The culture of tech use

Over the last year I have spent time working with colleagues on developing our school technology strategy.    I have always felt we had a reasonably clear strategy however it was largely unwritten;   I felt there was a need to get something written down to ensure transparency and consistency in terms of technology decisions.      In exploring and developing this written version of the strategy one of the things I gave consideration to was culture where culture is evidenced by “the way we do things around here”.    My thinking was very much based on peoples actions, the stories they told, the narratives, being evidence of the culture.    In other words the behaviours were the outcome of the culture, cause and effect.   On reflection this is a little too narrow and one way.    As with most things in life, things are seldom this simple.

In thinking about wellbeing and the mental and physical side of things, rather than technology, it is clear that taking physical care of yourself, such as going for a run, can impact on your mental wellbeing.   And your mental wellbeing can have an impact on how you feel physically.    I remember reading of a study which correlated smiling, even if brought about due to holding a pencil in your mouth, with improved emotional state again showing a link between physical and mental aspects of our being.    This got me thinking as to culture, that rather than being cause and effect, if it is more a case of interdependence.

So, what if our actions and behaviours are not only a marker of the culture, but also the things that shape and mould culture over time.    We now have a cyclical relationship.    Our behaviours, our stories, etc shape the culture which in turn shapes our behaviour and the stories we tell and on and on ad infinitum.   This seems to link nicely to the fact that culture isnt easy to change, and changes over a longer rather than shorter time period.   As such actions to change culture are often little more than dropped rocks in a river.    They have limited impact on the rivers flow but over time and as more rocks are dropped in they can cumulatively change the direction of the river.

In relation to technology strategy and the culture which surrounds technology use in school, in terms of students, staff and parents, changing it is not easy however strategic initiatives, a lot like strategically deployed rocks, can help to change and shape an organisations culture relating to technology.   So, the question therefore is to decide which initiatives are likely to be successful and have the impact you are looking for.   One of the challenges here though is the constantly changing technological world and the increasing focus on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and school achievement measures.   These often draw focus towards the short term, this academic year, this term, etc, and away from the longer term and the little things which will change how the school looks and operates in 3, 5 or 10 years time, the school culture.  They also highlight the need to carefully plan and avoid failure, where we actually might want to be more innovative and agile in our planning plus embrace failure as a learning experience.

Strategic rocks in the culture of tech use

So, what are my strategic rocks?    For me there are 5 areas in technological strategy in schools which jump to mind, which represent long term projects and introducing a cultural change.

  1. 1:1 and increased personalisation of learning through technology with this embedded in teaching and learning practices

This is about using the tool, which is the technology in a classroom, to allow students to stretch the curriculum, how they evidence learning and also how they can customise learning to support their individual needs.   We are already seeing lots of examples of this in how tools like Flipgrid, OneNote, Microsoft Lens and Minecraft, to name but a few tools, that are being used.  We now need to build on this, embedding a greater use of technology across all lessons, but only where appropriate.

  • Increasing use of video and virtual reality or augmented reality to support teaching and learning beyond the boundaries of the physical classroom and the school day.

The pandemic has shown us that learning can take place, through technology, even when students cannot come to school.   Flipped learning, not a new concept, has already shown us how learning can happen outside lessons, with the review and reinforcement then happening in lessons.   The challenge is now to take what we have learned and to maximise the impact we can achieve from it now we are largely back in school, and in preparation should another pandemic or other issue occur.

  • A shift to cloud-based services

This is quite simply an acceptance that largely, but not always, schools are better having their services in the cloud supported by the infrastructure and support teams which are provided, rather than trying to support solutions hosted on-site with their own limited resources.    As the cyber risks continue the need to move to the cloud only intensifies.

  • Development of a holistic digital citizenship programme for staff and for students including greater awareness of data protection and cyber resilience.

As our technological reliance in the greater world increases and as we make greater use of technology in schools we need to ensure that students understand the benefits and risk.   They need to be supported to grow as digital citizens, to understand that the convenience provided by online services, by search and recommendation algorithms, is not without risk.   The challenge of individual privacy versus public good is another area in need of exploration.  They also need to appreciate the ethical dilemmas that future technologies might present us with.    And all of this needs to be through a more holistic and integrated programme than that which schools generally offer at the moment.  

