Last week the New America Foundation’s Chelsea Wilhelm wrote about a startling trend in state education technology planning: by and large, it’s not happening. As Wilhelm summarized, after combing through public records she found that:

[J]ust 19 states have planned past the year 2012. Of those, five states have plans that do not include student learning objectives or professional development objectives, which in our estimation here at New America makes them fairly bare-bones, limited updates. … The remaining 30 (including the District of Columbia) have no current state education technology plans publicly available at all—most have confirmed they are not continuing with state-wide education technology planning.

As disconcerting as these findings may be, they got me wondering if a technology plan is really the right level of planning to focus on in the first place. Historically, technology planning had to do with wiring schools and making basic hardware and budget decisions. Today, with the rise of K–12 blended learning, technology planning looks more and more like instructional and curriculum planning with technology playing a supporting role in new school and classroom design. States continuing to focus on technology planning—as it’s been done historically—would seem to risk perpetuating the myth that we can cram technology into the existing instructional paradigm and expect new outcomes.

To think through what exactly we mean—or should mean—by a “technology plan,” I reached out to Warren Danforth, a consultant to the education sector in the planning, deployment, and adoption of technology to improve student learning. Danforth has 15 years of experience as a leader in the wireless industry and five years in education implementing longitudinal data systems and instructional improvement systems. He recently developed a guidebook for the United States Department of Education Reform Support Network to assist in the planning and deployment of Instructional Improvement Systems

Over email Danforth explained, “Keep in mind the planning starts with identifying needs of stakeholders—student and teachers, and how they do their work and learning activities—not technology. A technology plan without a focus on the daily activities of users isn’t much of a plan.”

In Danforth’s estimation, today’s lack of system planning creates “a compilation of technology solutions that were never designed to work together.” Because states and districts don’t create highly integrated plans but instead make discrete technology procurement decisions as part of budgeting deadlines or one-off efforts, the tools and networks that schools are using rarely work in concert. As Danforth explained, this leaves technology groups across the nation “managing chaos and taxing the technology resources to the point they are unable to respond to changing instructional strategies.”

This chaos also tends to have ripple effects across the organization. According to Danforth:

This forces the IT teams to be on the defensive, prone to say “No” to every request for new technology because they lack the resources to manage their current work load. Ideally the technology teams should be participating in discussions and planning for how technology can help students, teachers, and other stakeholders. But, until the planning and governance structures are put in place to plan technology solutions that met stakeholder needs in a coherent and manageable manner I don’t see most technology groups being able to actively participate in helping schools innovate.

Indeed, as we found in a paper earlier this year, the ability for school systems to break down those silos between instruction and IT correlated with early adopters of blended and personalized learning.

So is a “technology plan” really enough to inspire confidence that states are shepherding school systems to effectively deploy technology to support learning? Indeed as technology rapidly improves, states and school systems will struggle to keep up based on their current governance and funding structures. As Danforth put it:

The days of ‘I got a grant, so I’m going to buy software’ are short lived. If educational organizations are going to deploy and support software applications that improve student outcomes there are a lot of changes needed in how everyone works together. Educational agencies can smooth some of the planning issues by starting with the development of a common vision for how their organization will coordinate their work, how they see technology being used (or not).

Particularly in light of the rapid expansion of cloud-based education software solutions, Danforth also suggests that benchmarking against other educational agencies and the private sector can be used to estimate technology needs in the future. Moreover, better data and technology standards may eventually lower software integration costs, allowing schools to keep up with advancements in technology. “Ed-Fi and IMS Global are two groups developing standards,” Danforth explained. “If schools, districts and states adopt these types of standards the integration of software can become easily accomplished, and, the removal and replacement of a single application becomes much easier and cost effective.”

In short, although Wilhelm’s findings on the dearth of state-level tech plans are alarming, simply having a plan may not be a meaningful proxy for a clear blended learning strategy or support system. There’s not much data out there to suggest that states without technology plans are indeed engaging in focused instructional planning that considers how technology might support student-centered learning. But if we are going to call for more states and districts to deploy coherent technology plans, let’s make sure we aren’t calling for more of the same. To harness the power of digital learning, we should focus more on the planning how technology will improve how students learn and teachers deliver instruction rather than a technology plan focused on hardware and software.

Danforth can be emailed at