Schools need to catch up in the digital revolution

4th November 2016 at 00:00
Too many schools are falling behind in the use of technology – only by harnessing its power will they be able to truly prepare their students for tomorrow’s world

While my wife makes a 7am start to the local primary school to plan with her team, I often meet with my own colleagues to get planning, too. We have energetic, collaborative sessions talking about workshops, classes, policies, challenges, next steps, planning, leadership development. We work on documents, share music, show family photos and get to know each other: we build a team.

Some of these colleagues I have never shaken hands with – because they are up to 10,500 miles away, in Melbourne or in New York (though one is half a mile away). All are brought together in glorious HD, from six global locations.

This is daily work for our education team, not some special, one-off, highly organised event. This is not some futuristic world of work; this is the world of work right now for an increasingly large number of folk.

But when I look at the technology set-up in too many Scottish schools – and I have done just that while seconded to the Scottish government’s Digital Learning and Teaching Team – it feels 10,500 miles away from where it should be. It’s difficult for Scottish teachers to get students collaborating in ways that have become not just normal but old hat in many of the places in which those same students could start working tomorrow.

These aren’t big high-tech jobs, or even confined to the offices of Edinburgh’s George Street, where many technology companies are based. Fishing boats are packed with the same technology to track their creels, farmers gauge the best time to milk cows with sensor technology, PAs regularly manage meetings for scores of people around the planet.

Future-proofing students

We want to prepare all our young people, over time, for whatever the world could throw at them in the future when they leave school – but are we even preparing young people for the world as it is now?

Some of Scotland’s most innovative classroom projects have happened because teachers have “asked for forgiveness rather than permission” – they’ve just gone ahead with them without waiting for approval. A recently published Scottish government strategy paper sought to make sure that they don’t have to do that any more by ensuring that the people who purchase, set up and control our technology serve teaching and learning, and not the other way around. A case in point: recently there was a global “Skypeathon” for educators – and Scotland was at the very heart of it. While some classes were just naturally dipping into this amazing opportunity to communicate globally, some teachers had to use phones or wi-fi hotspots just to get access. Local connectivity or policy prevented some from seizing this chance to join in with a global community.

‘The tech set-up in many schools feels 10,500 miles away from where it should be’

Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through the Use of Digital Technology: a digital learning and teaching strategy for Scotland – not the catchiest title, so let’s call it the “DLT strategy” – is a guide for learning and teaching using digital tools in schools.

It doesn’t say how you do it – that will depend on local context and what learning outcomes you are trying to achieve – but it does say where we should be moving to. It’s a robust guide, too, aligned with global documents such as the Unesco ICT Competency Framework for Teachers, as well as national guidelines, such as How Good is Our School? 4 and the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s standards for registration.

The strategy provides four equally important objectives, which require teachers and school leaders to work together more, as well as with IT managers, information security officers and purchasing managers who control access. If one leg of this digital stool is short, then the whole thing is going to be shoogly.

These four objectives are:

* Develop the skills and confidence of educators in the appropriate and effective use of digital technology to support learning and teaching.

* Improve access to digital technology for all learners.

* Ensure that digital technology is a central consideration in all areas of curriculum and assessment delivery.

* Empower leaders of change to drive innovation and investment in digital technology for learning and teaching.

There are clear roles involved in fulfilling all four objectives at national, local authority and school level. Some groups have been active for a while, such as those involving local authority development officers with technology remits, school leaders and classroom practitioners. Others are starting to respond, like initial teacher education institutions and local authority officers without ICT remits.

A lever for change

But there is a vital role for those who control the networks: IT managers and information security officers, amongst others. Through their strategic decisions, taken in council headquarters, they have a say in what can happen in hundreds of classrooms, for thousands of students. These people, through the choices they make, affect the potential of a teacher to help students experience learning that matches the excitement and complexity of learning and work in later life.

You can now use the strategy as a lever for change. IT managers and information security officers don’t tend to read this kind of article, or, indeed, read TESS at all. It’s down to teachers and school leaders, therefore, to make sure that they know about the policy and, more importantly, are involving schools in the decisions they take.

Most decisions on technology are made with the best intentions, but the minute a teacher feels the tightening of digital handcuffs, hindering what they’re trying to achieve, they stop and focus on what is easily accessible.

So consider how the strategy might open up some important conversations – about making changes for the better of everyone.

Ian Stuart is a consultant for the NoTosh digital learning and design consultancy. He worked on the national technology strategy while seconded to the Scottish government

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