Making a digital leap isn’t simply a technology initiative; it’s planning and implementing a technology-based learning environment for all students -- a digitally-enabled ecosystem that is continuously improving, according to one organization. But when educators have a limited understanding of how to successfully integrate technology within education, it might seem as though they’re facing an abyss.

To assist schools grappling with these efforts, three large, national professional education associations combined forces, offering practical guidance, best practices and examples of model technology-enabled schools.

In 2014 the School Superintendents Association (AASA), Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the National School Boards Association (NSBA) formed Leading the Digital Leap, a nonprofit that has set out to help schools learn from and avoid spectacular problems, such as those associated with the controversial Los Angeles County Unified School District's iPad program rollout and the bankruptcy of ConnectEDU Inc., in which confidential student data was sold.

Where does it all begin? With a focus on education, not technology, according to Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN. He and officials from the aforementioned organizations have offered up three key tenets for planning a successful tech-based learning environment.

1. Plan Before Purchasing

“This initiative is about saying, ‘Let's define what our vision is around the learning, and then let’s find the right tools," Krueger said. “You start with the questions of, ‘How do we prepare students to be college-ready, career-ready and life-ready? What are the skills that we want them to have? What does the learning environment look like that enables that? How do we enable the enterprise of learning and use technology to create better learning?’ ”

Answering those questions and getting answers from all stakeholders – educators, administrators, school board members, community members, civic leaders and business people – is the first step, Krueger said, and equals approximately 70 percent of the work involved in planning a digital leap.

The second step -- getting technology into the school, classrooms and hands of educators and students -- is only 30 percent of the effort, and it comes at the end. While it is, in fact, important, he said that most schools get into trouble because that’s where they start.

The Digital Leap offers resources (see below) that any school community can utilize and adapt to address where it is on the continuum of technology adoption, from just starting out or advancing an existing program. This takes the guesswork out of leveraging technology, says Ann Lee Flynn, director of education technology for the NSBA.

“There is not a single silver-bullet solution out there that works as a one-size-fits-all,” she says. “It really is dependent on a district. Every community comes at this with a different set of criteria and needs. That's why it has to be thought about as customizable.”

2. Replicate Technology Success

The Digital Leap resources are organized into four main categories that articulate the best approach to the implementation process:

see offers successful programs; hear gives advice from digital leaders; learn teaches how to become a digital leader; and do offers action steps to follow. Flynn suggests a practical way to begin with the end – visiting a school with a clearly defined vision that supports a technology-enabled learning environment.

“[Try] going somewhere that's further along than where you actually are to see some good examples in practice," she said, "to understand and talk to the key players, to understand how they did it."

A few key elements of a tech-enabled learning environment are: leadership support, a realistic vision, making technology usage part of the school culture, providing/maintaining the essential infrastructure, teacher training, educating the community about what 21st century education looks like, and sustainable funding.

Without a comprehensive approach, schools can fall into the trap of experimenting with different initiatives but never exiting the beta testing stage for any of them. It’s important to learn from this and other mistakes, says James Minichello, director of communications and marketing for AASA.

“But in order to make an impact," he said, "we have to spend the time and resources … to learn properly how to use the particular [technology] we’re working with.”

3. Usher in a Culture Change

Even though this cost-free resource is available to any school district that wants a technology-based education environment, it’s useless until the main source of resistance to making the digital leap is addressed – people. 

“There are technological challenges in education, but those are not as challenging as the culture and people challenges,” Krueger says. “The big, hairy problem is people -- getting people who have grown up doing things a different way to do things in a new way. What we're talking about is getting most of the teachers and administrators and maybe even parents to understand what learning looks like for kids today. [Kids] don't view it as ‘technology.’ They view it as life. It's just the way it is.”

To illustrate, Krueger describes how television was “new technology” for his parents, but for him, it was just TV. In much the same way, the radio was part of everyday life for his parents, but was an amazing innovation for his grandparents.

“Alan Kay, one of the Apple chief scientists, says, 'Technology simply means it was invented after you were born.' Today's mobile, internet-enabled, cloud-based technology is just life for today's students. We as adults need to figure how we create a new learning environment that leverages these new possibilities.”

A recent CoSN survey (PDF) of educational leaders revealed that 80 percent of technology budgets for the current academic year are flat or declining. This affects everything from classroom learning and student counselling to administration and building operations, so schools need a vision and plan for making sure technology is available and functional. 

The best way to accomplish that digital leap? “Technology has got to become engrained in a district's DNA," Flynn said. "This is how we do things."