  • Increasing use of data to inform teaching and learning and other areas of school operations.

And we need to look at the massive wealth of data which schools can and do gather and how we might maximise the impact this data may have.    Now I note that the job of cleaning it up so it can be used is a significant one, but if we can do so we would have data which could inform and help direct teaching and learning.   We would have a way to help teachers and students take control of learning but in a more informed, and data driven manner.

Conclusion

I think the 5 areas above outline a direction in terms of how I see things for the years ahead, at least the next 5 to 10 years.    The key therefore is about starting to drop the strategic rocks which bring about the cultural change by which the above 5 points become simply how we do things in school.   It isnt going to be a short process to make the above happen in any real embedded way, such that it becomes culture, but we need to start somewhere. And one of the positive notes I will end on, is that at least we are already making some progress towards some of the above; The process has already begun.

Wellbeing thoughts

The other week I have a discussion on wellbeing in schools with Mark Anderson as part of a recording for Tip Top Tips Edu; you can watch the recording here.  The particular focus was on support staff such as Directors of IT, Network Managers and other IT support based roles.   I therefore thought it would be useful to share some further thoughts from my discussion with Mark and also some thoughts that arose post discussion.

Wellbeing:  What does your school do?

I think one of the first things to note is that wellbeing isn’t about events, such as an end of term staff event or offering yoga classes.   These can help improve peoples wellbeing but wellbeing is more complex than a catalogue of events on offer.  

Stress and Challenge

When we talk about stress we often jump to a negative conclusion, that stress isnt good.   The reality is that stress, at least in my interpretation, can be a good thing as well as a bad thing.     If it relates to an activity which is worthwhile, has some level of difficulty and includes some autonomy of decision making then this will likely cause stress, however it will be positive stress;  it will represent a challenge.    If, however it is not viewed as worthwhile, is busy work, includes monotony rather than autonomy and is too difficult to be achievable given available resources, then this will likely result in negative stress.

So, the question for leaders here is, do we ensure that there is meaning in what we ask our teams to do, do we provide the relevant autonomy, but also support and are we realistic and clear in our expectations of others?

Looking after yourself / Personal wellbeing

We also need to acknowledge that wellbeing for each of us is also a personal responsibility.   Yes, our school has to provide an environment that supports and encourages our wellbeing, however equally we as individuals need to also support our own wellbeing.    For each of us the methods of doing this is likely to be different.   For me it is about reading, particularly reading non-fiction, and about physical exercise in the form of jogging (or maybe lumbering would be more appropriate in my case) and also about contributing back to the Edu world through blogs, etc.  Some people may like gardening or cooking, two things I am pretty hopeless at.   For others it might be long family walks.   We each need to seek to find what works for us as individuals, as families, as friends, etc.

Balance

I often find myself coming back to the importance of balance.   Too much of anything is bad for you and equally too little is often just as bad.   Whether it is exercise, comfort foods, relaxation time, challenge and positive stress, family time, personal reflection time, or a multitude of other things, too little can have a negative impact as can too much.  Its about finding the balance that works for you.

We also need to wrestle with the challenges of time;   Often have I heard and even said that “I don’t have enough time.”   Sadly this is a pointless cry as we will never have any more time than that which we have now (unless we master time travel of course 😉 ).    There are 24hrs in the day and 7 days in the week.   This isnt going to change.   As such we need to accept that more time for a given task comes at the expense of less time for something else.   And with this in mind we need to remain balanced;   we cant simply keep providing more time to our work tasks as this will mean less time for our own personal growth and reflection, for family time, etc.   And it is worth noting that in work, we often, as we seek to improve and develop, tend towards adding things, adding tasks, adding processes, adding checks and balances, and adding complexity, all which therefore require more time.   Seldom do we seek to take things away;    Adding, having more, doing more seems logically positive however in reality this can only be guaranteed where resources are limitless.   In the real world where time is limited, everything we add which takes additional time and effort, takes away time and effort from something else.

