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 Strategic Planning for IT in Education

The materials in this section are Chapter 4 of the book:

Moursund, D., Bielefeldt, T., Ricketts, R., and Underwood, S. (1995). Effective Practice: Computer Technology in Education. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

Chapter 4. Strategic Planning

Overview

Process and Product

Checklist for Organizational Planning

Environment

Personnel

Six Key Steps in Strategic Planning

1. Evaluate the Situation

2. Articulate a Vision

3. Decide on a Mission Statement

4. Propose and Select Goals

5. Develop a Strategic Implementation Plan

6. Periodic Assessment and Update

Avoiding Failure of the Planning Process

A Source of Sample Plans

Concluding Remarks

References

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Chapter 4. Strategic Planning

This chapter discusses planning, primarily "strategic" long-range planning. Many schools and school districts have developed strategic plans for technology in education. David Moursund and Dick Ricketts, in Long-Range Planning for Computers in Schools, identify six key steps in the process:

  1. Evaluate the situation.
  2. Articulate a vision.
  3. Decide on a mission statement.
  4. Develop goals.
  5. Develop a strategic implementation plan. This entails creation of short- and medium-range plans.
  6. Set up a mechanism for periodic assessment of the implementation efforts and the plan. This mechanism must include provisions for revising the plan whenever it becomes evident that such revision is needed.

Overview

Technology in education is both a challenge and an opportunity. That is also a good way of describing strategic planning! It is hard to organize and facilitate the work of a diverse group of stakeholders interested in strategic planning. The process can take a great deal of time and effort. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the strategic planning process will be successful. Even so, undertaking strategic planning is worth the risk. The long-term consequences of planlessness are serious, and a successful planning process brings greater organizational effectiveness, efficiency, nimbleness, and satisfaction.

A long-range plan focuses on goals that will take four to six years (or more) to accomplish. It contains an implementation plan--strategies for achieving the goals. The long-range goals and the implementation strategy provide a strong foundation for decision making by the various people who will be involved in implementing the plan. Thus, it provides a basis for the major, long-term, strategic decisions that teachers, departments, schools, or districts must make as they work to achieve the goals specified in the plan.

There is a substantial amount of research literature about strategic planning. Moreover, most schools and school districts have some experience in doing strategic planning. Thus, they have some knowledge about what works and what does not work.

In simple summary, there are three keys to success:

  1. Adequately and appropriately involving all of the key stakeholder groups--both those that will be affected by the outcomes produced by implementing the plan and those who will be doing the implementation.
  2. Having a good facilitator or team of facilitators.
  3. Making and ensuring implementation of appropriate provisions for the annual review and update of the plan.

Process and Product

Strategic planning is a process that leads to a product. The product, a strategic plan, is useful to the extent that: 1) it embodies creative, careful, and realistic thinking; 2) that it is implemented in an appropriate and thoughtful manner; and 3) that it contributes significantly to accomplishing the mission of the organization. Many organizations find that the process of developing a strategic plan contributes as much or more to an organization than does actually having such a plan in hand. However, a strategic plan is very important to have available because it provides a framework for day-to-day and longer-term decision making on the part of the staff and volunteers who work for the organization.

The type of strategic plan discussed here is a long-range plan that covers a period of four to six years. Four to six years is long enough to implement a significant change in a system or an organization. The research literature on strategic planning indicates that five to six years is a "natural" period of time to plan for. Given adequate financing, educational technology planners may shorten the cycle to accommodate the fast changes in hardware and software.

Generally, completion of a long-range strategic plan then leads to the development of a medium-range plan that covers two to three years, and a short-range plan covering one year. One-year plans are particularly important because typically one can accurately forecast the resources (money and people) that will be available during the year. This is particularly true for many schools and school districts.

Once a long-range strategic plan is in place, it needs to be updated each year. This provides a basis for annually updating the medium-range plan and the next year's plan. All of this gets tied into the budget cycle, as a year's budget is designed to accomplish specific short-term goals in the year's plan.

Checklist for Organizational Planning

The strategic planning process requires that a number of people with diverse interests work together, usually over quite a long period of time. Some will be staff while others will be volunteers. Facilitating the work of such a strategic planning group requires considerable skill on the part of the leader(s).

The following checklist may help the strategic planning leaders as they bring together the group and facilitate its work. This form is adapted from a more general organization evaluation instrument developed by T. F. Gilbert in Assessment for Decision (1987).

Environment

A. Information

  1. Does every planner have enough data, including missions or goals, to perform well?
  2. Are the data useful: Accessible, accurate, current, understandable, etc.?
  3. Are clear and measurable performance standards communicated so the planners know how well they are expected to perform?
  4. Do planners accept the standards as reasonable?

