Some future tech thoughts

Recently have been trying to put some time aside to think about long term strategy rather than the more mundane day to day.   I have been trying to look out into the future and maybe the next 10 to 15 years of technology in schools.   In doing so I have identified 4 themes or areas which I believe we should be focussing on.

Sustainable, safe and secure

This is likely the easiest theme to identify.  If we assume that tech use is only going to grow as we progress into the future then we need to ensure that “it just works”.   This is key and is part of the sustainability challenge.   If technology has issues or problems, users, both students and teachers alike, will quickly turn away from it.   As a result we need to make sure the technologies used including the infrastructure such as Wi-Fi, internet bandwidth and our IT networks, are future proof and include plans for replacement and renewal as we move forward into the future.   Purchases of infrastructure such as wireless access points, network switches and also the client end points all need to be viewed as continual investments, with planned replacement built in rather than one-off costs.  Our plans need to ensure our technology and infrastructure is sustainable into the future

Also, in relation to sustainability we need to start considering environmental impact.   We need to consider who we source our equipment from, how it is produced, how it is delivered and where it goes once it is end of life.   We also need to consider the environmental impact of its use including energy usage for example.   As we move forward into the future, I can see the importance of environmental sustainability continuing to grow and become a greater factor in decision making.

And as we work in schools, the safety and security of the technologies we use, the data we process and the end users, both staff and students, continues to be a critical issue.    We will need to do a better job of assessing the security of products and solutions we use to ensure we keep our data and our users safe and secure.

Digital citizens

Related to the above, how we seek to keep our students safe in this digital world, online and on social media will be a key focus balanced out against the challenges presented by the need for individual privacy and freedom of speech.    There will also be challenges in relation to increasing use of automation and AI including the ethics of categorising and targeting individuals and groups through data and the implications of black box AI solutions making decisions about aspects of our lives, where although we may be able to create a narrative for the decision in hindsight we may never actually know exactly how the AI arrived at it.  And these are just of couple of the many challenges.

All of this highlights the need to develop digital citizens in our staff and students, plus also our wider communities including parents.   Lots of the benefits and risks created through technology and technology use are new, and have never existed in history, therefore we will need to work through them together.    We will need to create the culture and climate to support the open discussion and dialogue in relation to technology and its implications, and we will need to continually update and review our awareness and our understanding.   This will be critically important but sadly, far from easy and far from quick.

Emerging technologies

The pace of technology continues to be quick with new solutions appearing regularly.   It is therefore important to keep one eye on the future.    Looking forward now I see a number of areas which school should be thinking about including the potential for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality use within schools.  Some schools are already dipping into this but I see bigger untapped potential which is yet to be realised.    Haptics and wearable technologies are another area where there may be potential within schools.   Some potential applications are clear, such as the use of fitness solutions like Fitbit, etc, in relation to physical education or even biology in schools; other future solutions or applications are as yet not as clear.    Artificial intelligence is another emerging area, although I note many EdTech vendors already shouting from the hills about how they use AI, something I am largely sceptical about;  I suspect many are mistaking a complex series of If..Then..Else for AI.   That said, as we move forward I suspect more applications for AI will become apparent, particularly applications for narrow focus AI solutions designed for a specific purpose rather than the more aspirational general purpose AI of Hal from Space 2001 or Data from Star Trek.  And online examinations using adaptive testing solutions replacing our paper based examinations is another emerging area I see in our future.   How will we ensure school infrastructure supports these tests and how can we prepare students for this new age of assessment?

The power of data

Schools already gather huge amounts of data and this is only growing.   I am not just talking about the data teachers may enter in school management solutions as part of parental reporting processes.   We now have data generated in terms of student interactions with online platforms, such as Google Classroom or MS Teams, we have online quizzes where we might be able to see not only student scores, but the time taken, the device used, the time per question, if answers were changed, etc.   Every time we interact with technology more data is being created.    The question looking forward therefore is how can we use this data?   How can we create value from this data and inform teaching and learning?    This for me is a key opportunity as we look forward to the future.  Again though, not an easy one, as the data is often siloed in different solutions or is unstructured or poorly structured.   There is a lot of work to be done here but for me the potential is clear.

