As innovation in technology increases exponentially, many school leaders doubt whether they could or even should try to keep up with the pace of change in the technological experiences and lives of their students and communities. Spiralling infrastructure costs, hardware life-cycles and all-too-brief relevancy to student interest suggests that the battle for engaging interest is at best an uphill struggle and at worst cannot be won. For many, one thing is certain: if there is a solution, there will need to be a culture change…
Buying wisely with a view to all the ‘hidden’ costs of licensing, maintaining and
updating technology, is a sensible starting point (www.becta.org.uk/achievebestvalue). However, more fundamentally, schools must face up to the fact that whatever they invest in
will very quickly appear slow, unimaginative and dated, compared to its more contemporary rivals. The contrast between the immediacy of a student’s recent purchases and the long term investment of a school’s purchases mean that this technological shelf-life is impossible to avoid. A common student’s refrain runs, “How am I supposed to do 21st century learning with 20th century devices?”
Printed curricula and teachers’ reluctance to relinquish previously successful projects have conspired to keep many schools’ ICT programme relatively static and certainly unrepresentative of recent newer technologies. Professional development programmes can also face difficulties in meeting the broad range of requirements of a school’s staff. Isolated from innovation or overwhelmed by the task ahead teachers often need a more bespoke one- to-one training package than the school can provide or afford.
Prensky’s (2001) notion of ‘digital natives’ is a contentious and for some at least, misrepresentative characterisation of the contemporary student. However, it remains a powerful influence on school leaders’ perceptions of the ‘upward pressure’ applied on the curriculum by students’ familiarity with technology. Staying ahead of students’ knowledge is for some teachers an unreachable ideal, with many teachers resigned to playing catch-up at best or teaching yesterday’s technology at worst. Isolated from cutting-edge professional development in New Technologies, teachers and their leaders are often unable to close the gap between student expectation and what the curriculum can deliver.
Curriculum reviews and the inspectorate’s expectations to see students developing and honing their ICT skills in embedded activities present school leaders with a significant challenge. For schools with traditional arrangements of long corridors punctuated by classrooms on either side, even the very fabric of the building can become a barrier to more flexible pedagogical developments (www.becta.org.uk/schools/capitalbuilding). In other schools, fading batteries, elusive laptop trollies or crammed suite timetables all mitigate against an embedded curriculum.
Universal access promises to close the gap in 24/7 learning between the ‘haves’ internet access and the ‘have-nots’ (www.becta.org.uk/schools/extendingopportunities). However, who has access to what, and how much that actually supports learning remains a thorny issue for school leaders to solve. In many schools the learning platform or virtual learning environment is heralded as the solution (www.becta.org.uk/schools/techstandards), whilst for many students and parents it remains uninteresting, unstimulating or unhelpful. In fact, in using technology to engage stakeholders, schools often find that one size really will not fit all.
some Possible Solutions
Managing costs – something for nothing
There is much for school leaders to learn from students about new technologies, and not only in how to control devices. A key difference between a school leader’s and a student’s approach to new technology is that the former expects to pay handsomely for access to services and products, whereas the latter wants something for nothing. The new technologies market changes not just in the speed or capacity of its devices, but also in the philosophy underpinning the market and as school leaders we need to shift our understanding to capitalise on this change. The move from charged for dial-up internet connection over copper wires towards free bundled access over optic fibre paid for by advertising is hard to comprehend for many school leaders. However, this shift has changed the dynamic of software production. Now advertising has become the chief revenue source for companies and sophisticated software simply a tool to secure brand loyalty. Schools no longer need to pay for costly site licences when open access equivalent packages are available for free. For more specific software schools can select free web-based online versions rather than be tied to purchased and installed versions which soon become dated. The result is that the only requirement a school has is to get its students on line. Even this process is open to cost reduction. Encouraging students to bring mobile phones to school and allowing them wifi access rather than banning them is a cost-neutral way to expand massively access to online resources. Other handheld devices, such as mp3 players routinely have high resolution displays and so provide a cheap alternative access to the school’s online suite. Small ultra portable devices such as netbooks offer an even more power platform for the same access. Tasking the student body with finding viable free alternatives to the school’s proprietary software, school leaders will soon find that it pays to expect something for nothing.
