School Tech: An Interview with Sarah Hanawald

School Tech: An Interview with Sarah Hanawald

Our society’s dependency on technology is undeniable, and it just takes one power outage to remind us just how dependent we are. As schools work to integrate new technologies into their curricula, pedagogy, and overall operations, this dependency only grows. A harbinger of the critical nature of technology to the success of independent schools was the emergence in 2014 of a professional association focused solely on the resource, training, and information needs of technology leaders— the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, or ATLIS. The Yield sat down with Sarah Hanawald, ATLIS executive director, to learn more about this new association and some of the technology challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

Tell us about the founding of ATLIS and what the association hopes to achieve.

ATLIS was the brainchild of three visionaries: Stuart Posin (Marlborough School, CA), Gabe Lucas (EdTech Recruiting, CA), and Kelsey Vrooman (NAIS, DC). Each was an independent school technology director seeking the kind of professional association their school colleagues had. When I tell people about ATLIS, one of the first things I always hear is “What took so long?” I do believe that one reason for the delay is that those involved with technology have been adept at using web technologies to put together informal professional networks. ATLIS is designed to provide structure for these informal person-to-person networks.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when an association or organization is completely volunteer driven, it’s very hard to sustain momentum when the founders need to move on to new things. That, more than anything else, is the goal with ATLIS—to build a sustainable association that serves independent school technology leaders for years to come.

What services do you provide to your members?

Our mission is three-fold. We summarize it in three words—“inform, connect, reflect.”

We work to keep our members informed of developments in the field and give them information to understand the tools and resources technology can provide. We develop best practices, templates, position papers, and models for documents, processes, job descriptions, departmental structures, and more. We offer professional development in-person and online. We also seek to advocate to the greater independent school community about the importance of technology in the health and sustainability of the independent school. We’ve partnered with NAIS to be a part of the DASL survey.

A big professional challenge is keeping current, and one of the best ways to do so is to talk with other practitioners. To that end, we support the always free ISED-L listserv. Anyone can subscribe to our newsletter as well. For our members, we provide a platform for sharing evaluations and reviews of software and hardware.

Technology moves pretty fast, and our members are used to juggling multiple projects and managing competing priorities. We provide space and prompts for them to pause and take a moment to think and talk about the why behind the work they are doing. We do this at our in-person gatherings and through online user-group meetings.

What has been most rewarding/challenging aspect of establishing a new professional membership association?

The most rewarding is that senior technology directors are eager to give back to the next generation of leaders. I’ve been pleased to see the response to our Early Career and Aspiring Technology Directors Institute (ECATD). The faculty has a depth of experience that is astounding, and they just loved working with the cohort members.

The DIY aspect of technology is one of the challenges. Techies are often expected by others at school to be able to figure things out on their own. I’ve spent a good bit of time helping technology leaders advocate for access to ATLIS and other professional development for themselves and their staff. I think we may have turned the corner there.

How can/should schools best use technology to enhance the student experience?

Wow, that’s a big question! In a nutshell, technology has to fit with the culture of the school, not be in opposition to it. That being said, if the culture of the school is unhealthy, technology can magnify those weaknesses. But there are definitely things that schools are doing that really help students.

A well-chosen Learning Management System (LMS), for one, is an organizational game changer for teachers, families, and students. A solid LMS means that distance learning can happen when weather cancels school or an individual student faces an extended absence.

Schools that provide opportunities for online learning are able to broaden the students’ experience without the costs associated with providing electives. Courses offered through schools such as One Schoolhouse or the Global Online Academy are high quality and are usually taught by experienced independent school teachers.

I’m starting to see schools use technology to foster creativity in student schedules too. One school had all its senior electives become blended courses that only met twice a week. Students worked in groups to complete coursework online and used the time gained during the day for internships.

Technology that provides support to students struggling with specific learning challenges is an area of growing promise. Software that provides students with just-in-time support on a specific topic is emerging, and it will be fascinating to see that develop.

What are the big policy issues the technology leaders grapple with? What keeps them up at night?

In terms of policy, cybersecurity is in the spotlight right now. This used to be a topic that independent schools felt didn’t really apply to them. Unfortunately, a few schools have faced disasters that have resulted in a greater awareness of the need for work in this area.

Staying ahead of the ever-changing risks associated with the online world and the behavior of children (teens) keeps technology directors up at night. The balance between encouraging exploration and keeping kids safe is a never-ending conversation between schools and parents.

We talk a lot at The Enrollment Management Association about the very real enrollment challenges facing independent schools. What is the role of technology in ensuring healthy school enrollment? What are the tools necessary?

One of the strands in the ECATD program involves understanding the business principles behind every key area in school, and we require participants to interview the admission director about his or her role. When technology directors understand how admission operates, they can be a better support to all the admission staff. I recommended the report you issued on the competitive landscape last year to all our members. Understanding the choices families make about schools is important for any school leader—particularly for a technology director who desires to be a part of a school’s strategic planning.

The increasing cost of school is a worry, and technology can be a part of reducing costs strategically. The trick, for example, is to balance the efficiency of a check-in/out system with the need for the personal touch of a receptionist. Devices have become less expensive over the last decade while their capabilities have increased dramatically. Electronic textbooks are finally coming into their own, but their adoption faces resistance in many schools.

I see schools chasing some technologies just because the school down the road has a (fill in the blank)— maker space, video production studio, technical theater program. There is an admission payoff when the technology adopted supports the cultural strengths of the school.

Data drives decision making, yet it is the Achilles’ heel of many independent schools. What can/should technology leaders do to ensure the quality of their schools’ institutional research?

Too many schools purchase a school-wide information system without thoroughly vetting its capabilities in each area. Instead, one or two departments drive the decision and the rest must make do. Schools skimp on hiring a database administrator who oversees the quality of the data and ensures it meets everyone’s needs. I think one reason this happens is because each department has an individual who manages data for that area. No one wants to give up that control, but then the various constituent groups don’t work together. Having a technology employee who is a database specialist can go a long way to avoiding those conflicts.

Many schools fail to leverage the reporting options their integrated systems can provide. Once the system is in place and they’ve mastered the basics, they don’t run any of the more advanced analytics. This is a mistake that could be avoided if more senior administrators understood the systems they use better. They are the ones with the strategic responsibilities who can make decisions for the department.

I also see schools relying on intuition when they really need data. For example, what kinds of students who were risky admits ended up leaving the school? Which ones did well? Can you build a more accurate profile of the students who will thrive in your school? Are you tracking data (besides grades) that support your findings? Are there resources in your area that will help you find similar families who haven’t inquired at your school (yet)?

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