Conclusion

The above four areas are what I see as the key areas of focus for the future.   There are many other areas which could be considered however these four, in my opinion, represent the greatest importance and/or potential in relation to schools and colleges.  

Some of the above will see progress in the short term, however I suspect some wont see much progress for a number of years.   The importance here though is in setting a direction of travel.

Advertisement

Coursework moderation, exam bodies and technology

One of the big advantages of productivity suites like Google Workspaces for Education or Office 365 is the ability to easily share and collaborate.   This is great within schools, allowing students and staff to share and work together on documents and projects, however I also believe it starts to provide some other benefits for education in general, such as in relation to coursework moderation and exam bodies.

I have long believed the exam boards have lagged a bit behind in terms of technology use.   I remember being a visiting moderator for a vocational IT qualification some 15yrs ago and being presented by mountains of print outs.   I was visiting schools across England to carry out moderation activities relating to the evidence students had created in working with technology tools such as website development tools, spreadsheets, email clients, etc, yet it was all being printed out for me to look at.   I dread to think, on reflection, how many trees were cut down in the process.     It was around this time that I decided as a teacher of the same vocational qualification that I wouldn’t repeat this mistake, so I worked with our network manager to come up with a way to structure student evidence such that it was easy to extract and burn onto a CD (remember this was 15yrs ago!) which could be handed to the visiting moderator, rather than trying to bury them under mountains of paper.  Through the CD the moderator would have access to all student evidence in a structured and easily navigable form as opposed to a pile of A4 folders of printed evidence.

Office 365 and Google both allow for the easy sharing of digital evidence, which solves the above issue which I had previously solved with a CD, some network setup and a few batch files.    Recently working with one department who were using OneNote to store student evidence, we made use of the Parental Link functionality (See instructions here) to share the content with a moderator.    In some other areas we are using SharePoint for example to share video evidence of student work.   Now some planning does need to go into this, as some schools will have external sharing turned off in relation to data protection, however with a bit of thought and configuration, a solution can be found. 

This all highlights for me the need for exam boards to catch up.   Why arent exam boards providing more guidance to schools in terms of easily sharing digital student evidence with moderators?  Why is it being left to schools and their moderators?   Given most schools will now have either Microsoft’s or Googles suite in place, now is the time to drive things forward.   And it is about time, as looking back, I was trying to go paperless 15yrs ago, prior to the bandwidth and sharing tools which now greatly enable this to easily occur.

Additionally, and looking a little broader, why are we still making so many students sit in large exam halls to complete paper-based examinations following 2 years where the pandemic has meant that students and teachers all over the world have been reliant on technology to collaborate, communicate and engage in learning.   Why arent we looking at how technology can facilitate exams?  Now I note some initial pilots are being trialled but to me it all feels a little late in the day.   Again, there is a need for things to be driven forward here, and I don’t sense the drive and urgency I would expect.  

I feel schools have driven forward their use of technology over the last few years, urged on by needs resulting from the pandemic.   This has been great to see and has left schools in a stronger positive in my eyes.   But why are some of the services which underpin our current education system, such as the exam bodies, not working harder to do the same.   My main concern is that these services may serve to drag schools back, losing some of the technology-based advances we have so recently made.

The asymmetry of relations between schools and the providers of solutions they use.

During last year a third-party software solution vendor decided to change its pricing model, which in turn resulted in a significant cost increase to the school.   It is only now however that I have had time to write and share my thoughts on this.   Now, I can understand their reasoning for the increase, given their model made them significantly cheaper than the competition when we originally looked to source a solution, and therefore despite providing a similar service, they would have had lower income.   That said, it still felt unfair.

So, what are the factors here?