B. Resources

  1. Are adequate materials or money available to facilitate the work of the group?
  2. Are meeting environments reasonably comfortable and free from unnecessary interference?
  3. Is sufficient time available to complete assigned tasks?
  4. Is their some reserve of resources for emergencies?

C. Procedures

  1. Are procedures, individually and collectively, efficient&emdash;designed to minimize wasted effort and time?
  2. Are they based on experience or research rather than historical happenstance?
  3. Are they effective&emdash;appropriate to the task, and to the attitudes and skills of each planner?

D. Feedback

  1. Does it relate to desired outcomes as well as desired behavior?
  2. Is it timely and frequent enough to help group members reflect on what they do?
  3. Is it selective and specific, free of fluff?
  4. Is it positive and constructive?
  5. Are systemic issues among those addressed
  6. Can feedback result in changed procedures, goals, and missions? (Note: Except for leaving well enough alone, evaluation without action is worse than no evaluation.)

E. Incentives

  1. Are they sufficient and not liable to erode in value?
  2. Are there rewards for asking questions and raising relevant issues?
  3. Are rewards neither cloyingly frequent nor starvingly infrequent?

Personnel

F. Capacity

  1. Does each planner have the necessary ability or talent to perform?
  2. Are group members, collectively and individually, helped to overcome limitations that interfere with performance?
  3. Can members who cannot overcome serious limitations be transferred or terminated?

G. Knowledge and Training

  1. Do planners understand the consequences of poor, adequate, and excellent performance?
  2. Can they connect what they're doing with their current interests or future needs?
  3. Do they have the basic and specialized skills, and the necessary concepts, to perform well?
  4. Do the planners have the means to acquire new skills and knowledge as needed?

Six Key Steps in Strategic Planning

This section outlines a six-step strategic planning process. A small school might require about 100 person-hours of time to complete the process. A large school district might require 1,000 or more person-hours of time to complete the process. Remember, quite a bit of the time is used to help educate the planners. The time and effort invested in this education process is essential to achieving overall success in the strategic planning process.

1. Evaluate the Situation

The starting point for strategic planning is a careful evaluation of the current situation. This step is often called an environmental scan. Much of the work needed to complete an environmental scan can be assigned to staff and can be completed before the first meeting of the strategic planning group. However, once the group begins meeting, it will likely generate additional requests for such information.

  • Analyze the environment and the planning assumptions. Identify the key stakeholders, their beliefs and goals, and the current state of affairs.
  • Tabulate such resources as money, personnel, time, and so forth and decide whether these are certain, allocated, or probable. Resources are needed both to carry out the strategic planning process and to implement the plans that are developed.
  • Gather and analyze data on what is working well and what is not working well. For example, what are the current uses of technology in the organization, and what are students learning about such technology? (Chapter 5 of this book discusses methodologies for gathering answers to these types of questions.)
  • Gather baseline data that adequately describes the current situation. This will consist of both quantitative and qualitative data. This baseline data is needed both for planning purposes and to measure change over time, as implementation of the strategic plan proceeds over the years. Conclusions from the data can become assumptions for planning.

 

A key part of getting started in strategic planning is understanding what resources may be available for the plan's implementation. As suggested by Figure 4.1, a strategic plan for technology in education might actually consist of three somewhat distinct but closely related plans. This is an important idea. Strategic planners often lose touch with reality. There is little sense in developing a plan that has no chance whatsoever of being implemented.

Figure 4.1. Three possible sub-plans in a strategic plan.

Figure 4.1 also suggests that a strategic planning group may think about putting quite a bit of its efforts into planning on how to get more resources. Chapter 12 goes into considerable detail about finding resources for change through grants, budgeting, and community action.

2. Articulate a Vision

Although long-range strategic planning usually focuses on a four-to six-year time span, it is important to have a vision of what might be accomplished over a much longer time span. This vision might be focused 15 or more years in the future.

Imagine a member of the strategic planning committee sharing hopes and fears:

My child will enter kindergarten next year. I hope and expect that my child will at least complete two years of technical training in a community college&emdash;I think that is going to be essential to get a good job.

What will the world be like when my child is finishing school, looking for a job, and taking on more and more adult responsibilities? Will the formal and informal education that we have been able to provide prove adequate?

I am particularly concerned about how rapidly technology is changing, and how this is changing jobs. I want my child to be ready for the jobs that have not yet even been created. I want my child to have the knowledge, skills, and learning habits that will be needed to deal with the changing job situations 15 or more years from now.

