The Needs Assessment
Knowing What Needs to be Accomplished
Have you ever tried to construct a lesson plan without a learning objective?
Or run a meeting without an agenda? The result is chaos, or worse. Before considering
whether to purchase new computers, software applications, or networking services, staff
in an education organization must identify plans for using the technology. This is not
always an easy task, especially when difficult questions arise about the capabilities and
limitations of the technologies. Performing a needs assessment helps to formally identify these needs.
What is a Needs Assessment?
With respect to technology, a needs assessment is an evaluation of the technical tasks and functions an
organization must be capable of performing (that it currently isn't) or the needs that technology must be
able to meet (that are not currently being met). A true needs assessment requires that all possible
needs be identified. Determining whether they are realistic, necessary, and affordable comes at a later point
in the planning process.
A "needs assessment" is an evaluation of the existing environment and capabilities of an
organization relative to the preferred environment and capabilities—with the difference between
the existing and preferred conditions being defined as the organization's "needs."
An important step in defining an organization's technology needs
is a review of the overall vision for the organization's technology.
This is often best accomplished by referring to the organization's
technology plan. (If a Technology Plan
has not yet been developed, then it should be!) The technology plan
will detail what resources already exist and what is planned for
the future. Planners can then coordinate all decision-making with
other long range planning, generally leading to results that provide
far more benefits to the organization than a series of independent
Who Should Conduct a Needs Assessment?
One common needs assessment error is the assumption that only a technology expert can conduct a thorough needs
assessment. On the contrary, the needs assessment isn't about technology; it is about what the organization does,
what more it needs to do, and how additional or newer technology can help to achieve its goals. As such,
individuals involved in the daily operations of an organization are the only ones who can define task
requirements—after all, they are the ones who are most familiar with their organization's functions, current needs, and future goals.
Staff from within the organization are the only ones who can identify the needs of the organization, but an outside expert can provide information about the possibilities technology can offer.
and do so objectively.
To enrich the staff's perspective, it may make sense to involve a technology expert during the needs assessment process, but the role of this team member is not to guide decision-making. Rather, the expert should serve as a resource who can explain the possibilities and limitations of technology as they become relevant to discussions.
Who Should Participate in the Needs Assessment Process?
Most needs arise from "users," the people who make use of technology as a tool for accomplishing tasks. Whether they are current or potential users, staff members are the key category of participants who must be involved in defining needs. In a school, typical users might include instructional or administrative staff. But they also might be custodians using technology to manage climate in rooms, and maintenance personnel who use a host of technological devices to maintain equipment and monitor building operations. In districts and state agencies, users might include secretaries and business personnel working with computers and communication systems. The list of potential "users" goes on, and varies by organization type, but anyone who uses technology (or wishes to) is a candidate for participating in the needs assessment process. Some staff members may not have a complete grasp of the capabilities of various technologies, but they will know what resources they need every day to perform their duties. Many technology initiatives fail because they have been designed for users without receiving their input.
All potential technology users should participate in the needs assessment process, including students, instructional staff, administrative staff, and operations staff.
Admittedly, it may be difficult to visit with every staff member, student, and parent who has an interest in technology in an education organization, but it is possible to include representatives from each user group. Mechanisms for identifying representatives should result in the selection of both willing participants and less-willing participants-ask for and select volunteers, but also choose some of the more technology-resistant members of the community whose opinions will be equally valuable.
What are the Steps in the Needs Assessment Process?
Once planners have a sense of an organization's major needs and requirements, it is time to start gathering more specific information, therefore allowing key decision-makers to make educated decisions. Although the needs assessment is only one component in the overall process of improving technology resources in an organization, it can be treated as a mini-project of its own. Once the specific participants who will contribute to the needs assessment have been identified, the key steps are:
- Gathering needs-related information (usually the most critical and time-consuming part of the process).
- Reviewing and prioritizing need.
- Documenting results.
Step 1. Gathering Needs-Related Information
|Information gathering can be time-consuming, so it is helpful to set a reasonable schedule and try to stick to it. It can make sense, however, to consider extending deadlines when important participants still have not offered their suggestions. It is essential to give everyone sufficient time to make their opinions heard. Information gathering should be approached with caution, as it often suffers from reactions representing two extremes:
Use a variety of techniques to obtain information from all types of potential users, and then prioritize needs based on what will make the organization more effective and efficient.
