Teaching & Technology: where to begin?

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Technology is at the heart of the educational reform. And as programmes such as Building Schools for the Future (BSF) make the move from theory to practice, to bring together significant investment in buildings and Information and Communications Technology, there’s no doubt that for teachers, administrators and IT managers alike change is far-reaching and inevitable. However, although valuable lessons may be learned from best practices around the world, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for the rate and scale of adopting technology in the education sector.  Understanding the broader implications of curricular, administrative, financial and social dimensions of using technology in education is key to determining the optimal level of this integration.  Andy Barnes Director of technology at Bryanston School looks at the key considerations and competencies needed to make a successful start.

From infrastructure to curricula, teaching methods to multimedia resources, change has come in many forms across the education system. However, despite having several concerns and conundrums in common when it comes to adapting to this change, every educational institution in the UK will also face its own unique challenges, depending on a variety of factors. Addressing these challenges head on, and finding a suitable solution, will require careful planning and committed support from all parties involved, be they teachers, administrators or IT managers.

Begin at the beginning
Schools and universities may differ when it comes to size and remit, but the key elements to consider when formulating an ICT plan remain constant:

  • Establish where you are now - the first step is always to take stock of the current system and examine what drivers and barriers to ICT adoption exist within the organisation. From hardware and software to operational practices and even basic infrastructure and utilities, analysis of current systems will help to identify not only where changes can and should be implemented, but also what resources are available to facilitate the process, as well as sticking points that could cause bottlenecks
  • Apply goals and context – an understanding of and an objective for each kind of ICT deployed is vital to making the right choices, so it’s important that decision-makers know (or learn!) what technology is available, what it can do, what it needs to achieve and how success will be measured
  • Find the funding – ICT is a highly valuable asset but requires ongoing investment to remain useful and productive. Securing the budget to make initial purchases can be challenging, however, it’s almost equally important to factor in long-term requirements such as regular maintenance if productivity is to be ongoing or indeed incremental.
  • Test the waters - even the best designed models or those that have already been proven to work in other contexts need to be tested on a small scale. Trying a pilot project in just one area can be a valuable safety net to help identify and correct potential glitches in design, usability and effectiveness ahead of a full-scale deployment

In addition to these, perhaps the most vital ingredient to successfully implementing any ICT system is having the appropriate competencies and skill sets across all those involved in using it and the education sector is no different. While the teachers, who have to integrate new technologies into their methods, will be at the coalface of managing the change, administrators and IT managers will be equally responsible for providing the appropriate knowledge and support for a smooth transition to these new systems. 

Who knows what
For teachers, the need for skills with specific applications and technologies that will be used directly in the classroom goes without saying, both in terms of using the tools to teach as well as teaching the tools themselves. Similarly the need for broader understanding how technologies can be incorporated into or, in some cases, replace traditional curriculum elements, teaching methods and educational theories is essential. What may be harder to define is how the teaching role itself changes accordingly,

For many teachers, who may not enjoy the same familiarity or ease of use with technology that their students possess, this transition into the unknown can be a harrowing experience and certainly one that could knock their confidence or position of authority within the classroom environment. As the education process becomes increasingly learner-centric, the roles of teachers, and what knowledge they are perceived to bring to the metaphorical table, has undergone a significant transformation, flattening the once wholly hierarchical nature of the classroom. Staying relevant to their audience in an increasingly dynamic educational environment means teachers now require ongoing upgrades to their knowledge and skill base; an investment in time, effort and , sometimes, money that can act as a deterrent to entering or staying in the profession.

Another potential point of anxiety, and one that is a fairly common in situations where large-scale changes are implemented, is the concern whether the new systems and technologies may in fact replace individuals completely. For teachers, the rise in online and multimedia resources that can provide instruction, metrics for success and evaluation, with a minimal amount of regular human involvement could be thought to represent a significant threat. That said, as with any technology, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective of what the system’s limitations are – in the case of education, students’ sociological and non-academic development is just as important as scholastic performance, so it seems unlikely that technologies will ever fully replace the lessons that are learned through human interaction. For teachers to develop and maintain this sense of perspective, support and confidence has to come from the administrative level down.

Indeed, for educational administrators the key competency they will require is likely to be leadership rather than technical expertise. No ICT system, regardless of scale or capability, can reasonably hope to succeed without clear objectives and a holistic view of all the factors involved in achieving success. While knowledge of ICT in its more technical sense will always be valuable for decision-making purposes, the main skill required is an understanding of the broader implications of these systems, including the curricular, administrative, financial and social dimensions of using technology in education.

However, ICT cannot succeed on intentions alone; ensuring that the institution has the technical support competencies to get, and keep, systems up and running is a crucial back-office requirement. Just as downtime costs time and money in business situations, disruptions in technology can have similarly debilitating effects on the continuity of students’ learning. From hardware and software, to network administration and security, technical support is vital for not only the installation and daily operation phases but also the longer-term maintenance needed. Specific technical support requirements will vary according to institutions’ individual solutions and the supply of this support, be it internally resourced or outsourced externally, will be similarly varied but the need for it is undeniable.

Another critical area that is often overlooked – or perhaps not even counted as part of a technical ICT deployment – is the development of relevant content. From interactive classroom materials to web-only courses, the functionality and design of these tools will play a large role in how students receive them and, more importantly, what they will learn from them; so the specialist skills needed to source and develop appropriate content should not be underestimated. Whether teachers and administrators choose to develop their own resources or work with external developers, the quality of the tools they use, and how the students respond to them, will be the real test of how successful the use of technology within the institution has been.

Above all, the overarching factor to bear in mind will be the relationship between technology and education and which one drives the other. Technology is undoubtedly an undeniable force in shaping the future of education but it cannot dominate the educational agenda simply for its own sake. Possibly the hardest challenge will be using technology in education to mirror the sociological and economic direction of the country as a whole, without simply turning into a ‘me-too’ situation.

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