Communication

In this case the communication wasn’t great, as it wasn’t until our renewal that they communicated the cost increase with us, where clearly, they must have planned the change including modelling its impact on both the company and its users.    I would have hoped that they would have clearly communicated their plan for a price increase in advance, outlining to customers the reasoning for the change and how the new funds would be invested and used to the betterment of the product and therefore its loyal customers.   A little bit better communication, and more information may have made me at least a little more understanding as to the change.   Sadly, in this case all we got was a quote with a price significantly higher than the cost from the previous year.

Training and sunk costs

Following this unfair treatment, it might seem logical to simply change vendors, especially now where this vendor is now comparable in terms of price with other solutions.   The challenge here is that we can’t purely look at the bit of software and its cost, we need to consider the number of users, type of users, training and support, the complexity of the system, etc, if we are truly to identify its impact or the impact of trying to change systems.   This is where it gets difficult as it will always be easier to stay with the solution you have, than to change to a new solution, especially where the solution you have has been in use for several years.    You have already paid the cost of setting the solution up, adjusting processes and training users.   With any change in solution these costs will still need to be paid.   At this point you need a robust motivation to change, where in my case, the minor feeling of unfairness is unlikely to be enough.

So, what to do?

I decided that as the total cost of moving to a new solution was higher and represented more uncertainty, despite the feeling being unfairly treated, I decided to stay with the vendor in question.   I did however make sure our unhappiness as to this incident was made clear.   Maybe there will be some potential for negotiation on cost following this however at the time of writing this is unknown.   I know this decision seems imperfect, but we live in an imperfect world.

Wider implications

The above incident however highlights the wider implication where we invest in solutions for use in our schools whether they be learning platforms, productivity suites, management information systems or other solutions.   As we invest, and use and eventually embed each system, we need to consider what our exit strategy might be.    Although we hope each third party may have us, the customer, in mind it is likely their key focus is on their continued commercial operation and on growth where possible.   As such the customer isnt us as an individual school or MAT, but schools, the collective group of schools they currently or in future may wish to sell to.

We are investing in their platform to provide something to our schools which we can’t provide for ourselves.    They however are less invested in us as we are but one school in a sea of schools to which they sell their product.   The relationship is decidedly asymmetric.

Conclusion

I wish I had a solution for this issue but sadly I do not.   The relationship between a school and the third-party solutions it uses isnt balanced and as such even if the vendors direction is currently aligned with yours, it is unlikely to remain so.

The only recommendation I can therefore offer is to be aware of the asymmetry of the relationship and have an eye on possible alternatives should the push become significant enough to offset any training or other costs.    Also, where unhappy, be sure to make vendors aware as it is likely you won’t be the only person, and if a vendors collective user base all complain the vendor may be forced to reconsider any proposed changes.

The big vendors we are all using, such as Google and Microsoft, may represent the above issue taken to an even large scale.  If their solutions ceased to align with school needs, how easy would it be to move solution, where all your data, your training, etc is so heavily invested in these solutions continuing to remain in alignment with individual school needs.   This may be an even more significant risk, however hopefully one which we will never need to realise.   As such it may therefore be ok to have at least considered the risk.

Technology and efficiency

Technology can make things easier or more efficient however as with most things, there is usually an opposing drawback or disadvantage seeking to balance things out.    

Take for example the recent plans by some Scottish schools to introduce the use of biometrics, and in particular facial recognition, to try and speed up its lunch queues (You can read more about the plan here).   Using facial recognition means that the student can be recognised as they arrive at the till allowing lunch staff to quickly scan foods items and apply to their lunch account, where the lunch account is topped up with credit by parents via an online portal.   This will likely save a few seconds in lunch staff identifying the student on their system in order to apply the costs.   A few seconds doesn’t sound like much but if you consider 600 students going to lunch each day, even a single second grows to 10mins saved per lunch period or 50mins per week or even over 3hrs per month.   The potential benefit is pretty clear, but is this enough?

