October 2015 is a historic date for those of us who grew up to the backdrop of Michael J. Fox’s skateboard, lead guitar and time travel adventures. In part 2 of the Back to the Future trilogy, ‘Marty’ is catapulted 30 years forward from 1985 into a futuristic world, brimming with technological advances, dreamt up by the prophetic Robert Zemeckis. For many, these scenes of what 2015 might have looked like have provided food for thought and discussion over the years as well as a flurry of articles recently about what has (and hasn’t) become a reality. And now the 21st of October 2015 has been and gone and there are still no streets full of hoverboards, flying cars or automatic laces on shoes; no self-drying jackets or giant holograms outside cinemas. There are many accurate predications though such as the widespread use of technology, cashless payments, tablet devices, targeted advertising, voice enabled interactive TVs and (sadly) murkier themes around the use of guns in society, corporate greed and corruption which I won’t dwell on in this education-focused and more optimistic publication.
Whilst Marty was still riding around Hill Valley on his skateboard in 1985, I was in the First Year (Year 3 in new money) at Earls Barton Junior School, waiting weeks at a time for a turn on the rota to use the school’s single Acorn computer which sat in the corner with floppy disks and tapes, providing us with the excitement of ‘Trains’ or ‘Granny’s Garden’ to break up the sunny pre-national curriculum days of reading, music and rounders that I now look back on with affection, undoubtedly through rose-tinted glasses. Today, 30 years later, as a Headteacher I have walked around school seeing 10 year olds hold an online conference with a school in Palestine via Skype, 8 year olds programming their own online games and designing web content whilst 5 and 6 year olds talk confidently about inputs, debugging and algorithms. The world has changed beyond recognition and, overall, I think that Zemeckis called it pretty well.
Rarely is the future accurately predicted when it comes to technology and in schools this is particularly true. If we were to head back just 10 years from today in a Delorean, we’d be reminded of a world where the Government gave schools e-learning credits to spend on technology which were used up readily like Tesco clubcard points; Headteachers scouring through the catalogues to see what gadgets might transform their still largely-analogue schools. At this time, classrooms were unlikely to have more than the odd few desktops and the now obligatory screen or board was a new addition; having individual class cameras with rechargeable batteries was fairly forward-thinking and the explosion of handheld devices was still lurking ominously in the shadow of the much-heralded IT suite. The Government of the day was still dreaming up the statutory targets for schools around every child having access to a learning platform with parental access (which were never enforced or checked on) and the march towards this online future fizzled out predictably, partly due to a change of Governments but mostly because there were no obvious benefits to learners of these expensive and complex side-shows.
Even in more recent years, predictions about how technology is used in schools have been more often about automation in the classroom. How could tasks be allocated? How could tests be auto-marked? How could assignments be managed? In the future, would we even need teachers as we know them, as online quizzes and class voting systems enjoyed a brief spell of being in vogue? Wiggle the flux capacitor a bit and we’re back to 2015 and whilst the efficiency of technology has clearly played an important part in improving the effectiveness of school business and communication, it’s not this mechanical aspect where we’ve found any real impact in learning. The explosion of communication and social media in recent years has led us to richer pastures with opportunities to create, collaborate and publish now revealing themselves as the areas where learning can really be made better.
At October’s #RedefineLearn conference in London, this thinking was distilled provocatively by Mark Sparvell who challenged us to ‘Use Technology to humanise learning, not digitise the curriculum’, a call to action which echoes the never-more-relevant work of Michael Fullan who talks about harnessing the ‘pull effect’ of technology as a way to combat the widespread disengagement of learners in modern day schools. Global research shows us that enjoyment and engagement levels decrease with every year a child spends at school so that by the age of 16, only 40% of children are intellectually engaged in their schooling (Jenkins, 2013; Willims et al., 2009). Technology must be used thoughtfully to help reverse these depressing truths around school engagement. The challenge is, as Fullan and Langworthy write, that “Education under these terms needs to be radically rethought — partly to stop the boredom, but mostly to blow the lid off learning, whereby students and teachers as partners become captivated by education day in and day out.”
