A 12 Step Plan for Digital Schools
The key to the successful use of technology is planning. This is doubly true of schools. The blind adoption of technology for administrative purposes will likely waste money. The blind adoption of technology in the classroom can damage educational outcomes. No cohort of children deserves to be the guinea pigs trialling a new approach to learning.
Changes to teaching strategies, however, are not new, nor are they limited to technology. More importantly, technology is not itself a strategy. You need to think about outcomes and how you will partner technology with changes to processes or teaching methods to achieve results. It is also critical to match your in-class or administrative use of technology with your infrastructure. You need to think about your in-house IT capabilities and avoid overextending your utilisation of digital technology. This article is a blueprint to jump-start your planning for the adoption of digital technology in schools.
Step 1: Write a List of What You Want to Achieve
Start by thinking about what you want technology to deliver. Later, you need to place this in the context of what is achievable. To start with, simply think about an optimal outcome.
For in-classroom technology, focus on improved academic results, more engaging lessons, a more equitable learning environment, flexible and personalised teaching, improved student digital literacy. For administrative purposes, think about process efficiency, increased analytic visibility or communication improvements.
Whatever decisions you make should be justified by delivering on one or more of these results. Particularly for administrative purposes, you need to undertake an extensive ROI (return-on-investment) investigation to make sure your investment is worthwhile. The number of intangibles for in-classroom deployment makes this harder. Your main goal should be improvements to learning. However, you should still think about the most cost-effective way to invest and achieve comparable results.
Step 2: Use EdTech Methodologies
When building a plan for the use of in-classroom digital technology, start with the methods of digital pedagogy. This broadly means going back to SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition). You should look at each classroom environment and decide how radical of a teaching transformation you are interested in creating. Then think about how to make that happen.
At the most transformational end, think about how ‘flipped classrooms’ could change your approach to teaching in particular subjects or lessons. Then look at how technology can improve outcomes moving down a chain of simpler and simpler changes.
Step 3: Determine The State of Your Existing IT Capabilities
The first step in actualising your plan is to assess your current situation. This starts with quantifying your existing IT infrastructure and current device ownership. It is further critical to calculate the level of your in-house IT expertise. This spans your ability to maintain infrastructure, the capacity of teachers to use technology, and your school's overall ability to understand the possibilities of EdTech in order to form a plan.
If you determine that your in-house technical deficiencies leave you floundering to even identify your current capabilities, start by looking for external partners that can help you develop a strategy. It will, however, save you money and time to develop a roadmap prior to seeking help for execution.
Step 4: Improve The Utilisation of What You Already Have
The cheapest thing to do is simply identify ways in which you are under-utilising existing resources. If you have Interactive Screens, make sure teachers are using them to their full potential. How many computers and tablets does your school already own? Where are they being used? Is your current IT infrastructure (particularly WiFi connectivity) being under-utilised or underperforming?
You should also think about the technology your students already have available to them. Can you poll students on their existing mobile phone use and determine if BYOD policies could augment particular classes or activities?
Step 5: Focus on the Basics of IT
Ensuring proper network infrastructure and WiFi coverage is critical to any additional planning. Almost all modern devices depend on network access. You need to look at your realistic networking capabilities and design the remainder of your digital learning plans accordingly. That is related to both device purchases and the broader teaching strategies you are seeking to implement.
Investing in a 1:1 ratio of personal devices that you intend to use to engage in interactive multimedia material, share files or watch educational videos will not deliver if hamstrung by slow WiFi.
Step 6: Account for The Specifics of Your School
Different schools have different needs. The two big divides are between the state and private sector, and boarding and day schools. Independent schools, generally, have more autonomy in both approach and funding. Although, there is a significant amount of flexibility within the state sector, particularly for the 6,000 plus academies operating with state sponsorship.
