By Joel Hames

I love working with educators. There’s beauty in the work of those who dedicate their lives to helping students succeed. In my travels and interviews, I’ve seen educators grapple with challenges at the intersection of learning and technology. They seek out opportunities to enhance the efficacy and honor the interconnections between all of the systems they implement. Ultimately, through their work, schools are realizing the vision of supporting educational excellence of all students.

This great work guides us to several best practices that accelerate quality education.

Asking Why as a Deliberate Exercise

In his 2009 presentation titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek emphasizes that great leadership and change start with the question “why.” He highlights the Golden Circle, which is the “naturally occurring pattern, grounded in the biology of human decision making, which explains why we are inspired by some people, leaders, messages, and organizations over others.”

In making decisions about our learning environments, let’s start by asking “why.” Let’s be intentional about that, with the expectation of a real, actionable answer. With this mindset, the reason for implementing an online assessment system transitions from “let’s make classwork easier to submit online” to “we believe that interactive, anytime learning drives student engagement and success.”


When we communicate the latter philosophy to staff, we gain alignment in purpose and deep understanding of change. If we define our work by “why,” the decisions we make and the systems we implement will have a clear connection to our purpose and vision. From that starting point, we can then dive into the “how” and “what” of the Golden Circle. Starting with “why” gives us a rallying point for change and improvement.

Define the Enterprise Learning Ecosystem in Its Totality

All too often today, our vision of supporting educational excellence in our students is not part of the conversation when we talk about business and technology systems. We draw an artificial line between systems and processes that support student learning and those that support the operational and business side of our institutions. This divide is engrained in the organizational chart, policies, and culture of many districts.

The enterprise learning ecosystem is the totality of systems that encourage diversity of teaching strategies, training, and professional development; enable multiple opportunities for learning; put the student in control; optimize peer learning; and focus on feedback. The modern learning ecosystem extends in four directions:

  • Reform. Provides meaningful data that drives systematic improvements.
  • Administration. Helps manage the flow of information between systems and users.
  • Accountability. Aids in meeting regulatory, audit, local, and public accountability needs.
  • Action. Supports high-quality classroom interactions that drive student success.

No matter how disconnected a system may seem to be, enabling effective practice and fostering greatness among students is accomplished by all components of the ecosystem. If we are going to focus on the “why” of our institutions, then what better way to frame the technology we implement than to do it in terms of the learning impact on students?

Drive Conversations
about Technology around User Stories

In product management, we use a tool called “user stories” to drive our development. User stories shift the focus from “what” back to the end user. No matter what we do, we focus first on the value to the user. It’s a subtle shift, but one that aligns everyone involved in improving a product based on the benefits to the single most important person.

Ultimately, user stories drive conversations that uncover the true purpose of what we intend to do. Even in a system designed to order custodial supplies, we can find the benefit to the student and their learning and apply that benefit to search for the kind of efficiency and effectiveness we intend.

Break Down Barriers between District Organizations

Technology innovators break down barriers between district teams.

They don’t let their district leaders work in isolation. This isn’t necessarily about throwing a bunch of new people, untrained, into a room with teachers to debate philosophical issues surrounding classroom instruction. Instead, it’s about breaking down the barriers that exist between departments and leaders.

If you are a chief technology officer or information technology director, don’t accept that your job is just technical or be passive about your involvement in the business of the district. Business here, of course, means teaching students. Don’t let your work be defined solely by technology plans and committees and networks and data systems. Do more with others on your leadership team. Sit in the room with people who are struggling to adopt new curriculum and figure out what that means to the enterprise learning ecosystem.

Modernize the Evaluations of Systems

Finally, we need to modernize the evaluations of our systems.

Think about the criteria we have traditionally used to evaluate what we put in our schools: cost, functionality, and company factors, like longevity and references. All good data points, to be sure. And I don’t think that anyone would argue that system functionality is anything other than critical. But I’d like to suggest we insert one other vital criterion: instructional impact. Let’s start asking, before anything else, what impact a system has shown on student achievement.

Given what we now know, can’t we see how a transportation system, a learning management system, and a finance and human resource system connect through to the classroom? If those lines are clear, then we should be asking these questions up front, before we ever sign on the dotted line.

How do you assess impact, especially in systems that are several steps removed from the classroom? We must have something measurable, something quantitative. Here are some potential examples:

  • Does the application provide data that can contribute to system-wide decision making?
  • What is the impact to students if the system malfunctions?
  • What evidence can the company provide about the impact of its software on students?
  • Is it highly interoperable, enabling other instructional systems to perform better?
  • Can you reword the value of the ecosystem in a student-centric language?

The choices you make impact your students. So what do we do with this knowledge? We start with our vision and purpose, with buy-in that the “why” is clear and important. We acknowledge that business systems are also instructional systems and that our entire enterprise learning ecosystem is one large instructional platform that impacts our students on a daily basis. We break down barriers between leaders and eliminate isolation so that decisions are made in the full light of day. And we tell user stories that focus everyone’s attention on the values that matter to us in our schools.

When we do all these things, we transform our schools. We also rethink our approach to a multi-billion dollar educational technology industry. You all know how to make a difference, so use that knowledge to force us, as software and system providers, to do better. We’ll rise to the challenge and that will create the kind of educational system that I want my own children to experience.

Joel Hames is vice president of product at SunGard K-12 Education and a member of the company’s Leadership Team. With almost 17 years of experience managing enterprise systems as an information and instructional technology leader at various school districts, Hames brings a wealth of experience and deep understanding to his role. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of California, Irvine, and a master’s degree in educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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Issue 20.1 | Spring 2018

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