This sort of sharing is a starting point for the strategic planning group forming a vision. Every member of the group can share hopes, fears, and visions. This type of sharing activity is a good way for the planning group members to get to know each other. Notice that it is personal--it does not focus on any particular stakeholder group. It helps to create a shared vision that moves beyond the concerns of any particular stakeholder group.

Such a vision is painted in very broad strokes. Thus, it might focus on the problem solving and learning challenges today's preschoolers will face on the job, as homemakers, and as responsible adults 15 years from now. Chapter 9 of this book makes some forecasts of what computer-related technology and the educational uses of such technology might be like over this time span.

3. Decide on a Mission Statement

A strategic planning group may want to develop two different mission statements:

  1. The mission of the strategic planning group.
  2. The technology in education mission of the school or school district for which the strategic planning is being done.

A mission is an ongoing purpose, the reason an organization exists. It should be simple, direct, and easy for people to understand. Perhaps you remember what the mission of the March of Dimes was a number of years ago. Its mission was to conquer polio. This was a mission many different groups of people supported over many years.

The development of polio vaccines represented a huge step toward accomplishing the mission of the March of Dimes. The organization had to decide whether to go out of business. Instead, it decided on a new mission--to conquer birth defects.

The mission of a strategic planning group for a school might be to develop and approve a far-reaching strategic plan designed to bring the school to the forefront of the Information Age. Although somewhat wordy, this is a mission that the planning group members can understand.

Here is another example. The mission might be "To ensure that all of our students are technologically literate." The plan itself will have some goals and an implementation plan. Quite likely the term "technologically literate" will be defined as a moving target&emdash;that is, a target based on ever changing contemporary standards. Thus, the mission will never be fully accomplished.

4. Propose and Select Goals

A strategic plan has three major parts. An outline for such a plan consists of:

Part I: Goals and Objectives

Goal 1

Objective 1.1

Objective 1.2

 

Goal 2

Objective 2.1

Objective 2.2

Objective 2.3

 

Etc.

 

Part II: Implementation Plan

(General plan that tells how to achieve the various objectives and overarching goals.)

 

Part III: Periodic Assessment and Revision

(General plan for ongoing formative evaluation, periodic summative evaluation, and periodic revision of the overall plan.)

 

A goal is an accomplishment, an outcome or result, that happens by a stated time. For example, "All students will be able to make effective use of a word processor to do process writing by the end of the sixth grade." An objective states a detail of a goal. For example, all students will be able to touch keyboard at a speed in excess of 25 words per minute by the end of the sixth grade.

Chapter 8 of this book lists 11 general goals for technology in education. A strategic planning group may find these useful as it begins to formulate specific goals. As might be expected, it is relatively easy to formulate a huge number of goals. It is much harder to gain consensus among the diverse members of a planning group as to which goals to actually include in the plan.

A standard approach is first to generate goals and work toward ensuring that a fully understand of the goals. Every proposed goal will lead to many difficult questions. For example, what is the meaning of "process writing?" What roles might computers play in process writing? How much training and practice does it take for students to become touch keyboarders with a speed in excess of 25 words per minute? What about students with physical limitations? Will voice input soon replace keyboarding, thus making it a waste of time for our students to learn efficient keyboarding?

Research on strategic planning suggests that a relatively limited number of overarching goals is to be preferred over a large number of more limited goals. Thus, rather than develop a plan with dozens of goals, it is better to develop a plan with a half dozen goals. Each goal should have a limited number of objectives--perhaps as few as two or three. This means that planners are faced by two major tasks:

  1. Consolidating goals into overarching goals, and consolidating lists of objectives into overarching objectives.
  2. Winnowing down the lists of goals and objectives.

This is not an easy task. Consider the process writing goal discussed above. Is it so important that it should be one of a half dozen goals for a school or a school district? Or is it really just an objective under a larger goal. The larger goal might be to integrate effective use of computer-as-tool in achieving the basic skills goals set by the school or school district.

There are many different processes for winnowing down a list of goals. Planners should consider both merit and worth, as discussed in Chapter 5. The group leader(s) should be familiar with group processes that can be used to reach consensus on goals and objectives.

Whatever the process, sort out the Critical Success Factors--those goals that are essential to achieving the mission. Estimate what resources will be needed to achieve these essential goals and deduct them from the list of possible resources. Then consider the other long-range goals and objectives. Goal development and winnowing needs to be based on the realities of what resources are available for implementation. Indeed, in the planning process, it is common to cycle between steps 4 and 5 listed at the start of this chapter.

5. Develop a Strategic Implementation Plan

The strategic planning group needs to develop an overall implementation plan based on the agreed-on goals and objectives. Who will do what, by when, using what resources? Who will be responsible for monitoring and reporting on progress?