The constraints placed on traditional state schools are mostly focused on curriculum, not teaching strategies. The necessity to teach to tests, however, for many state schools may make it harder to implement flipped classroom strategies, for example. But, nothing should be looked at as a hard and fast rule. The flexible ability to meet local needs is a significant factor contributing to educational success.
Boarding schools have particularly unique demands. Boarding schools retain a significantly greater degree of responsibility over their students for longer periods of time. Although ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges’ places contextual safeguard responsibilities on schools to be concerned with pupil internet use outside of school, the level of structure required of boarding schools is much higher. Boarding schools need to take data security and child safety even more seriously.
Boarding schools need to take a particularly hard look at infrastructure. Their WiFi infrastructure needs to not only handle daily school loads, parents and students expect boarding school networks to support the personal internet use that has become commonplace in the modern world.
The contained environment of boarding schools, however, opens the opportunity to completely remove the ‘digital divide’ when it comes to technological access by students outside the classroom. That makes implementing flipped classrooms an easier and more equal decision. However, boarding schools that take day students are stuck with the challenge of integrating those pupils into their existing digital support framework.
Step 7: Trial Smartphones and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)
Smartphones are a flexible and powerful piece of computing technology that many of your students already bring to class. Capturing this resource for educational purposes is a great way to improve your in-class use of technology on a budget.
They do, however, come with a host of problems — inequitable access, and lack of control or security features. They also provide opportunities for children to abuse the technology for cyberbullying or the viewing/dissemination of inappropriate material, and smartphones can be a significant distraction. As discussed earlier in this document, there are a number of techniques and resources available to curb these issues. They are an inherent challenge, but need to be addressed by school regardless.
The use of personal devices in the classroom, however, is a hotly debated subject. The best advice is to think about the specifics of your students and trial different approaches to see what works. In addition to child behaviour, you need to think about the strain the use of these additional devices will place on your school IT network.
Step 8: Think About Education App and Online Courses
In 2016, there were 350,000 education apps and 20 million students and teachers were using Google Classroom. Some require subscriptions, others are free. It is worth investigating both on a trial basis. These can aid teaching methods, classroom management and communication. The security risks of using any outside applications should be considered within the specifics of your network and the type of interaction with the application.
Writing Prompt Apps:
- Writing Challenge App (£1.29): engages students with character and storyline ideas
These apps help students improve their writing. Grammarly and WriteLab are both online hosted word processors that provide advanced spelling and grammatical corrections. For a subscription, both will give in-depth word choice analysis and analytic feedback about sentence length and readability.
- Science Journal (free): Can be used dynamically in a lab setting. Repurposes the sensors on a smartphone for data recording. Enables students to measure sound levels, light levels and motion.
- The Elements (£8.99): An interactive periodic table that familiarises students with the elements, their relationships and the history of chemistry.
- Duolingo (£2.99-£43.99): is a paired down version of Rosetta Stone built for mobile devices. It is designed to deliver short language lessons that can be done regularly.
- Memrise (free, in-app purchases): is a vocabulary focused language app that follows a more traditional ‘grammar-translation’ approach to language learning.
Online Courses and Seminars
There are a huge number of online learning resources available to the public and teachers. These can be approached as an in-classroom aid, homework assignments or extra credit. They are differently focused on age groups and subjects. As teachers, you can even use these platforms yourself to learn about digital technology, teaching methodologies, or your subject of expertise. They are a great resource for children and adults alike.
- MOOCs: University-sponsored online courses. Includes lectures and interactive course material. Free for students
- Khan Academy: non-profit that produces short video lessons and review material on a large range of subjects. Free for everyone
- Peer to Peer University (P2PU): Offers similar material to MOOCs and Khan Academy, but is focused on peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge, taking a wiki-type approach to education
- Skillshare: is a vocational based learning platform that operates on a monthly subscription and offers access to a wide number of courses that can teach you to do just about anything.
- YouTube: is the world's leading video sharing platform. It is not designed for educational purposes, but there is a lot of free educational content posted online that is easily accessible via YouTube. The quality of material you can access is entirely dependent on your ability to find and discern the value of a video. But, it is a great free way to access anything from university lectures, documentaries and short informative video clips.
- On YouTube, there are a number of channels specifically dedicated to making educational content. See what you can find. To start with, check out: Crash Course; PBS Eons; and Ted Ed.
Step: 9 Enable Teachers and Budget For Training
The people best placed to understand the opportunities and limitations for technological implementation within any given classroom are teachers. Certain teachers will have more technical expertise than others. You need to identify those teachers and enable them to trial ideas and impart their knowledge to others. Even setting up something as simple as an EdTech focused WhatsApp group at your school can help teachers share ideas.
Any comprehensive technology roll-out should include ongoing training. A good rule of thumb is to spend 20% of your IT budget on training teachers. This may seem like a lot, but making sure technology is properly utilised will significantly improve the ROI on IT investments. The 80% of your budget with which you are left will go much further if teachers know what they are doing. This will also provide a forum in which to gain feedback from teachers.
Step 10: Look For Outside Partners
IT is a specialisation. Even within the most IT focused businesses, the maintenance of network infrastructure, procurement of new devices and the migration to new systems are all tasks undertaken by specialist departments. This level of in-house expertise can be difficult for schools to muster. It is very likely that most schools would benefit from some assistance.
There are a large number of IT service firms on the market. These provide services ranging from procurement help to fully managed packages that allow organisations of any size access to the most sophisticated IT products without in-house IT teams. Schools are particularly well positioned to take advantage of these offerings. Their historical lack of experience with IT management means that they can benefit greatly from partnerships with IT specialists. Schools should investigate different levels of help so that they ensure the best outcome from their IT investments.
Step 11: Remember to Retain a Focus on Security and Student Safety
Schools have to put the safety of their students first. Access to digital technology provides positive learning benefits to pupils but also exposes them to danger. Mitigating this harm has to remain central to your digital strategy.
Cybersecurity and Data Protection
These are standard concerns for any digital project. However, the fact that your school will store sensitive personal data of children places extra scrutiny on your ability to digitally protect that information. This means making sure that you have top-notch cyber-defences. You need anti-virus, anti-malware, firewalls, access authentication and internal system visibility.
To achieve this, you will likely need outside help. This comes back to finding the right external partners. The paramount importance of this step, however, causes it to deserve a separate section in your IT roadmap and strategy. Make sure that your new IT roll-out does not leave you exposed to malicious penetration and data loss.
Schools are tasked with the unique challenge of monitoring and controlling the use of technology by children while on premise. This responsibility to understand things like cyberbullying has now been placed in a broader remit of contextual safeguards that extend beyond school by ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges 2018’.
You need policies in place that direct how you will mitigate malicious and inappropriate behaviour through the use of technology. This means policies that are clearly communicated to students, and the cultivating of a culture that does not tolerate such abuse. From a technical perspective, you are under some obligation to implement tracking software within your network to gain visibility of how students are using the WiFi access you provide them while on-premise.
This can be a technically challenging task and is, again, an area where partnership with specialists is advisable. However, what is important is that you think about this and deliver a comprehensive outcome that protects students from themselves, each other and the wider material available online. You do not want to be in a position where you enabled student harassment through your attempts to digitise the classroom.
Step 12: Stop and Ask Yourself Again — Is This Benefiting Students?
Planning can take on a life of its own, particularly with new and exciting things. It is easy to get carried away with wanting to execute on a plan simply because it exists. When it comes to education, you always have to keep in mind that school is meant to help children learn and become functioning adults.
Periodically, throughout the planning, implementation and roll-out process, return to your original educational objectives and make sure everything still aligns. Once you have begun a program of digital learning, measure results, listen to feedback and act. There will always be reactionary pushback to change, and it is important to not get discouraged from something good because of growing pains. But, if you identify that something is not working — stop doing it. The education of the children at your school is more important than the continuation of a plan.