- reluctant participants who may not see the importance of the project and may only be half-heartedly interested
- overly zealous participants who have been waiting years to unburden themselves of their endless requirements and difficult jobs, and may overstate opinions during the quest for information
The challenge to planners is to distinguish real from exaggerated need, and give each the importance it deserves. Several techniques for gathering information are presented in Table 2.1. Figure 2.1 lists examples of questions that can be used during a general administrative needs assessment in a local or state education agency. This model also could be used to develop a different set of questions for identifying instructional technology needs via face-to-face interviews or a questionnaire.
Step 2. Reviewing and Prioritizing Need
Once information has been gathered, it must be reviewed to identify specific needs and determine which are most important for the technology initiative. First, planners must extract the key nuggets-those statements of discrete, separate needs, each of which can be assessed and addressed. Ideally, multiple participants will cite the same or similar needs. Keep these needs to a reasonable number, perhaps by listing them at a fairly general level. Remember, at this point there is no need to think about how the technology solution actually will work; instead focus on what the participants need and want to be able to do. One way to organize the needs is to use the following categories:
- information capture (e.g., student grades and attendance, teacher employment data, new library book titles)
- information access (e.g., previous student course grades, library book availability, instructional software use, World Wide Web mining)
- information processing (e.g., grade point averages, trend lines, finished documents)
- information sharing (e.g., e-mail, video teleconferencing, telephones, TV, electronic transcripts, electronic data interchange)
Next, prioritize the determined needs. It is likely that the set of needs is a mixed bag of things that could be addressed in a number of different ways. For example:
- Some needs are best carried out using technology (those involving repetitive tasks and mass storage and retrieval of data).
- Some needs or tasks are best accomplished manually.
- Some needs are problems that can be solved only by changing organizational policies and procedures—"business process re-engineering" is the buzzword most often applied to this procedural improvement.
- Some needs, while real, simply aren't important enough to warrant additional consideration-the organization can afford to defer or ignore them, and live with the consequences.
As a management technique, it may be helpful to separate your needs into three categories: (1) instructional, (2) administrative, and (3) operational (e.g., vital functions including climate control systems, CAD/CAM, air monitoring, network management, and communication and telecommunication systems). Still, keep the big picture in mind. The more features available via technology, the more costly and difficult it can be to implement and support. Be careful not to promise the participants that every bell and whistle described will eventually materialize. The key questions listed in Figure 2.2 are presented as criteria for prioritizing needs.
Step 3. Documenting Results
There is no single correct way to document the results of the needs assessment process. A good rule of thumb, however, is to pretend that all staff involved will be taken off the project, and new people will have to pick up where they left off. Documentation can be considered effective if the "new people" can read it as a stand-alone product and understand the findings.
It is important to note that the "Needs Statement" should be limited to a general declaration of need, both functional (i.e., tasks) and technical (i.e., requirements). Developers should not get ahead of the process by proposing solutions at this point (i.e., there is no need to mention specific computers, networking equipment, or other components that could be included in potential technology solution). A suggested outline for a Needs Statement is presented in Figure 2.3.
The Needs Statement is intended to capture information about functional needs as well as technical needs. Functions (as in Functional Needs) are defined in this context as the tasks or actions that technology will be used to accomplish in the organization. A list of functional needs might include:
- student records management, including automated student registration
- staff records management
- financial records management, including payroll
- school transportation management
- library records management, including inventory and automated check-outs
- professional development support
- word processing
- spreadsheet capability
- database creation and management
- instructional software access
- Internet access
- electronic mail
- software appropriate for meeting the instructional needs of students
- video access (streaming video and interactive video)
- telephone access in classrooms
Sometimes, staff members will want the latest, best, flashiest and newest version of a program, but this desire should not distract from other factors that inform software selection. If the existing software meets the needs of the instructional program, it is not automatically necessary to upgrade to the newest version. In other words, if it isn't broken, don't assume you have to fix it.
Software in the Classroom
To determine the types of software needed in a classroom, ask the following questions:
- What do you need the software to do?
- Do you have the appropriate hardware to make the program work?
- Where do you store the software? On each workstation or on the server?
- What staff development is necessary for teachers to use the program effectively?
