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How to lead the digital revolution in schools

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The first public website went live 25 years ago and the world has changed in countless ways since. The use of technology in schools is no exception. Today, there are 350,000 education apps available, 20 million students and teachers use Google Classroom, and more than 35 million people are learning through massive online open courses.

For teachers, the web offers a global community of colleagues eager to share ideas and resources. For schools’ ICT and network managers, however, keeping pace with the changes presents a complex set of challenges. The ever-present threat of malware from external sources means that staff must be trained carefully (no clicking on dubious emails), and policies and procedures around data storage and encryption must be reviewed regularly.

Embracing this shift means making adjustments, which some schools are doing through the creation of a new role: digital learning manager.

Sachin Choithramani is learning leader for digital technologies at Steyning Grammar School in West Sussex. He explains that the job means “ensuring that the digital literacy skills of students, teachers, support staff and even parents are developed in a way that improves learners’ outcomes”. The role is not mutually exclusive to that of the school network manager, in fact a large part of the role offers an ears-to-the-ground approach to staff CPD needs around teaching and learning with digital tools.

“At our school, we could not function without the technical expertise and advice of our dedicated team of IT technicians led by our exceptional network manager,” says Choithramani. “However, my role is more about strategic development and training; it is about ensuring that the development of our infrastructure supports exceptional learning in every classroom.”   

Many digital learning managers take up the post in addition to teaching, reflecting a school-wide shift towards uptake of digital tools and certainly not limiting tech innovation to teaching ‘computing’ or IT delivery. Choithramani is one of them - he is a drama teacher and his new role was only created when the senior leadership team noticed his exemplary use of tech in the classroom.

“I was interested in how digital technologies could impact on student outcomes, on how they can engage learners and reduce workload,” he says. “The senior team saw how this was naturally cascading across the faculty and recognised the potential for it to cascade across the school.”

He explains that the school’s vision is now to integrate technology into everyday classroom learning.

“We’ve had a bring your own device policy in place for some time and we are now moving towards implementing a 1:1 programme of Google Chromebooks. We want to see technology as a part of the teacher toolkit in every classroom.”

But the key to making this happen, Choithramani says, is to get staff on board and enthused about the possibilities.

“It is impractical to try and impose digital learning tools top-down,” he says. “It requires a commitment from staff to innovate and try new things, and a headteacher who trusts the expertise of teachers to shape the future development of the school.”

So what are the key considerations for IT managers and digital learning managers to bear in mind when developing their approach to tech?

1. Curating

John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute and one of education’s most widely quoted academics, notes that: “There are a million resources available on the internet and creating more seems among the successful wastes of time in which teachers love to engage.”

It’s true. Digital learning managers should explore ways to curate and store resources and save teachers’ valuable time.

2. Collaborating

Dominic Norrish, group director of technology at the United Learning group, says relationships are the key to effective digital innovation in schools.

“An outstanding network manager in a school today needs to be a facilitator,” he says. “They must perceive their role to be fundamentally about enabling learning, with a default response of ‘I will try and make that possible’.

“They need to communicate effectively with teaching and support staff with a clear vision and ‘human’ vocabulary. They must be willing to tackle the whole new set of problems and skills presented by devices like iPads - and they need to be able to manage a network, too.”

3. Changing attitudes

“There has been a dramatic shift in what constitutes IT,” Norrish adds. ‘We shouldn’t dismiss the vision and determination needed to successfully transform into an open-minded enabler of educational technology. Many network managers have done this admirably, but with others, the habits of the past are harder to break.”

Job titles change and tech becomes outdated, but creating an environment that allows teachers to engage and support students is a permanent requirement. Collaboration between IT managers and digital learning managers, as well as the rest of staff, is vital to create new, innovative ways of doing this.

As Choithramani says: “Excellent professional development must be a core commitment, to ensure teachers and support staff are able to effectively utilise technology.”

Sophie Bailey is founder of The Edtech Podcast, and also works as an independent consultant in the ed-tech sector

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