The implementation plan has short-term (perhaps one year or less), medium term (two to three years), and long-term (four to five years or more) components. Remember that the development of an implementation plan requires careful examination of the goals. Quite likely, goals and objectives will be revised during planning for implementation.

The planning can proceed from present to future or from a future date back to the present. It seems somewhat easier to set intermediate goals with the latter method.

The strategic planning group will probably develop only a rough plan for implementation. Details may best be left up to the school personnel who have the authority and responsibility for implementation. Some planning groups and advisory councils have a tendency to "micro-manage"--to attempt to spell out small details of what is to be done to achieve particular goals. This is inappropriate and can seriously hinder schools from actually achieving the goals. (At the same time, people concerned with implementation may welcome notes used by strategic planners during their meetings.)

Planners usually have to secure approval of a plan from most stakeholders. This can be thought of as the first step in implementation. Your planned goals can range from preserving the status quo to radical change. The greater the change you seek, the more energy you should expect to expend on persuasion.

Planners who are advocating change can cite four types of advantages:

  1. Differentiation, a better product or service, such as successful mainstreaming.
  2. Innovation, a new edge over competition or an open door to glimpsed possibilities, such as a productive internship program that helps build community-school relations.
  3. Team building, making new friends or keeping old ones, perhaps through interdisciplinary projects or improved home-school cooperation.
  4. Thrift, a relative saving of resources.

Often one type is dominant. Citing two or three types makes it easier to gain support. However, overstating the case will produce skepticism. If indeed planners expect improvements in all four areas, it may be accurate and more convincing to specify that some advantages will happen in the short run while others will appear later. (But certainly be prepared for skepticism of you predict that a change will save money "later.") It's quite helpful over the short run to have something to point to with pride. Over the long run, it is critical that a majority of those concerned can perceive positive results.

6. Periodic Assessment and Update

Once a plan has been adopted, school personnel will choose, organize, and work on specific activities that are based on the overall implementation plan and that lead to achieving the adopted goals and objectives. They will also set in place an evaluation process that provides information needed by decision makers, implementers, and planners.

Evaluation must be an ongoing part of strategic implementation. A key idea is that results from the evaluation are fed into current planning. Successful planners periodically revise and update the strategic plan based on the ongoing formative evaluation process. The long-range strategic plan should be carefully examined each year and should be updated based on information gathered during the year. Typically, the updating process takes only a small fraction of the time and effort used in the creation of the original plan. This is true even if unanticipated "second-order" effects (see Chapter 9) are involved because the attitudes, habits, and structures of plan + implement + evaluate are in place.

Avoiding Failure of the Planning Process

A group approaches strategic planning assuming that it will be successful. However, the plan may fail. There are four obvious reasons for this; they can be avoided by taking appropriate care in the planning process.

  1. The planning process is carried out in a poor fashion. Inadequate time, energy, and other resources are devoted to the task. The resulting plan is not visionary enough, contains major flaws, and is not worth implementing.
  2. The planning process does not adequately involve the key stakeholders&emdash;the people who are affected by the plan and who will be involved in implementing it. Consequently, they do not support the plan, and they sabotage implementation of the plan. They may do this in a quite passive manner by merely not putting their energies and "clout" into getting the goals accomplished.
  3. The plan is not periodically updated based on formative evaluation data gathered during implementation of the plan. The plan quickly becomes outdated and is ignored.
  4. A major and unforeseen change occurs that undermines the plan's assumptions. What happens if the school's technology coordinator leaves to go to graduate school or the superintendent who strongly supports the plan decides to retire? Note that it is possible to do contingency planning for various types of disasters. A final plan can be examined in light of a variety of scenarios that the original planners might not have considered. A well designed, robust plan will stand up under such scrutiny. A sturdy planning process can survive most unforeseen events.

A Source of Sample Plans

The National Center for Technology Planning http://www.nctp.com/ is a clearinghouse for the exchange of information related to technology planning, including school district technology plans, technology planning aids, sample planning forms, and electronic monographs on related topics. This site was developed by and is maintained by Larry Anderson , a faculty member at Mississippi State University.

Concluding Remarks

To a great extent, the process of building a strategic plan is a process of educating the planners and the stakeholder groups that they represent. As they grow in knowledge and in mutual trust, they will gradually come to understand the field of computers in education and the most important goals for their school. They will have a reasonable chance to develop consensus or near consensus on what will be best for the school or school district.

The two most important steps in strategic planning are to involve stakeholders fully in the process and to review and update the plan every year. The most important characteristic of a strategic planner is to have a vision tempered by realism.

References

Gilbert, T.F. (1987). Assessment for decision. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers.

Moursund, David G. and Ricketts, Dick. (1988). Long-range planning for computers in schools. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

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