Conclusion

On reflection, and a key thought, is that wellbeing isnt a thing or an endpoint.   Wellbeing is a road or a process.    It is ongoing and at times things your wellbeing will be challenged when all isnt going well and at other times your wellbeing will be good and all will be progressing as it should.    The key is to find what works for you, to be concious of your wellbeing and to be concious of your actions and plans in relation to wellbeing.   

So for a leader its about yourself as an individual but also about your team as a group;   How can you support wellbeing for yourself but also for those you lead.    As a team member its about yourself as an individual and also about your colleagues and how you can support one another.    Overlayed on this, for those with families, there is the wellbeing of you spouse, your kids and your other family members.  

Wellbeing isnt simple and I don’t think anyone has the answer.    For me it links to organisational culture and climate, which are equally complex and slow to change. If anything, what matters most is that we are at least speaking about and it considering it more than we did in the past, and that’s a good start.

IT Service: To help or to develop self-sufficient users?

One of the key roles of IT services or IT support teams is to resolve issues, to fix things.  But if this is the sum of expectations it represents a short-sighted view, as all you may get is repeated calls related to the same issue.   As such IT services teams also need to try and develop users such that they are more able to resolve their own issues, only needing to seek IT services help for specific technical issues.    So how do we navigate between these two options?

Statistics: Calls logged, resolved, time taken

We often need to identify methods by which we measure our efforts.   In schools, for our students, this is the exam system and terminal exams at the end of the year.   For IT teams one easy measure is to look at the number of issues reported, issues resolved and also the time elapsed.    These are easy pieces of information to gather using a help desk software solution.    The danger here is that what is easy to measure becomes what matters rather than us choosing to measure what matters.   As such the repeated call by the member of staff related to the same issue can be viewed positively as it will be simple to resolve and close the call quickly therefore reflecting positively on the statistics.   Is this use of IT staff time, repeatedly resolving the same issue for the same person, achieving value?

Learner Helplessness

Another issue with repeatedly and quickly fixing issues for staff is learned helplessness.    Although staff will be happy to quickly and easily have their issues resolved it equally doesn’t encourage them to be self-sufficient.   It in fact encourages them to call IT in future for all problems as this is likely to be easier and less effort than trying to find a solution for themselves.    When working with Primary School teachers, I remember some teachers approaching this issue with their students, by using “C3B4ME”.   What this basically means is that students shouldn’t approach the teacher for help unless they have tried 3 other sources such as books, their fellow students, the internet, relatives, etc first.    I have actually had this poster placed on our IT Services noticeboard at the entrance to our offices as I think it is as valid for staff and for senior school students as it is for primary school students.

Training

So, from the above it might seem clear that we need to seek to train staff to be self-sufficient.  If it was that simple we would all be doing it.   Sadly, the challenge here is often time and intrinsic motivation.   On the time front, staff in schools are already busy and there is a dearth of free time available to conduct training, therefore requiring something else to give, to free up time.  Also, where staff members approach IT teams with an issue they largely need this issue resolved immediately as it might be impacting the current class or a class due to be taken later in the day.   Linked to this, the motivation is about removing the issue to the teaching or admin task to be progressed;  There is little motivation at the point of contact with IT teams towards learning a bit more about IT or about developing additional technology skills. 

Maybe a future

I suspect part of the future may include the greater use of AI and chatbots.    More and more schools force staff to log their issues via an online reporting tool rather than supporting direct phone calls.  This makes sense due to the time taken for a phone call and the resultant resource usage where direct phone calls are supported.    Augmenting this with AI that can easily and directly inform users as to fixes for common issues or can direct them to user guides to assist, freeing up IT staff time to focus on those issues which aren’t as easy to fix.   This obviously relies on the accuracy of the AI to accurately interpret and categorise the user input.    A challenge that I believe will occur here is simply the lack of detail which sometimes is entered within support calls from users.   Am not sure we can do much about this, however a chat bot might simply deal with this by stating the need for further information.

