for the strategy to succeed. My district launched a major K-12 LMS initiative last year, and my educators looked to me to model use, support, and overall acceptance of the change.
- Intervention transformed by technology increases learning. When students can move at their own pace, and educators are able to facilitate and guide, outcomes will improve.
- Collaborating online is good for student engagement and productivity. When I observe a class that is working "in the cloud" in real time with one another in researching and presenting a topic, I can see this in action.
- Daily use is the best return on investment for an organization. An LMS or other "flipped" aspect of a classroom cannot be a one-off event. You must work to incorporate the technology into daily lesson planning with a focus on specific student learning outcomes to have the greatest impact.
You Make the Difference!
You have the will and the skills to create just the right blend of a top-down and bottom-up approach for the long-term success of your edtech implementation strategy. Develop a plan that incorporates both approaches, support it throughout the process, and stay focused on student learning outcomes, and your 21st-century institution will thrive.