‘Free software online’ in Wall Street Journal July 2009 http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20090713-712990.html
Staying current – personal learning environments
An unanticipated ‘glitch’ or resolutely awkward aspect of some new technology can soon bring a project to a standstill. Hitting a number of just such false starts can often leave teachers with little choice other than to play it safe – with the resultant effect on student engagement and interest. What teachers often want is to ‘phone a friend’, someone who will respond quickly and offer possible solutions. This desire has seen the rise of professional networks in teachers’ personal learning environments. Unlike learning management systems (LMS) which are school or course-centric, the PLE can contain whatever tools an individual teacher needs in order to support their own learning. For many this will include a professional network of fellow teachers from around the world, all of whom are on hand to offer advice and solutions to intractable problems. Whereas search engine results will deliver thousands of results to a teacher’s questions, many of which will be irrelevant and unhelpful, members of a teacher’s PLE will often pinpoint problems and offer multiple solutions. The personal learning environment offers a truly international and asynchronous space for the exchange of ideas and presentation of evidence of successful approaches to learning.
Personal learning environments http://zope.cetis.ac.uk/members/ple
Skill sets – everyone a leader
Whether or not Prensky’s notion of the digital native / digital immigrant divide is correct, what is more generally acceptable is that a classroom environment will contain some people with higher levels of competency than others in using New Technologies. Sensible school leaders would therefore expect the more competent users to support those who are less capable. However, the key shift in thinking for teachers that are concerned about being on the receiving end of this support, is to consider exactly what expertise they bring to the classroom. Rather than considering teacher expertise to concern the operation of New Technologies, the key cultural change is to see the teacher’s role as pedagogical rather than technical, i.e. the application of New Technologies, rather than their operation. What is required by the more able student is not support for using technology, but to put it to some purposeful use. In this regard the teacher acts as coach for the student’s thinking about how the features of the technology might be applied to achieve an outcome. This change in perception in the role away from teaching and towards coaching is common place in the sports world and enables the coach to extend the problem solving capabilities of the student towards thoroughly embedded contexts for ICT.
Making it happen – embedding the curriculum
Ubiquitous technology, or ‘everyware’ (Greenfield 2006), refers to the development in embedding technology into all aspects of modern life. Achieving the same in the school context is difficult to achieve without a significant culture change in how learning is conceived. Heppell refers to the ‘nearly now’ world that students inhabit outside of school through social networks, messaging and microblogs (such as twitter) that facilitate reflection, retraction, research and repetition and which represent a great world for learning. To replicate this environment much research has been undertaken by Professor Kenn Fisher in to learning space design, where the seating configuration, use of walls, lockers, light and power all contribute to the style of pedagogy promoted and supported. By treating the room as an additional ‘teacher’, Fisher (2000) creates a variety of working contexts for students and teachers which enable project based learning and teacher as coach as well as more formal teaching scenarios. Drawing a variety of portable new technologies in to this space starts to blur the boundaries between in school and out of school learning methodologies and offers a step towards 24/7 learning.
Fisher et al (2000) http://www.rubida.net/Rubida_Research/html/place_space_edu.pdf
Stakeholder engagement – all aboard
Universal access and the availability of ubiquitous computing means that schools can start to address more fundamental questions about where learning takes place and how to reach out to the community. In part, communication with the school community requires simple changes to communication. Blue tooth transmitters at school gates to alert parents arriving to collect their children can be used to send simple reminders, as can whole school text messaging systems. Rolling electronic display systems at the front of the building or even turning a projector to project on to t afrnt facing window can all lead to increased parental engagement. Twitter and RSS feeds add dynamism to school websites and monitored blogs allow interction between home and school. However, Stephen Heppell of Heppell.net, Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Yong Zhao of the Confucius Institute at Michigan State University all suggest that ubiquitous computing enables working out in the community, such that literacy learning may take place in the local library, history in the museum archives or geography in the local fields. Conversely, the school’s resources are then opened out to the community for adult education and vocational training. This blurring of the school boundaries both in time and space enables schools to engage and transform the school community.
Chris Dede (2004) Planning for “Neomillennial” Learning Styles: Implications for Investments in Technology and Faculty