Conclusion

If IT teams focus on fixing issues, staff skills will likely never improve and we will simply repeat the same guides and instructions as solutions to the same problems.  This doesn’t feel like a productive use of time.   Alternatively, we could try a focus fully on training with each call, however this is likely to result in user frustration and take too much time.    As with so many things, the issue likely lies between the two.  We should seek to fix issues as efficiently as possible while also seeking to inform and to educate.   We should also use the data we gather to identify the common issues and again seek ways to share and train users to resolve these issues for themselves.

I feel it is the role of IT Services teams both to help resolve issues but also to develop user self-sufficiency such that they can increasingly solve their own problems; a difficult balance to achieve.

A day in the life – Wellbeing

I wrote a day in the life blog piece some month back, focussed very much on my work day as a Director of IT, however given the ongoing discussions of wellbeing I thought I would share another day in the life, but this time focussed on the wellbeing side of my daily routine.

6am and the day begins;   Am currently trying to achieve 100km of running in June, having completed the same distance in May.   This will be the first time I have managed it in 2 consecutive months.    Running gets the blood flowing and sets me up for the day, while also allowing me to clear the often busy thoughts in my head, instead simply focussing on putting one foot in front of the other, keeping a reasonable pace and managing my breathing.    This morning though I am cutting my run short to around 5.75km to allow me to head into work a little earlier due to concerns I have in relation to traffic.   It is the first day of Glastonbury so I am worried that traffic around Somerset might be a total nightmare.

By 8am I am in work as the traffic was a little heavier than normal but otherwise not too bad.     I have my usual morning routine to work through including looking at my online ToDo list where tasks are split between low and high priority items.   I also have listed personal items to consider at lunch or failing that at the end of the day;  The ToDo list is a holistic list rather than a work only list.    For me the ToDo list is very important as ticking items off gives a sense of achievement, and the morning review of the items gives me a sense of how much flexibility I have in being able to address any unexpected tasks or requirements which might arise during the day.    I do sometimes wonder if I have become a little too focussed on my ToDo list leading me to chase the completion of X tasks each day rather than focussing on doing the things that really matter.

Around halfway through the morning and its time to stop briefly and munch down a packet of crips and drink the all important Irn-Bru.   There are plenty of healthier snacks I could have but I enjoy a packet of crisps and a Bru, so in the interest of balance and having engaged in physical exercise in the morning, I don’t think there’s any harm in a packet of crisps.    Now at this point in the day I have already ticked off 4 of the 6 items I target myself with completing each day.     This target helps me assess how I am doing versus what I consider to be a minimum expectation.    I note that I include some thinking time and prep time on my ToDo list as these equally take time and it is important to allocate space and time as otherwise, other often less important but more immediate issues will take over.

Before I know it lunch time arrives and a opportunity to go to lunch with some of my team and decompress a little with discussions of sport and also some IT discussions;  Is always the case that discussion may tend towards whatever you do for a living as this is an easy topic to discuss however key is that it isnt within the context of the school or teaching and learning, etc.    I also try to make some time to scribble down some blog thoughts over the lunch period and also do a little bit of news and current affairs reading via the web.

My afternoon passes reasonably quickly due to a number of meetings so before I know it 5pm has been and gone and the work day is done.   It is as I leave work that I notice what a nice day it is which is enhanced further by the drive home through Somerset.   As I take in the weather and the scenic drive which is my normal route home I note that I feel just that little bit happier and more relaxed, albeit also a bit tired.  It is amazing how nice weather, a look around the lovely somerset scenery and a drive home with the windows down can positively impact on your wellbeing.   Sometimes it is the little things which make all the difference.       Upon arriving home I stick some retro TV on in the background, a bit of Farscape and Space 1999, while I sort dinner and do a couple of other jobs around the house, with some of these jobs being listed on my ToDo list.

7pm and the dog is fed and wants attention so it’s a bit of time with the dog in the garden.   Now will admit I was not keen on getting a dog but note that, although she is in the process of methodically destroying the house and all furniture she can get to, she also makes me smile at times.  And maybe this highlights the impact that a smile can have on our wellbeing so maybe a part of wellbeing is on finding or creating as many opportunities to smile as possible in your day.