Cost

The first, and likely most obvious drawback in any technology implementation is cost.  The cost of hardware, the cost of software but also the cost of planning, implementation, training and support.   In almost every technology solution there will be an additional cost to be considered and it will be necessary to examine whether this cost is worth the proposed gain of the technology solution.    And we need to be careful to ensure we look beyond the initial financial costs and consider the more long-term support, maintenance and replacement cost, the total cost of ownership.   In the case of facial recognition in school canteens, it might be easy to compare this cost against the improvements in service or even a notional cost saving in terms of time saving.

Cyber Security

The other factor which is almost always guaranteed to act in balance is that of cyber security.    Adding addition systems or solutions will likely increase the schools cyber attack surface and risk, even where appropriate risk mitigation strategies have been put into place.   It will also add complexity which again increases risk.   As such, cyber security needs to be considered in establishing whether the proposed gains are sufficient to outweigh any risks or costs.

Data Protection

Data Protection, which is linked to cyber security, is yet another factor that needs to be considered.   It is likely more data or different types of data might be stored as the result of the proposed technology change.  We need to be sure that we have processes in place for managing this, and that we continue to comply with UK GDPR or other data protection legislation.   In the case of facial recognition this is particularly important and one of the stumbling blocks impacting on the Scottish schools proposal.    We need to ensure that data gathering is proportional and reasonable to the purpose for which it is being gathered.    In the case of gathering facial recognition data of children, below the age of 18, it is questionable whether this data gathering exercise, which means gathering sensitive biometric data, plus relates to children, is proportional when the aim is to reduce queuing and waiting times at lunch.    Simply put, technology can bring about the improvement in waiting times, however in the form of facial recognition technology, it is questionable as to whether it should.

Conclusion

I often bleat on about balance.   Seldom do we make gains through technology use without there being some sort of trade off, cost or other balancing factor.    Financial cost is the most obvious of the costs however we equally need to consider the longer-term costs of support and maintenance.   Additionally, the cyber security and data protection related risks also need to be considered in detail before proceeding.   Just because technology CAN be used isnt enough;  we also need to ask whether it is right to use it, and whether it SHOULD be used.

There is no tail

I have previously written about how technology is sometimes seen as the solution to all problems, even where sometimes the problem relates to process or people, and therefore is unlikely to be significantly addressed by technology.   A related issue is where technology is seen as the silver bullet but able to act on processes without the engagement of the process owners and those the understand the process. Basically where IT teams are asked to solve a problem using technology without the support of process owners.

This issue often raises memories of concerns being raised as to the tail wagging the dog, in relation to technology, or concerns that what should be happening in relation to an organisational unit or process is controlled and directed by the technology.    I have always understood this view as a teacher.  The process, learning, shouldn’t be directed by the technology, it is the students and the learning which should direct things.    The issue though is that this is overly simplistic.   There are limits of technology, there are risks related to technology use, there are drawbacks or disadvantages as well as advantages to using technology.    As such the technology available, risks, etc need to be taken into consideration and as a result may influence and direct how technology is used in learning, and therefore the learning itself.   It’s a two-way street, although on a continuum I will always come down more on the learning or process side of things rather than the technology side.   Technology should be an enabler.

My concern here is where the IT or technology staff are asked to come up with a solution to fulfil a certain need, IT is the silver bullet, but the task is almost handed off to IT staff rather than engaging IT and technology staff in a partnership with the owners of the process or issue concerned.    The IT staff are unlikely to understand the process in question so how are they to develop or identify a solution which would meet the requirements?  Even if they identify a solution which meet the end requirements, there is the potential that the process involved will not meet the needs or requirements of the process owners.    In order to be successful this challenge needs to involve both the IT staff, bring technology and IT understanding, and the process owners and operators who understand the specific needs and requirements around the process being looked at.     The two groups of staff need to work in partnership each bringing their own expertise, knowledge and experience.

Conclusion

IT projects have a horrid habit of going both over budget and over time.  This tendency occurs across different industries and also within education.    IT staff might not fully understand the problem, the process owners might not clearly communicate the problem, IT staff may try to apply the problem to the solution rather than finding a solution for the problem, there might be scope creep over time, and that’s just a handful of things which can make an IT project more complex than is ideal.   For me the key is partnership and each group of people bringing different things to the table.   What if there is no dog and there is no tail?