About Software Features
When compiling the Needs Assessment list for administrative software, be sure to include the desired features and capabilities offered by software that will make it easy and effective to use. Features to consider include:
- use of a mouse
- pull-down menus
- pop-up windows with pick lists from which to select options
- security sign-on or passwords
- screen memory that brings the user back to the last screen entries
- ability to save common reports or settings
- drivers for a wide variety of printers
- help menus or windows
- ability to add data elements to screens or reports
- ability to read a variety of data formats
- adherence to local, state, national or international standards
- direct import and export of text and graphics from other software applications
- feature bars that display a variety of icons for easy selection
- zoom capability to change the size of screen images
- cut and paste capabilities
- full word processing features for text fields (e.g., spell check, multiple fonts)
- networkability and multiple user access
- capacity to expand to accommodate growth in the amount of data available or users
- interoperability with other software programs
The technical requirements included in the Needs Statement should not be heavily technical or complex. They are simply statements of parameters required of a technology solution, and will address topics such as:
- technical standards and specifications that must be met
- federal requirements associated with an E-rate application
- estimates of the number of people who would need to connect to the technology solution for each of the stated functional needs
- inventories of potential users, where they are located, and how often they will need to access the system
- numbers and types of transactions that system users will need to process, and how much information they need to store and retrieve
- technology components that will need to be able to interface (e.g., teachers should be able to use classroom computers to access both the Internet and the intranet of centralized district resources)
This statement of parameters will be useful when the technology design work is undertaken. They also are useful for prioritizing the functional needs that have been identified.
Security and Ethical Standards
The goal of system security is to
protect technology and information. However, it should not put all
of the organization's equipment and sensitive information into an
entry-proof vault that even authorized users have difficulty accessing.
If that was the case, locking your keys in the car would be an effective
security strategy for protecting the vehicle-you can be pretty certain
that no one else can get into your car if even you, the owner, are
unable to. The system shouldn't be so secure that authorized users
can't get to the machines or information they need to do their jobs.
Effective security measures and standards for appropriate use are essential to protecting the function and content of the organization’s technology from internal and external threats.
Complicating the issue of security, many educators do not have the
technical expertise or time to devote to single-handedly developing,
implementing, and monitoring security policies and procedures within
their organizations. Nonetheless, everyone in the education community
is required to secure the data that are maintained in technology
systems. The level of security might be different for a school district
(where information is stored about minors) than a college or university
(where students are presumed to be adults). In addition to numerous
state and local laws designed to preserve the confidentiality of
education records, the Family Education Rights
and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) is a federal law designed expressly
to protect the privacy of a student's education record. It applies
to all schools that receive funding under an applicable program
of the U.S. Department of Education, and is but one example of legislation
enacted specifically to protect confidential student information
maintained in education record systems.
Controlling access to and ensuring the security of the organization's technology and information is critical. Consideration should be given to potential internal and external threats to the functioning and contents of the organization's technology solutions.
Lightning, Tornados, Hurricanes, Floods, Earthquakes, Snow/Ice Storms, Forest Fires, Humidity, High Temperatures, Dirt, Rain/Water Damage, Time (Aging Media)
Human Threats (Intentional)
Theft, Vandalism, Arson, Hacking, File Sabotage, Wire Taps, Computer Viruses, Unauthorized Copying
Human Threats (Unintentional)
Equipment Failure, Power Fluctuations, Magnetic Fields, Spilled Beverages, User Error, Air Conditioning Ducts, Downloaded Viruses, Heating Units, Programmer Error, Lost Documentation, Lost Encryption, Keys, Aging Facilities
Selecting appropriate locations for equipment and choosing physical security measures are part of the process. For the purposes of the Needs Statement, suggested security measures should be capable of preventing theft, vandalism, disaster, and other types of harm to the equipment, as well as the confidentiality, integrity, and accessibility of the information. There should also be contingencies for stolen and lost equipment. For example, does the organization maintain insurance policies or is it self-insured? Are there local regulations
in place for protecting publicly owned equipment?
Establishing appropriate Ethical Standards is also important given that the technology will be used by numerous people, including staff members, students, and others from within the community. Consideration should be given to policies and procedures governing access to various technology components, including disciplinary standards that may be needed to ensure appropriate use. These should be included in an Acceptable Use Policy statement to be developed later.
For the purposes of the Needs Statement, it may be sufficient to state:
"The technology solution should include features that allow for the control and limitation of user access to only those programs and information necessary for performing their assigned duties and responsibilities. This access control must comply with local, state, and federal requirements regarding data confidentiality. Additionally, guidelines concerning appropriate and ethical use of the technology should be known to and acknowledged by all users."