As the evening progresses there are a couple more things to do around the house before settling down to watch a bit of TV and I my case, rewatching Homeland.    It is at this point I decide that rounding the evening off with a couple of beers would be appropriate.    Again, not exactly the most healthy option however in everything, balance, so a couple of beers after a busy day seems perfectly acceptable.

My day was a busy one but I think it had some balance.   It had the less than healthy packet of crisps and Irn-Bru but balanced out against a run in the morning.   It had immediate tasks balanced against some time to plan and think ahead.    It had some quiet and relaxing in front of the TV but also a number of items ticked of a ToDo list both at work and at home.     Now every day cannot be a balanced as this one, with some days feeling like my hair is on fire and nothing can go right but again this is balanced out by other days when everything seems to simply fall into place.

Personal wellbeing, and in particular mental health isnt an easy thing but for me I think one of the critical factors is building routine and making time for the various aspects of life to be fulfilled whether that is the need for feelings of accomplishment, the need for challenge, the need for time to reflect or the need to relax and decompress.     I also think we need to always seek to achieve balance and with that comes the acceptance that some days wont go well, but that it will then be ok to seek to balance this out through whatever works for you being it a few beers, some exercise, a trip to the cinema, a good book, etc.

Am not sure how much use there is in me sharing the above, however I hope that maybe someone finds it helpful, or failing that I suspect it will simply help me in rebalancing when things go badly and I cant see the light at the end of the tunnel, on the next day when things just don’t seem to be able to go right for me.

Globalisation and Localisation

The pandemic, in my eyes, has very much helped globalisation in relation to education.   We particularly saw teacher influencers or teacher content creators, etc sharing their ideas and resources with large numbers of teachers and even larger numbers of students.    Their resources helped many continue teaching and learning through the lockdown periods while face to face teaching and learning was impossible.    They represented the opportunity for a few people to put together resources and lessons which could then be consumed by the masses across the world.

But, if we accept most things work in balance, what might we be losing out on where we push more towards this globalised approach?

The thing about the content being pushed out is that it had to be able to be used across the world, and in doing so it needed to be independent of the differing contexts in different parts of the world.   If we accept that the best learning experiences don’t exist in a vacuum, and that they need some context, something in the real world to link them to, we realise that something designed for a school in the UAE would be different to something in the UK which in turn would be different to something designed with China in mind.    And this challenge isnt limited to national level, it also exists more locally at regional level or even smaller.    I remember as a young teacher seeing differences in language and viewpoints when moving between teaching in a school on the outskirts of Glasgow and one in Stirling, approx. 25 miles away.

So, these global resources either must relate to universal truths which are true across contexts, need to include their own context, or involve abstraction of the concepts being covered to a point where context is less consequential.    

What we are losing here, is the local learning and the local context.    The things that make us a Glaswegian in my case, as things are not being taught within the local context, within the framework of the local community, habits, traditions, etc.    The learning is not being linked to my local community.  Now this might be a good thing as more and more people migrate away from where they are born, including emigrating to work in other countries however I believe it also could have a negative impact on students as they may not develop their individual identity in the way they might have in the past.   

This also links nicely to educational research.   Where we look for generalisable, global solutions which have the research backing to show they tend to work anywhere and have a replicable impact, are we losing out on solutions and approaches which might simply work in our local context, in our school or even in our own classroom?

If I am being honest, we cannot approach this problem as a binary.   Although my discussion has approached the issue as a binary, globalisation or localisation, you will notice my title is “globalisation AND localisation.”    We need to have a balance of both, making use of resources, ideas, etc which work at a high level, on the global education stage, while also making use of things, or customising things to fit with our local context. 

If anything, I worry that maybe we are increasingly focussing less on the local context, local solutions, at a time where maybe there are solutions to some of our global problems to be found there.

AI in schools

I recently read an article discussing how AI might be used in schools from 2025 onwards.   This seems like a reasonably logical bit of future prediction but on reflection I quickly came to identify some concerns.

Firstly, AI can cover a very broad range of activities.   Is it AI designed to interpret natural language such as your Alexa can identify and then respond to you verbal queries, or are we talking about a more general AI solution more akin to Commander Data in Star Trek?    There is quite a gulf between these two extremes, with the 2nd of them likely to be some time off before it is achievable.