The Wi-fi’s not working? Or is it Facebook?

The other days outage of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram highlighted to me the complexity of internet services, and how they rely on various technologies, hardware, software, and companies to make things work.  This is the reality, yet the perception is that it is simply “Facebook” or “WhatsApp” a single simple service.

The same is true in schools in particular in relation to Wi-Fi.   How many times have I heard about issues with Wi-Fi?    I would suggest, too many, yet “the Wi-Fi isnt working” implies simplicity where it doesn’t exist.  The need to “fix” the Wi-Fi suggests a single point of failure, a single issue or technology to look at, where in reality the service relies on a number of different technologies and different companies to make work.

Some possible issues

Starting with the user device might be a useful place to start.   This can impact on Wi-Fi.   Recently my team came across a device where the DNS (Domain Name System) server was set to that of Google on the device rather than getting the DNS from the schools’ network.  For safeguarding reasons, we want to see the DNS requests so prevent the use of DNS servers other than our own so this student instantly had issues accessing internet services due to this.  I suspect they may have changed the DNS server for the purposes of bypassing home filtering such as that provided by the likes of Sky broadband.    Next there are students who may be using VPNs to bypass filtering.   Again, depending on the VPN used, this might impact their internet connection or the speed of their internet connection.    Updates which havent been installed on devices may also have an impact or possibly updates to the apps on device rather than the device itself.        

Moving beyond the device, the Wireless Access points may cause issues in terms of signal strength or in terms of their capacity to handle requests for different connected devices at the same time.   I will admit they also may occasionally fall over of their own accord.   It may also be that a “noisy” device is saturating the APs with requests leading to an impact on the service.   Or the issue could be to do with network switching or even the internet bandwidth available to serve all users.    Again a noisy device on the network could be impacting overall network performance.   Your DNS servers or DHCP servers, which provide devices the IP address they require, could also be at fault if they are not operating as they should.   And this is just scratching the surface of the potential causal or contributory factors.

And it doesn’t stop there; The issue might not even be within the school and could relate to issues with the service or site the students are trying to access.   It may be a reputable service which is simply having issues at a given moment in time, a bit like the recent Facebook issue, or it could be a less reputable site which simply isn’t trustworthy or reliable.  It could be that the site uses authentication from a third party, such as Facebook, and this is what is causing the issue, or that the site uses an Infrastructure as a Service (IAAS) vendor and it is they who are having problems.    It could even be a largescale internet routing issue.

Conclusion

This all makes me thing of the Arthur C. Clarke quote regarding advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.   The challenge is Facebook and internet services in general appear to be simple, in we can all easily use them.   There is no magic there, and as such there can be no magic in their inner workings.    Or at least that is the user perception.  This however is untrue.    There is magic.    There is the magic of so many different technologies, hardware, software and companies working together in unison to deliver the services we come to expect, or at least doing so most of the time.    That is until something goes wrong somewhere in the chain leading to that familiar cry:   “The Wi-fis not working!”

Technology can solve all?

Sometimes there is a belief that technology can make all processes more streamlined and efficient.   I will admit that technology does have the potential to make some or maybe even most processes a bit more efficient through automation, validation of data, etc.   It can also allow us to reimage workflows and processes, however there are times when this isnt the case.

The issue I am getting at here is trying to use technology to solve a problem where the problem itself doesn’t exist in the technology domain.   This might be using technology to solve a human problem or using technology to solve a problem with a given process.

Consider a complex process involving lots of different people who provide approvals at different stages of the process.    This might be seen as a poor process as it may result in action not being taken due to a small number of people not responding or providing their approval.  If this is a manual email-based process it seems logical to use technology to make the process more automated and remove some of the manual processing from the equation.    We might be able to setup reminders, etc to stop people failing to respond.   The issue for me is that the problem may be the complexity of the process.   Does it need to be done this way?   Why do we do it this way?    Is it simply because we have always done it this way?   Does it need all of these approvals?    Could the process be simplified?  

