The Digital Dilemma
Can schools keep up with the changing face of technology?
Ensuring value for money in technology planning can be a challenge for schools in the current climate. This post considers some of the decisions schools face, and provides some useful and practical tips.
What is technology used for in schools?
The use of technology in schools has grown at a great pace over the last decade and is likely to continue to do so. From a school organisation point of view, data management systems are more advanced than they have ever been, to keep up with the ever-increasing demands on schools. Communication tools to support safeguarding, as well as general communication, play a vital part in most schools. Digital systems to support and link school improvement planning, SEF writing, staffing analysis, staff appraisal, curriculum review and financial management are all taking a more prominent position.
In the classroom, technology to support teaching and learning continues to be an important consideration. Some schools rely heavily on the use of technology to enhance learning, and others less so, but overall the trend continues to grow.
Infrastructure, Hardware and Software
A school’s infrastructure is one of the most important components of its IT set-up. A school can have all the latest devices and products but if the infrastructure does not support their effective use, they quickly become worthless. The wireless infrastructure is becoming increasingly important with more wireless technology available and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) becoming more commonplace.
The hardware that essentially plugs in to the infrastructure can include many types of device such as personal computers, laptops, tablets and smart phones. More static hardware such as Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are still seen in schools but in some cases, are being upgraded to touch screen technology and other innovative solutions.
Software also continues to advance and with so much to choose from, it can be difficult for schools to know which options best suit their needs.
All of these elements bring a significant cost and keeping each one in good working condition and up to date can be a challenge for schools. Add to this the pressure to provide a ‘wow factor’ to engage pupils and the demands on the school budget can become too much for some schools to bear.
Is it necessary and why?
Is it perceived important that schools have all the latest systems, gadgets and devices? Why do schools need them? What value does it add?
This is one of the more contentious areas of education in that there are so many opposing views of the value of technology in the classroom. Some educationalists believe it is a must and that use of technology to support teaching and learning is an essential preparation tool for young people, preparing them for the world they are living in and ultimately the world of work. Others believe it does not add any value and that truly great teaching, without the tricks and frills of technology is at the heart of pupils’ progress, achievement and success. With research unable to support either argument convincingly, it is probably a debate that will continue to be contested for years to come and one that will change favour in line with external drivers such as skills required for examination success.
Moving away from the view of educationalists, there are other factors which promote the use of new and up to date technology in schools.
Firstly, regulations such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) which come into force in May 2018, will trigger schools to undertake a data audit which may result in more investment in technology to support compliance.
This links to the issue of safeguarding children, the number one priority for all schools. Already many schools are using technology systems which record all pupil communications and interventions, resulting in improved stakeholder communication and the creation of an evidence-based audit trail, both of which result in the improved care and safeguarding of individual pupils.
Communication is a key theme for many technological systems. Schools, like many other organisations, have an increasing need for high quality communication systems which are effective and promote outstanding customer service to all stakeholders.
Parents’ and pupils’ view
How much does it matter to parents and pupils how technologically geared up a school is? Some parents will have a view on background systems as we have described above, but many may be more interested in what technology is accessible for their child on a regular basis to support teaching and learning.
Do parents feel reassured if their child comes home to tell them they are using the latest tablets and surfaces in lessons? Does this affect a parents’ view of the quality of education and future success of their child? Do parents want their child to be able to use a smart phone at school? Is this important in lessons, outside of lessons, or both? How much would parents value the use of technology in schools over other quantitative measures such as pupil progress?
When choosing a school for their child, is technology a factor that parents consider? Is this more, or less important, to the pupils themselves? Would they prefer to go to the school down the road simply because every pupil gets their own iPad?
Unfortunately, the answers to many of these questions are subjective and will therefore differ from school to school depending on school context. Your knowledge of your school and professional judgement will help, but it is useful to be mindful of these issues even if you never get to an ultimate answer.
So, do schools need to keep up with technology?
As we have seen in some cases yes, to remain compliant with legislation and regulations and to implement systems which effectively support safeguarding and communication. In other cases, this is really down to the individual school and their judgement on the impact it will have on reputation, parental and pupil choice and pupil admissions.
In choosing your school, parents are likely to consider your school’s academic performance and pastoral care first, and then other factors such as the quality of buildings, facilities, equipment and available technologies. The school’s strengths or specialism can also be an important consideration, as well as location and ease of access.
Can schools keep up with technology?
If schools do perceive this to be important to them, some schools with generous funding may find this to be entirely achievable. Those with less generous funding would find it more difficult and for some schools it may be almost impossible. Making ends meet is becoming more and more difficult for schools because of rising cost pressures and funding uncertainty. So, even those who find they can spend a lot on new technologies now, may not be able to in the future.
For any school, making any investment in technology the importance of value for money should be paramount, regardless of your funding position.
Here are some practical and useful tips for schools who want to ensure value for money in their technology planning.
- Clarify your Vision
Map out your future direction for IT to ensure that the school-wide decisions you make are co-ordinated. For example, there is little point in purchasing hardware which cannot be supported by your infrastructure.
- Plan at least three years ahead
Allocate a dedicated budget for IT Refresh and maintain a rolling plan over a three-year period. Even though the plan may change, you will be better prepared to achieve your vision.
- New investment
Consider setting aside a proportion of your budget (perhaps 5-10%) for investment in new technologies, if researching the use of new technology is important to you. Balance this with the need to ensure the continued performance of existing technology.
Attend national educational IT conferences that give a view of new and upcoming technologies in the context of education. Be aware of the hard sell; most are set up like a market place with suppliers demonstrating their products and trying to secure sales. These events can be useful to complement your reading and research in this area and to get a flavour of what technology is out there with a visual demonstration and expert explanation.
- Researching new technologies
Don’t rush into purchases of the unknown. Research how it is being used in other schools or organisations and what the impact has been. Why do you need it and how does this fit with the context of your school?
- Try before you buy
Try to get a demo from a supplier, for a period of time, before purchase. Use your time wisely, ensuring as many people as possible get a chance to test the product, particularly those who you envisage will get the most use from it should you choose to purchase. Listen to feedback.
- What does it cost?
Make sure you have considered the full solution cost before purchasing hardware or software. Will your infrastructure support the new device or will there be hidden costs to bring your infrastructure up to specification?
- Measure, Monitor, Evaluate
Record the use of and impact of new technologies to inform future decision making and prevent future mistakes in purchasing.
Make sure all technology purchases come from a central point in school, so that previous findings are known and considered and the whole school plan is carefully directed.
- Find hidden treasure
If you think there is unused technology in your school, have a technology amnesty. Tell staff that there will be no blame, just hand over what you don’t use that is gathering dust in a cupboard. One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure.
- Sell it on
Consider selling old tech to another school or organisation to generate funds to contribute to your IT Refresh plan.