Kranzberg’s First Law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

“technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.” – Dr Melvin Kranzberg

What exactly do we mean when we talk about digital strategy? It’s a catch-all term for an enormous range of issues relating to the use of technology in the classroom. This blog will attempt to break this down so that technology does the two core things that it should in education: streamline a teacher’s workload and enhance pupil learning. Note that philosophy and strategy are different things, and these terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

There are, to my mind, three key question areas when considering how to use technology:

  1. Digital philosophy – what do we actually believe in relation to the role of technology in education? On what evidence are we basing this philosophy?
  2. Digital strategy – what decisions should be made to create an infrastructure which supports teaching and learning?
  3. Implementation – how can we embed systems so that teachers and pupils can use technology effectively?

Here’s a breakdown of what each stage involves.

Digital Philosophy 

This is the conversation that many schools didn’t have when technology became a driving force in the classroom. The cart came before the horse. It consists of answering some very broad, but crucial, questions:

  • In what ways can technology enhance learning?
  • What responsibilities do we, as teachers, have in teaching children to be digitally literate?

The first question requires us to consider the way in which pupils learn. Books like Benedict Carey’s ‘How We Learn’ provide excellent reading before thinking about how technology can support the process. I share the view that the notion of 21st century skills is a myth. There has been no change to the way in which human beings learn in the last couple of decades, even though the tools we use are different. Essentially, people adapt to their environment so the advent of the printing press, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the microchip have seen us engage successfully with different media. However, it hasn’t changed how we absorb, store, recall, transfer and apply information. The 21st century is not a paradigm shift in this respect, so changing the core principles of good pedagogy is unnecessary. The questions we should therefore be asking ourselves revolve around ways in which technology can support and enhance the established ways in which children learn.

The second question is easy to answer. We are all responsible as teachers for digital literacy, just as we are for literacy, numeracy and wellbeing. Technology is an integral part of everyday life, so we need children to be aware of its uses and its pitfalls. Again, this covers a massive range of issues from how to use a spreadsheet to how stay safe on-line. We are failing our pupils if we don’t guide them in areas which are vital to the world they live in.

This said, there is still a diversity of ways in which schools can decide to move forward. They can opt to be tech-lite, using it in a minimalist fashion only for things that they are certain work. Alternatively, they can aspire to be tech-centred and make this a key feature of the school. This is question of context, as Kranzberg’s law notes. Do what works for your school and your pupils, but at least have the discussion and make your mind up before purchasing anything.

Digital Strategy 

Once the school’s philosophy has been agreed, key decisions need to be made about how technology will be deployed for teachers and pupils. These are just some of the things to consider:

  • Will everyone be provided with the same device? Or will the school be device agnostic and simply require everyone to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)?
  • Will a specific platform be used? Will the school be Google, Microsoft or mixed economy?
  • What hardware is needed?
  • What training will be provided and how?

Needless to say, these decisions need to be informed and money needs to be spent effectively so that the system established is sustainable.

This brings us to an essential ingredient for a successful school: digital leaders. The problem here is akin to marketing, in that finding someone who has expert training in the field and knows the culture and context in which schools operate are thin on the ground. Ideally what you want is an IT director who understands everything about hardware and software, and a professional learning/research lead who they can work in partnership with. This way strategic decisions are driven by how children learn and are informed by robust evidence. Then, once decisions are made, staff training is comprehensive. The more confident and competent the staff are, the more sustainable the system will be.

Implementation

This comes down to the minutiae of day-to-day operations. Teachers typically come into work and log on, work all day, then log off and go home. They then usually log on at home, to fit work around family life. Therefore technology book ends the working day. If it fails to work it ruins everything. We’ve all had total meltdowns because the toner ran out on the photocopier, the projector broke down or the software crashed. We also know that the golden rule of the high stakes lesson observation is that technology will inevitably let you down. Whilst these problems can never be eliminated in their entirety, their frequency can be reduced by having the right strategy and the right team in place. That team should always consider ways in which technology can streamline teacher workload to free up time for planning lessons. This creates a healthy cycle in which the effective use of technology is magnified.

Preventative action can also be taken by following one core principle: never, ever, introduce new tech in a blanket roll-out. Always, always pilot it with a small group first to see if it works the way you want it to. Equally, never buy into something because another school has it and you want to keep pace with them. This is not a marketing arms race.

So what works? 

A substantial report by the OECD in 2015 found that pupil use of technology was greater at home than it was at school. It also found that learning was most effective in schools with moderate use of technology, rather than minimal or extensive use. This would suggest that the Goldilocks conditions apply to ed tech as they do to so many other things. However, there is a substantial caveat: the effect that technology has on learning depends on how teachers are using it. If the tool is used incorrectly it won’t get the job done.

We should also think very carefully about the ways in which ed tech can support pupils with SEN. Things like voice recognition software can be hugely beneficial to pupils who struggle to write, allowing them to get work done with reduced anxiety and better attainment. Conversely, the use of technology for SEN pupils can be used ineffectively. Simply providing a laptop in the classroom is not a panacea. Like extra time in exams, they need to be shown how to use it to their benefit. This can sometimes be a blind spot in lesson planning, so all classroom teachers should think about ways in which ed tech can benefit individuals as well as a whole class.

This leads us to think more carefully about our pedagogy when using technology. If teachers consider how pupils learn, then think about applying what they have at their disposal to facilitate this, it will have the desired effect. A simple example: we know that retrieval practice via low-stakes testing is an effective strategy. There are dozens of good apps that can make this easy for teachers to set up and for pupils to self-test with, both in the classroom and at home.

Continuing the cycle

The implementation stage is not the end of the road. It is not just healthy, but essential, to review your school’s digital philosophy. Technology evolves at a rapid rate, so we should allow our philosophy to evolve alongside it as the context changes. It doesn’t have to be done every week, but at least annually there should be a ‘back to first principles’ conversation to think about what the relationship with ed tech is. Reflection is a crucial part of the process.

Want to know more? 

Three Twitter accounts to follow:

  • @neelamparmar1
  • @josepicardo
  • @ianfordham

Further reading:

Book: Educate 1-to-1: The secret to successful planning, implementing and sustaining change through mobile learning in schools

Blog: Shooting Azimuths http://www.josepicardo.com/

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