For me, before we look at using technology, I think we need to examine the underlying processes, people, etc first with a critical eye.   We need to avoid trying to use technology as a blunt solution to solve process or people related problems, instead dealing with these problems first before then looking to technology.

This isnt necessarily easy.  In the past I have spent time with departments looking at and mapping their processes and then querying why each part of the process exists.   In some cases there has been a reluctance to accept any changes (“We’ve always done it this way”) therefore either necessitating a bespoke solution or a highly complex off the shelf setup.  Neither of these options work due to potential costs, both financial or resource, and dangers of fragility associated with complexity.  In these cases, I have had to walk away and indicate there may be dissatisfaction with current processes, but there is also a lack of willingness to make concessions and accept change as required of any new solution.   It’s a no deal situation.

I continue to want to support the greater use of technology generally, but I am equally concious that we need to use technology where it matters and where it has impact.    Sometimes technology might only present a marginally gain but at high cost.    We cannot simply look at an issue and expect technology to solve it.    It’s that old, famous phrase: “crap in, [technology enabled] crap out”.  

Eggs in one Microsoft/Google basket?

At the start of the week an issue arose which appeared to impact on a number of schools, in relation to syncing of OneNote on iPads or where using the Win 10 OneNote app.    This got me to thinking, should we be concerned where we are increasingly having all our technology eggs in one basket, being either the Microsoft Office 365 or Google Workspace for Education baskets.

Benefits

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge the benefits of having your eggs in one basket.    Taking Office 365, which is the solution my school uses, one of the key benefits is integration.    Each of the apps integrates well with the others, be this using Outlook to setup Teams meetings or setting up a Microsoft Form based quiz, as an assignment in Teams.   As each of the apps are part of the same wider platform, they generally play well together.   As soon as you start to look at number of different apps from different vendors, integration and interoperability very quickly become problems.

User interface is another significant benefit.   Each of the Office 365 apps, as part of the wider platform, has a reasonably common user interface.    This makes it that bit easier for users, both staff and students, to gain familiarity and confidence in using each app and the overall platform.   Again, as soon as we look to different vendors, we find ourselves with different user interfaces across different apps, and therefore an increased learning curve for staff and students.

Security is also worth remembering.   As a single unified platform, I consider it easier, but not necessarily easy, to secure Office 365 versus similarly securing a number of platforms from different vendors, with integrations and potentially third party integrators involved.

Drawbacks

The key draw back is the single point of failure.   When it doesn’t work the impact is huge.   Now in the recent case it was only OneNote which experienced an issue so staff and students could still make use of Teams, OneDrive, email, etc.   This is a lesser issue.   Had the issue related to the Office 365 platform as a whole then all apps within the platform would therefore be affected.    Thankfully, given the size of Microsoft, they have backups and resiliencies in place to reduce the likelihood of such an issue, however statistically over a longitudinal period the likelihood of such an incident eventually reaches 100%.    I would however suggest the exact same is the case where using multiple vendors to supply your solutions, however given the complexity of different systems and the resultant integrations required I would suggest the time period in this case before probability reaches 100% is much less, therefore representing a more significant risk.

It is also worth noting that where we are referring to SaaS (Software as a Service) there is also a risk that the vendor might choose to change the service such that it no longer meets our needs or may even discontinue the service.   In both these cases we find ourselves in the difficult situation of needing to find an alternative and needing to migrate potentially massive amounts of data. With Google and Microsofts productivity suites I would say the risk here is minor, however the possibility that an individual app within the wider platform may change or be discontinued is a more likely occurrence.