So (partly) with this call to action ringing in my ears, we’ve started the school year by announcing a series of #RedefineLearn conferences which will be held at Simon de Senlis over the course of this academic year. Sponsored by Microsoft, these are free and are aimed at all school leaders or teachers who would like to join the debate around the place of technology to improve learning. They include hands-on sessions with devices as well as opportunities to see the school in action and exchange ideas with colleagues from other schools. What these sessions have taught me so far is that as well as the obvious need for developing a school vision around learning and practice, schools still have lots of questions about upgrading hardware, procurement and deployment as they wrestle with the practicalities of updating their infrastructures within tight budget constraints.
So in the spirit of keeping it simple, here are some answers to some questions that I was asked by a group of school leaders who attended the #RedefineLearn workshop at Simon de Senlis earlier this month which are focused on getting started – particularly if you’re new to a school or have decided that the time has come to update the technology but aren’t sure where to start. Unfortunately, there are no Deloreans, freebies or shortcuts to get there quickly but with a clear vision, a pragmatic strategy and plenty of patience, it’s possible.
Where do I start?
At the very beginning! When I joined Simon de Senlis Primary in September 2012, the technology picture was one that many schools will still recognise. There was an aging server and an IT suite that was so slow logging into the network that staff had stopped using it. A handful of iPads were scattered around the school and the staff laptops were old. Everywhere I looked there was someone else telling me that we needed to ‘update the laptops’.
Although there was pressure from everyone to buy new devices, we realised that it was pointless until we had upgraded the broadband and installed an enterprise standard Wi-Fi solution. The first year’s budget was spent on these upgrades and updating the oldest staff devices. It wasn’t until Year 2 that we started to really invest in new devices for staff. My advice to anyone is to fix the infrastructure first before looking at buying in more devices.
How do we fund it?
There’s no easy answer to this one – particularly with the decrease in capital budgets in recent years. It has to be staged over a number of budgets with a plan around which areas of school to impact on first. There are still some Local Authorities where capital loans are available with either zero or very low interest rates which are worth looking at if you can afford the 3 or 5 year commitment to repayment.
The good news is that the cost has come down significantly. When I priced up 60 laptops and our Local Authority Learning Platform in 2012, the cost including storage was around £30,000. This summer, with more cost effective Windows 10 devices and free Office 365, we have been able to achieve the same solution for just over £10,000. With the cloud now our main storage site, we’ve also taken out the cost of on-site servers and the maintenance of these which is a worthwhile saving.
So who gets the devices first?
I’m an advocate for flooding a year group or department at a time rather than sharing out new technologies on a rota. If classes still only get to use devices once or twice a week, there’s no way that daily practice will change so I’d prefer to see a year group where they get access all the time so that children get used to having technology as just another classroom resource like the paint brushes, numicon and pencils. At Simon de Senlis, we started with Years 5 and 6 and then targeted different year groups as and when the budget allowed. One thing I would recommend is to allocate sets to individual classes which works much better in my experience than shared trolleys where there can be more issues around devices not being returned, charged or stored securely – having clear ownership means that children and staff tend to care and look after the kit better.
Which devices should we buy?
We have a variety of different devices across school at Simon de Senlis and part of the rationale for having a ‘mixed-economy’ is so that children can choose the right tool for the job which all run on the common platform of Windows 10 and Office 365. Smaller tablets are used for capturing media, having quick access to content online and for online games and applications whereas notebooks and laptops are more effective when producing writing, creating multi-media content or coding. It’s good to have some more powerful devices in school for more complex working but the vast majority of work carried out is based online and therefore can be achieved without breaking the bank. In my experience, the cheapest rarely offers best value though and our choice has been for mid-range student devices to increase longevity and higher-spec teacher devices to keep the staff productive.
So should we get rid of the IT suite?
If you can afford the space, replacement and maintenance, I think that dedicated suites are still a really valuable resource, particularly for specific curriculum areas such as computing where all children need simultaneous access to programmes or cloud applications. They do offer more stability and reliability than laptops but they don’t change practice in the classroom.
How do we set up our devices… on the server or as stand alone machines?
To avoid the slow startup times that can be associated with a server, we’ve set student devices up as stand alone and then children log into their Office 365 accounts or other cloud applications as and when they need to open, save or edit content. This means that as soon as you switch on the device, you’re online and so get that instant interaction with the web that we now expect and demand. In Windows 10, staff and students are also able to login with their Office 365 IDs which is another great way to have children interact with their documents and online.