Keeping your school’s ICT strategy in the air

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To start with technology and ignore the learning landscape is to invite disaster. Alistair Smith looks at some key aspects to consider to ensure that your ICT strategy is future-proof.

In the world of aviation the, acronym CFIT stands for Controlled Flight Into Terrain. In the last 20 years some 25 per cent of aviation accidents have involved a crew flying a perfectly serviceable aircraft into the ground.

Of the contributory factors, a loss of situational awareness seems common to all. Pilots became fixated with the technology immediately in front of them and lost sight of the changing landscape beyond.

As the pressures to find a successful solution increase, the chances of doing so diminish. In this situation, the perils of poor decision-making are catastrophic.

If there is an education parallel, it occurs when a school fixates on technology without first attending to the learning landscape.

It may be apocryphal, but at the NAACE conference in April I heard of a large secondary which, tight to budget deadline, had recently bought 500 iPads and had the teachers configure them over a weekend, only to discover on the Monday morning that no-one had ever used them in a classroom and they did not have enough broadband capacity or any wi-fi. 

To start with the technology is to keep your head in the cockpit. To avoid educational CFIT, there are some simple principles and things to consider.

First, it is not really about devices, it is about connectivity, so first secure reliable fast broadband access with wi-fi in each learning space.

Second, it is about ease of sharing and collaboration. For example, the sort offered by the use of simple tools such as Google Docs or Apps such as Socrative. 

Finally, it is about shifting the relationship of teaching and learning so that it fits your school context – for some this means flipped classrooms, Skype conferences or YouTube channels, but for others it is much more basic – perhaps more support resources in the pupil portal on your virtual learning environment (VLE). Here are some more things to consider.

Focus on learning and learners

Ask of any technology – will it help deliver our core purpose? Core purpose is about transforming the learning experiences of all of your students for the better. 

For the technology to enhance learning there needs to be an informed understanding of what great learning looks and feels like. It is this understanding which guides the design of learning activities, shapes the choice of platform or the selection of apps. 

Work to ensure you have a robust and informed approach to learning before seeking to add technology. Cramlington Learning Village in the North East of England, for example, has had an innovative VLE for many years based around an easy to understand learning cycle.

Own your own solution

It seems a simple point, but the technologies which are successfully used by other schools may be so because they best meet that school’s needs. However, what works in one context may be ruinous in another. 

For example, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) might mean bring any device. Students at The George Spencer Academy in Nottingham bring “SmartPhones, tablets, mini-tablets, e-book readers, netbooks, laptops”. For this to be effective requires a high level of responsible independence in students developed in school over time, a confident staff and a viable wireless network. 

In other schools, BYOD might be much more prescribed using, say, the one device the school has leased for each student. Effective leadership is sometimes described as “situational”, the same can be said of effective use of technology.

Principles before platforms 

We would all like to future-proof our solutions. It can’t be done. What can be done is to future-proof the principles of learning and engagement which shape your core purpose. This makes decisions about technology and its classroom application so much easier. 

One teacher recently interviewed for a study on the use of tablets described how they allowed “the ability to flip learning, rapid access to resources, differentiation, instant Assessment for Learning, peer collaboration, modelling and getting far more interaction and engagement”. What is being described are learning methodologies. 

A broad definition of technology

Smart wristbands which measure skin conductivity, eye-glasses which respond to words and movement and 3D printers are what most of us assume when we talk of the technology of the future. They’re already here. But so are other more affordable technologies.

Smart Wall Paint allows you to create a large shared writing surface. At The Lampton School in Hounslow, glass-top tables allow the use of window pens. Flip tables provide vertical or horizontal surfaces. 

At Cramlington a ceiling-mounted unit is linked to Google Earth and projects down onto the floor. At UCL Academy in Swiss Cottage, soft furniture can be built into a lecture theatre shape to create a “super-studio”. 

Kindles and eBook readers are cheap, robust and flexible. Small video cameras can capture learning in the moment. Iris Connect has taken a simple concept of a camera in the classroom and created a staff development tool used by hundreds of UK schools.

Begin with the endpoint in mind

Be ruthless in self-evaluation. Is your school well positioned to benefit from the introduction of new technology? Define where you are, where you would like to be and ask if the technology will help you to get there. While there are many useful “readiness” guidelines available and public events which “showcase” good practice, both are often populated with advice and exemplars drawn from the ideal.

An alternative is to try to profile the qualities of the secondary learner throughout their school years with you. How might your chosen technology or combination of technologies help develop the knowledge, attributes, skills and experiences you wish your learner to leave with? 

Recent NAACE research suggests that a learner’s relationship with technology evolves over time. The learner becomes more sophisticated moving from Consumer to Creator to Collaborator. Will your technology support this process? You must scan the environment to find out what’s best for your context as it changes over time. 

Disable the dangerous

In some schools debates rage endlessly about the funding of staff biscuits while a decision to commit two per cent of the budget on a technology solution is often made by an individual overnight. In schools, never leave the choice of a new technology in the hands of an individual. Here’s my Dangerous Deputy Rule: “If there’s only one bloke who uses it, understands it or advocates it, then best forget it.” 

To avoid a dangerous and hasty decision – use a consultative group comprising staff, digital champions and parents. When you introduce a digital device it will have an impact on home life. It will in some instances be the cause of missed sleep, family arguments and disputes – so involve parents in decisions.

Align the energies of staff

In any school community you have a mix of experience and engagement with technology. For some staff there is a long timeline of adoption and adaptation, for others it is shorter and more contemporaneous, and each engages with technology at differing points along the Professional-Personal continuum. 

Add another dimension of Participative-Passive and now you have four categories of user, each with different needs and offers. Profiling, and so balancing, your technology support groups this way will gain you whole-school buy-in quicker.

Integrate technology into staff development around core purpose rather than delivering lots of separate sessions on aspects of the technology. To complement the on-going formal staff development programmes, have clinics, master classes and pop-ins.

Technology alone will not mask the underperformance that comes as a consequence of an ill-considered or badly implemented approach to learning and teaching. Avoid flying your plane into the terrain. Stay focused on the core purpose: to plan, deliver, evaluate and improve quality learning experiences for all the pupils in your care and energise your school community to do so. Your core purpose is not going to change over time. The technology, and those who use it, will.

  • Alistair Smith is education director at Frog and a well-known trainer in modern learning methods who has delivered over 1,100 training/development events.

References and further reading


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