Conclusion

I don’t believe there is a perfect solution.   If you wanted to protect against a single point of failure, and having all your eggs in one basket, you would use more than one system, possibly using Microsoft as primary with Google as a secondary solution.    The issue here is that of resources and that of users.    Managing two platforms, keeping one ready to use if needed, and ensuring staff are ready to use the alternative platform will take at least twice as much in the way of IT support resources.   I would also suggest it is highly unlikely you could train users up to be able to be capable across two platforms. I think even trying to do this would impact on users confidence across both platforms. And this is without mentioning potential cost and financial implications.

Alternatively using different vendors for your video calls, emails, collaboration, etc and splitting up the functionality of your solutions is equally unlikely to work due to usability but also due to complexity and resultant fragility of combined systems, with each vendor focussed on their platform and not on others, or on the integrations you may have between platforms.

In Microsoft we trust

This brings me back to an acceptance that the benefits of having all my eggs in one basket, a Microsoft basket in this case, provides more benefits than risks.    It offers easier management, usability and security.

That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of insurance and to have the basics of Google in place just in case;  Yes it may not be ready to go, so may take some time to setup, but at least having it around means it is there should the worst ever happen.

EdTech: Layer 3

I have previously shared a couple of post discussing an EdTech model I shared at the GESS conference back in 2013, now being up to the third of four layers within the model.   The third layer assumes you have already decided the key reasons why you want to invest in and use Technology in your school, this being layer 1. I note that Technology is my preferred term to EdTech.  Layer 3 also assumes you have put the relevant fundamental building blocks in place as part of layer 2.     So, what is the third layer about?

Layer 3

The third layer focusses on what I considered to be the three dimensions of technology use within a school, and the need for relevant training in these areas.   These areas being:

IT Skills

This is the basics of using IT and using tools so includes understanding file types, sizes, sharing files, using email, etc.   It is being able to log in, connect peripherals and change your password.   All staff need to have a basic understanding of the technology they are using, as without this it is unlikely, they will ever reach a point of confidence and then mastery of using technology in school.   I often described this as Teaching of IT as the focus is on developing IT Skills.   We need to ensure staff are supported in this area.  Thinking about it further, I believe this area would include cyber security and data protection although back in 2013 I am not sure I had included these areas.

IT for Management

There will also be some administrative work in teaching with IT generally being part of this, whether it is writing student reports, gathering performance data, following up on behaviour issues or many other issues.    Technology can allow us to streamline processes to make these tasks quicker or simpler.   I am often surprised how often staff don’t know about simply email rules in outlook or how they can use categories to help manage emails.  Note: I mention emails as so much of the administrative load seems to revolve around reading and responding to emails, or to messages now in Teams or other platforms.    At a more advanced level we can then move on to the use of solutions such a PowerAutomate to try to automate more and more of the administrative workflows however I will admit there is much more work that can be done in this area.

I also think we need to continue to examine the administrative side to teaching and identify where it adds value, for if a task doesn’t add value, I would suggest it isnt worth doing.   There is also an opportunity to make use of technology to do things differently such as replacing termly reports with more live, but automatically generated, performance data derived through the use of machine learning and AI based platforms.

IT for Teaching and Learning

This is the likely most important element in this layer, that of using technology in the classroom.   It is about ensuring teaching staff have the ability to use technology effectively in their classroom, their lessons and the learning activities they create.   I suppose on reflection this particular layer could be sub-divided further.  Thinking about the TPACK model, this section could include Technological Pedagogical Knowledge (TPK) and Technological Content Knowledge (TCK).     Looking at it a different way it could include teaching using technology, where technology enhances or redefines a learning activity or process, plus teaching through technology, where the technology is an essential vehicle for the learning.   Now I admit I find these two categories sometime difficult to separate however I will try to clarify.    Teaching using technology might be the use of OneNote to allow students to collaborate on a project so technology is just another tool in the learning experience, whereas teaching through technology might be using VR or Minecraft, in which case the technology becomes central to the learning experience.   Am hoping the above clarifies this however please forgive me if it does not.

