Why every school and college should have a Digital Strategy

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A Blog by Dominic Norrish, Chief Operating Officer, United Learning Trust and Trustee of the Learning Foundation

Why every school and college should have a Digital Strategy

Bold, divisive headlines are taught on day one of Clickbait for Beginners but I’m not sure the above qualifies any more. There is a widespread acceptance of the genuine value of technology in the sector that I’ve not felt in my twenty-odd years of teaching and leadership. Are we about to experience a watershed moment in the use of technology to support teaching and learning in England?

Not without considerable leadership effort, I fear. Acceptance doesn’t organically evolve into effective practice – that’s the first point I will make – but there are very compelling reasons to put in the work to plan a digital strategy for your institution.

 

The utility of having a plan

School and college leaders are experts at planning for improvement, and their institution’s use of digital technology should be no different. But why?

The skills that staff gained through extended bouts of remote learning are not the same skills needed to make effective use of technology for face-to-face teaching, and we shouldn’t expect a natural and effortless translation. School and college leaders need to think hard about what effective classroom use of tech looks like (more of which below) and then deploy their expertise in change management to ensure it takes root in all settings. Without this, at best we’ll see a wide variance in practice within schools and colleges. At worst, a narrow consistency of missed opportunities as teaching reverts to the 2019 status quo ante.

This is the very essence of informed and ambitious leadership – the ability to identify opportunities for improvement and to make them concrete. And that generally takes a plan (the accepted term for which seems to have become ‘digital strategy’) because change is exceptionally difficult to achieve and fragile to sustain.

The undeniable moral imperative

Remote learning laid bare the disparities in advantage between communities, our learners being no exception. The experience of young people lucky enough to attend digitally-mature institutions, with unfettered access to personal devices at home and curated learning tools and content cannot really be compared to what many of their less advantaged peers had to endure (or failed even to engage with). That difference began with the existence or lack of a digital strategy.

These are real-world gains and losses, steps made towards or away from the opportunities presented by the next stage of a good education. And post-pandemic, nothing has really changed: the huge advantage conferred on those with ongoing access to a powerful curriculum beyond the confines of the timetabled day carries on. Technology affords multiple extra hours of learning per week, not only through mere access, but also via intelligent software that is constantly working to support and adapt to learners’ needs. This is one of technology’s maximal gains – it can create the conditions where young people spend more time meaningfully engaged in learning. All schools and colleges should be planning a strategy for achieving this benefit for their pupils and students.

The underpinning evidence
Technology sceptics rightly point to the lack of straight-line evidence between its use and measurably improved outcomes. This is undeniable – the evidence of technology’s impact is as ambivalent as it is for almost everything else that’s been researched. But focusing on empiricism rather misses the point here, which is not that using technology is better than not using it in unhelpfully general terms, but that when intelligently deployed, technology very clearly confers advantages on the processes of teaching and learning. Technology lets real human beings doing real things in classrooms and homes around the country do those things faster, more often, more successfully, with greater insight and to greater depth. It’s hard to construct a credible argument that this is not desirable.

Let’s look at perhaps the most obvious example of this. There is a well understood relationship between a teacher’s ability to explain their expert subject knowledge and their classes’ ability to understand and then learn this knowledge for themselves. In previous eras, this led to the utilization of chalk boards, then dry wipe ones, then large-scale digital projection, each technical innovation a notable empowerment of the teacher, a ratchetting up of their ability to explain complex things well.

Today, it is possible to go a step further. That large-scale digital projection is now driven by a tablet in the teacher’s hands. They use a stylus to digitally ink the screen, annotating a diagram as they verbally explain a concept, perhaps. They do this from wherever in the room they deem most beneficial (including never having to turn their back on the class to write). Their annotations and voice are being captured as they teach and, once the lesson is over, automatically distributed to their class, for multiple repeat viewings if required, possibly at the suggestion of the assessment software that is monitoring how well this knowledge has been acquired.

This is ‘teacher clarity’ with the volume turned up to 11. It’s a good illustration of how beginning with the processes of teaching and learning and only then layering on technology that unambiguously brings additional value is the secret behind every digital strategy that was ever worthy of the name. I can understand the sceptics, truly I can, because we’ve historically gone about things from the opposite direction, staring down the wrong end of the telescope and attempting to create problems that the latest bit of technology might solve.

To ‘teacher clarity’ you could add many other processes which we are confident lead to improved outcomes – ‘rapid developmental feedback’ and ‘time spent writing’ being just two. School and college leaders are best positioned to do the work of thinking these opportunities through, thinking out which ones their technology can best support, and planning out a strategy for change, so that individual teachers aren’t left to make what they can of this complex domain.

 

The unprecedented opportunity

With all of the above in mind, the conditions for change have rarely been better. The iron, as the saying goes, is definitely hot.

As mentioned, the workforce acquired technical skills with astonishing speed in the past 18 months, doing whatever was needed to ensure that they were able to keep serving their pupils and students. Necessity, previously well-known as ‘the mother of invention’, is now also recognised as ‘the IT-savvy aunt of rapid professional development’.

Hand-in-hand with skills came confidence, and with confidence came experimentation, adaption and innovation. And the realization that technology isn’t a separate intervention, something that we stop ‘teaching’ in order to use. It is, as it always has been, an interwoven strand of effective practice, something that teachers have always used to make themselves more effective. I include in this the at-one-time disruptive technologies of chalk, Banda machine and overhead projector that characterized my mercurial NQT year. Useful as they were, there are better technologies available now and many teachers have been selectively exploiting them ever since.

There isn’t an educational professional in the land who hasn’t during 2020-21 seen with their own eyes the power of suitable technology well-matched to an educational challenge, and as a result the workforce is alive to the opportunity – not just the risk – that digital can bring to their practice. School and college leaders with a credible digital strategy that’s demonstrably tied to enhanced teaching and learning processes will be pushing at an open door, perhaps for the first time.

 

So, where should school leaders start?

Put simply, with these questions:

  • How can technology support the things that we know make for effective teaching? Do we have access to those technologies already?
  • How can it afford ongoing access to our curriculum once lessons are over? Can we scaffold that access further with supportive software tools for learners? Where are the gaps?

Happily, there’s no need for each set of leaders to navigate the complex task of fitting tech to their unique context entirely on their own (though it must be a process that is entirely locally owned.)

The Department for Education has funded a second year of its popular ‘EdTech Demonstrator Programme’, allowing schools and colleges in England to access up to 30 hours of support over the coming months, delivered by peers in similar institutions with deep experience in just this kind of change. You can choose to work with colleagues in your region, or from any one of 40 schools, colleges and Multi Academy Trusts around the country. And best of all, though this support is worth thousands… it’s completely free.

Learn more, and decide which delivery partner would most effectively support your digital strategizing, at the programme’s website: https://edtechdemo.ucst.uk/

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