If we therefore accept we are looking at using specific focussed AI solutions in schools by 2025 I think they have clearly got the year wrong as we are already doing it now, in 2022.    We have our spell checker and grammar checker in Word, we also now have our transcription tools in Teams and PowerPoint including the ability to offer real time, or near real time, translation of spoken content.  These are all AI or maybe machine learning based solutions being used in schools and colleges, being used by teachers today.   Not 3 years away in 2025, but today.

So, the headline seems on initial inspection to be quite aspirational and inspirational, for teachers to be using artificial intelligence in their classrooms in only 3 years time.   But a more detailed look and we find it isnt so inspirational as we are pretty much already there.   Maybe the headline hints to a greater use of AI or more advanced AIs being used more often and to greater effect but that’s not the way the headline comes across.   Maybe we will use more AI based platforms, such as learning platforms which direct students through personalised learning programmes, although I have some concerns about this too.  Or maybe there will be greater use of AI and machine learning in the setting and marking of both summative and formative assessments.

I suspect AI use in schools will grow between now and 2025.    I suspect it will grow to be more common in general so wont be a school centric thing, however I suspect that a teacher will still be a teacher and the key to teaching and learning, and the use of AI tools, like the current EdTech tools, will be skilled teachers to wield them as and when appropriate in crafting the best possible learning experience for their students.

EdExec Live

Yesterday I presented at the EdExec Live event in London where I discussed cyber security with a session purposely mis-titled as “Preventing cyber attacks: is your cyber security up to scratch”.    The reason the sessions title didn’t really reflect the content of the session is my belief that cyber attacks are now inevitable and that the thinking behind trying to be “secure” or “up to scratch” involves a mental model which doesn’t fit our current reality and especially the reality in busy schools with limited IT resources, and even lesser resources to focus on cyber security or cyber resiliency.   As such the session was aimed at trying to highlight this belief.

Now at this point you might be thinking I am showing some nihilist tendencies in the face of the growing cyber security threats and risks, however I am certainly now advocating that we consider incidents inevitable and therefore simply down tools and don’t bpther with any cyber mitigation, prevention or preparation activities.

What I am however advocating is that we accept that we can never do enough, never be up to scratch, so all we can do is to do what we can.    The approach to cyber in schools needs to be to seek to take little steps rather than seeking to reach an imagined point of being cyber secure, a point that is both likely to be unreachable and also a point which is likely to constantly shift in response to new technologies, new vulnerabilities, new threat actors and new methods of attack.

I concluded the session with 6 recommendations which are outlined below:

There is no enough so do what you can

As mentioned above there is no “enough” so this kind of thinking is no longer appropriate.

Carry out regular risk assessments

We need to treat cyber like health and safety and try to identify the risks and then decide on mitigation measures where possible.    If we explore and think about the risks which impact on use we are likely to be able to better prepare and respond.

Carry out a desktop exercise or “war game”

Our plans and processes often include assumptions.   We need to challenge these assumptions with staff from across the school involved in desktop exercises playing out an example cyber scenario.   By playing such incidents through we are likely to be better prepared when incidents happen for real.

Deliver ongoing user awareness

Users continue to be one of the most common factors in cyber incidents so the more training we can provide the better, but such training needs to be dynamic and ongoing rather than an annual refresher presentation at the start of the year.    Cyber needs to come up in meetings, in briefings, it needs to be part of the schools culture and a constant point for discussion.

Address the cyber security basics

Cyber criminals will take the easy opportunities where they can and therefore it is important to cover the basics such as patching servers, keeping backups, etc.   This is about increasing the friction an attacker might feel in the hope that they will move on to a easier organisation to attach.

Reach out

Schools and colleges are all in this together, suffering similar challenges and issues in relation to cyber, so collectively we are so much stronger.   As such, share with other schools, use groups like the ANME, and let’s make a collective effort to protect our schools from attacks and prepare for the inevitable incident.

Conclusion

At the end of the session, I concluded with a little question in relation to terminology.   Cyber security as a term is now out of fashion due to suggesting that being “secure” is possible when most now acknowledge this is no longer possible.   Cyber resiliency is now the term of choice however I feel, although better, it still suggests a “resilient” final state is possible where I believe it is now.   My suggestion, which doesn’t have the same ring to it of the above, was continuous cyber improvement, however my request was for someone to come up with a better alternative that wasn’t quite so much of a mouthful.

Is your cyber up to scratch?    If you think it is, I suspect you are up for a fall at some point in the future or at least that’s what probability would suggest.   Are your efforts continuous, regularly reviewed and involve repeated incremental improvements?    If so, I think you are most likely going about things the right way, so well done, keep at it, and try not to worry too much!

You can view the slide deck from my session here.

And for those who have followed my usual travel woes, this time I managed to get to London and back with only a 20min train delay, so unusually uneventful by my standards.

Going phishing?

Phishing emails continue to be one of the most common attack vectors used by cyber criminals, in attacking individual and organisations, and in attacking schools colleges and other educational organisations.   In schools, where things are increasingly busy, it is important that staff and students have had appropriate training and other resources provided in order to build their awareness and hopefully make them better at identifying such phishing emails.   The challenge though is how do we know if our phishing awareness programme is actually working?

I was originally very reluctant to make use of phishing awareness tests, where a fake phishing email is sent out to assess how many staff would fall for a phishing email plus how many staff might report receipt of a phishing email.    I felt at the time that it was a little unethical in trying to entrap people who work for my school.    I was also worried people would feel it unfair and adding to workload at a time when everyone is already busy.      It wasn’t until an IT conference event where I got discussing the issue with someone working within the police force that my view changed.    The catalyst for this change being this point; would I rather identify how susceptible the school is to phishing emails and how good individuals are in relation to reporting malicious emails due to a real phishing email, and the likely compromise of user accounts, or would I prefer to gain this information through a safe test where I would be able to respond and do something about the findings. It didnt take me long to realise I was better off testing awareness on my own terms rather than waiting for a cyber criminal.

Since this change of views I have set about regular phishing awareness tests on small groups of users, refining the approach and the follow up messaging and training materials as a result of the findings.    Tests might be targeted on certain areas or departments based on recent events or based on trends we are seeing in the types of phishing emails being seen or reported.    Follow up training might focus on the users who were tested or might take the data from a test and share it with all staff to highlight specific concerns or areas for improvement.   In some cases individuals have felt unfairly treated or “entrapped” however generally have been more understanding when my changed reasoning has been explained to them.  The main aim is for the testing and the related awareness development programme to be dynamic in nature, constantly changing in response to the external context and the internal awareness levels and habits as identified from the test data.

Phishing awareness testing doesn’t improve cyber security or users phishing awareness however it can provide a snapshot of where we are at a particular moment of time and in relation to a specific style or type of phishing email.   This, when used in combination with dynamic training materials, can be powerful in building up user awareness of phishing emails, of how to identify them and of what to do when things go wrong and you fall for a phish.   Where phishing tests are conducted regularly, with the appropriate follow up training, communication and awareness development, it can also go to help develop a culture of cyber security and this, ultimately, is what we really need to achieve.

The future of exams

We are now in the exams season with students all over the world sat in exam halls with pen (and pencil) and paper, completing their GCSE and A-Level exams.    5 years ago, it was the same, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, in fact I suspect we could go back over 100 years at we would see a similar scene of rows of students sat taking paper-based examinations.    Isnt it about time we looked at a more modern solution to the need for terminal exams?

Computer Based Testing – Challenges

One of the big challenges in any computer-based examination solution would be the requirement for schools and colleges to have large numbers of computers available for students to use in taking their exams.   If we are simply substituting the paper test for an electronic test, where all students across the country are expected to sit the same exam at the same time, I feel this problem will be difficult for schools and colleges to resolve especially with core subjects like Maths and English.   

We could as an alternative look to allow the taking of tests using students own devices however equally this is problematic as students will not have equal access to equipment and in some cases might not have access to a suitable device, plus there would be concerns in relation to cheating where students are using their own equipment.  We saw some of these issues, particularly in relation to access to technology during the pandemic.

Remote Invigilation or proctoring

There is also a question as to whether we even need to get students into a common location.    Following the pandemic where a lot of teaching went to using online tools and video is it possible to use the same technologies to allow students to take their exams remotely in their own time.    I myself experienced this only a few years ago when doing a Cybersecurity exam which involved remote proctoring and someone monitoring my exam efforts via my web camera.   This might be another option that could be considered however the potential safeguarding implications would need to be considered.

Adaptive Testing

The use of adaptive testing might be another solution here as in this situation the students do not necessarily do the same questions.   The questions are selected from a pool with the adaptive testing solution then selecting subsequent questions based on how the students do in each question.    Using adaptive testing we wouldn’t be as worried about all students sitting the same test at the same time, given the students wouldn’t be receiving the same questions.    As such schools could use their available IT resources over a period of time to allow students to access the relevant tests.   The challenge, I suspect, with adaptive testing will be convincing parents and students that it is fair.  Fairness is easy to point to where all students do the same test at the same time but not so easy where they are doing different questions at different times.

And do we need knowledge based final assessment

We also need to question whether there is still the need for the final assessment of students.   For some students it is an opportunity to show all they have learned, but for others it is a massive stress and a negative impact on their wellbeing.   I have long been a supporter of vocational qualifications based on ongoing assessment throughout the course rather than the heavily weighted final exams of so called “academic” qualifications.   

Additionally in a world where we routinely use technology tools such as google to search for answers and solutions, should we actually be considering how such technology might have a place in future exams, rather than banning such devices from exam halls.

Conclusion

I don’t have an answer for this challenge;  Any change is likely to be difficult especially after over 100 years of terminal exams.    It is however noteworthy that a number of examination bodies are actively looking and trialling alternative digital exams solutions.

Here is another example of where the pandemic has fuelled an exploration of future solutions.    I suspect however it will be some years, maybe 10 or more, before any real change happens, although I hope it happens sooner.

Tech in education: Investment

One of the big challenges with technology in education is going to be investment.  For example, some schools are in inner city locations where access to internet infrastructure is easy.   Others however exist in rural locations where access to appropriate broadband internet is not easy, or in some cases, not possible to come by.    There will also be schools which have planned the replacement of network and server infrastructure on a regular basis where others have not.

Going forward, as there is little achieved in looking back on why things arent as developed as they could be, the key things in my view are:

  1. Investment

Looking generally across all schools and colleges it is reasonably clear that there is a need for investment.  There are schools which lack some of the basics where other schools are streets ahead.   But even across the board there is an opportunity to invest and drive things forward making sure our schools and colleges are set for the future.

  • Sustainability

And this is critical.  Investment cannot be seen as a one-shot deal.   We cant simply invest in devices or infrastructure in the next year and consider it job done.   Any investment must include planning and provision for the replacement of devices and infrastructure, plus the ongoing upgrade as based on the changing needs at the time.   I remember laptops for teachers and the benefits it brought, followed by the issues presented when the centralised funding wasn’t there when the devices came to need replacing.  We cannot repeat this, so any plans must be longer term plans.

  • Support and training

We also need to acknowledge that the technology has to work, and in meeting this requirement there needs to be adequate support.   IT Services teams in schools and colleges need to be put in place to ensure that the technology works on a day to day basis plus need to be there to resolve issues when things go wrong.    And in line with the need for technology to simply work, the teaching staff using the technology need to have the relevant skills and experience to know how and also when to use it.   This is about ensuring training is provided but also that opportunities exist for the continual professional learning and sharing required to make the best us of ever-changing technology solutions.

Conclusion

To get all schools and colleges to the same point, where they all can realise the same potential in the use of technology is a major piece of work.   Schools are at various stages on this journey.    As such the best approach for all is not to seek to make this potentially significant jump but instead to focus on the smaller steps, the little changes in practice and tech use, in the short term, which form part of what will be a big journey over the longer timeline.    Let’s start now, do what we can, collaborate, share and petition those who can support us to ensure all schools can improve in their potential to use technology in teaching and learning.

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