Looking back, I would also suggest that my focus was very much the bricks and mortar school and classroom and I underplayed the potential for technology to allow for learning beyond the physical confines of a school and also beyond the confines of the curriculum.    The potential for online learning has certainly been highlighted over the last year and a half during the pandemic, something I don’t think I fully considered back in 2013.

Conclusion/Reflections

Looking back on the third layer I feel the balance implied by the three triangles of equal size suggested an equal value to the three strands I proposed.   This clearly isnt the case.   If anything, the teaching and learning section should likely be the largest, and further subdivided, while the IT for Management section should likely be the smallest, as we should be trying to reduce the administrative burden on teachers, to allow them to focus on teaching and learning.

That said, the final peak of my model, layer 4, was always about staff being confident enough to use technology or to be more exact, to experiment and try different tools and technology solutions.   Only through experimentation will teachers find the tools that work best for themselves and their students, and they will only do this if they feel safe and confident enough to do so.   For this confidence to occur we need the basic skills, the ability to do the management side of education using the technology tools provided, and most importantly the skills to use technology in teaching and learning itself.   So maybe this layer could be more nuanced, however at a basic level it may still be correct.

Invisible Success, Visible Failure

Do we see EdTech failures more easily than the corresponding successes?

In the past I have found it easy to quote some key EdTech failures.   Examples include the general deployment of Interactive Whiteboards without any training as to their use, a similar issue where iPads were broadly deployed across a district in the US and the limited funding for laptops for teachers in UK schools without plans for an eventual refresh cycle.    These and many other examples come quite easily to mind, yet similar stories of success don’t come as easily.   This introduces the availability bias as we start to perceive the events which come more readily to mind are therefore more likely to occur:  That technology implementations therefore are more likely to fail.

Given we are often looking for proof of the impact or value in EdTech the fact that successes don’t come easily to mind is of concern.   This makes me wonder about the potential for the availability bias to impact on technology decisions and in particularly in some reluctance to embrace technology use.   If it is the failures of technology implementations which come easy to mind, is it any wonder why there is reluctance in investing in technology solutions.   Combined with the overall cost of technology, which is generally one of the three most expensive items on a school budget, it seems predictable that, without an outside stimulus, technology adoption will be slow.   

Added to the above you also have the complexity of technology use in schools, requiring skills and understanding in relation to the technology itself, but also subject content and pedagogical knowledge, combined with the interrelationship between each.   This therefore requires a team of staff to be involved, which brings with it the usual social dilemmas associated with teamwork.   In turn this may increase the likelihood of failure or may at least encourage a sub-optimum solution to be accepted as team members each have to make compromises, finally arriving at an acceptable, but less than best, solution.

And where we do see successes, most often in a conference presentation or a case study, they seldom outline the difficulties which occurred during their relevant project lifespan.   I think any significant IT project which went perfectly as planned lacks credibility in my eyes.   I put the probability of such an occurrence within a busy operating school, where the project was significant enough to take months or years of work, to be low to nil.    This might help explain why the successes don’t come mind, as they lack the believability or the detail to make them memorable, whereas the failures each have a clear cause and effect.

This leaves us with limited options for the implementation of technology projects.   As I see it the options are the small pilot project, which is grown, a significant external stimulus or some heroic leadership forcing implementation.    The pandemic has certainly been an external stimulus however isnt something we would want to repeat.   For now, we simply need to try and use this stimulus to drive forward with appropriate technology projects, while the impetus still exists, for I don’t see this will continue for more than 6 to 12 months.    Heroic leadership as a solution, isnt something I would advocate given risk of going down a rabbit hole and/or negatively impacting on organisational culture.    As such the best option appears to be to continue with pilot projects and growing those which appear to have a positive impact, but the issue here is that this approach is slow and not particularly agile.

So what is the solution?   

I don’t think I have one, other than to be aware that what we perceive is likely influenced by bias.   As such, although we can learn, more often, from the failures, and only occasionally, from the successes of others, we might simply need to get on and try things, success or fail, then iterate from there.    We need to find our one solution, that which what works for our own school, its context, staff, students, parents and wider community.

%d bloggers like this: