For John Morgan, a career in education was a natural fit. The director of educational technology grew up inspired by his mother, stepfather and grandfather, who also dedicated their lives to enriching students’ experiences. Today Morgan is impacting the minds of students and teachers through technology at Capistrano Unified School District in Southern California.
He graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in chemical education, then taught chemistry in Edgewood, Md., before moving with his wife to Southern California to continue teaching. Morgan perfected the art of teaching science to students who hated it.
But his natural ability to teach others was not the only thing that set Morgan apart as a technology leader. His approach to teaching a group of students is centered on individualized learning. The father of four said that he realized his children — ages 6, 9, 17 and 19 — all require different learning tools.
“When you get to a certain number of kids, you start to realize that none of them learn the same,” he said. “At the same time, there’s no reason one of them should not be successful. I think education technology allows you to differentiate for that.”
Morgan said he does not want to be the smartest person in the classroom — even as the teacher. The smartest people in the classroom should be the students. But they need technology tools to help expose them to knowledge outside of school and help them discover their genius.
During his time in the classroom, Morgan constantly requested new technology from his principal. At the same time, the district’s Chief Technology Officer Jeremy Davis was looking for 25 teachers to pilot Chromebooks in classrooms. Morgan made the short list.
“A chemistry class wasn’t my first choice,” Davis said. “But the principal said, ‘We know the chemistry department will ensure that they get used.’ John made an impression.”
About 20 months ago Davis appointed Morgan as the district’s director of educational technology. Teachers can look to Morgan’s efforts during his teaching career as proof that it doesn’t require a technology genius to make new tools a success in the classroom.
When Morgan took on the technology leadership role, he helped to expand the district’s Chromebook program to 24,000 devices. He modified what was formerly a three-day training for teachers, retained the most important elements and developed a two-day training. Davis said the district and teachers benefit from having someone in this role who came straight out of the classroom.
“He understands what the teachers need, and he understands if we are putting too much on them,” Davis said. “He’s very rational and looks at how we can make things better.”
For example, Morgan revamped the district’s Digital Literacy Teacher program. Before the overhaul, teachers would express interest in learning some type of technology. Then the education technologists would show teachers a host of different tools, hoping that some of them would stick. Teachers left the training exhausted, their minds spinning with all the tool choices for each lesson.
Morgan couldn’t stand that, so he worked with two other staff members to get rid of most of the tech tools and simplified the program. Together, they developed a lesson study model in which teachers work collaboratively in cohorts at their schools. It begins with the principal at each school identifying a math teacher, science teacher, social science teacher and English teacher. During the first school semester, Morgan’s team conducts one technology lesson study with this group and then checks in with them throughout the semester.
During the second semester, those four teachers regroup and add three additional teachers from each subject area to the cohort. With more collaborators, the cohorts develop four to five lessons apiece and share with one another. Over a year and a half, most of the staff members at the district’s middle schools completed the program, totaling 20 schools where teams of teachers are confidently changing education for the better.
“I couldn’t care less if we’re using the most innovative tools,” Morgan said. “It’s about the innovative teaching practice. If you try to show someone some technology, they’ll say, ‘You can do it because you’re the tech people.’ In order to get anything to stick, we can’t just be the best at technology — we have to be the best teachers.”
It’s this kind of outside-the-box thinking that caught the attention of Jeremy Shorr, director of technology innovation and early childhood education for the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM. After interacting on Twitter, Shorr and Morgan met in person at the Center for Digital Education’s 2015 Digital Education Leadership Conversation, where they facilitated a discussion.
Morgan has a way of making it easy for superintendents to learn about new ideas without feeling threatened or scared, Shorr said. And he also created a challenge for teachers so they could stay focused on instructional methods. For example, teachers could think of a tool such as Google Docs and come up with 100 methods to use that technology to support learning. After teachers narrow down that list of 100 possibilities, Morgan and his team support the teachers in implementation.
“What I love about John and his approach is that he and his district are really tightly focused on instructional experience first,” Shorr said. “That comes in a) not buying stuff until you figure out that there’s a hole and that a certain piece of technology could fill it; and b) taking the tools that teachers are already comfortable using.”
Davis, who in addition to being Morgan’s boss is also his friend, shared Shorr’s sentiment about using technology to support education. He said that he and Morgan do not implement technology for the sake of introducing another piece of equipment; instead technology is introduced to enhance teaching.
From Morgan’s point of view, “there’s no such thing as a technology lesson or a technology standard. It is 100 percent intertwined and integrated, which lets the teachers be awesome and lets the students learn amazing things.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Converge spring 2017 magazine issue.