If this sounds familiar then your school is probably missing one of the key ingredients of an effective digital school.
Successful digital schools don’t materialise spontaneously after purchasing devices or infrastructure. This would be similar to hoping your country successfully ran an Olympic Games after it won the bid to do so. Planning, strategy, implementation and execution are critical. For this reason, we have sought to provide a basic list of nine key ingredients that you would find in a successful digital school.
We have designed the list in a sequence from most critical to critical. All ingredients in a meal are important but the sequence in which ingredients are combined impacts significantly on the quality of a dish. Therefore, you can read this list as a kind of procedure or recipe for digital integration. We are optimistic, however, that the list might be used to start conversations between leadership, technical teams and teachers in their ongoing quest to review and improve learning and teaching with digital technologies.
1. A shared vision.
A school must have a clear vision for learning and teaching with digital technologies. This vision should be developed, shared and owned by teachers, students, school leaders and parents as all are affected by it. A 1:1 school program, for example, is likely to become a hassle to manage at home, if parents don’t understand the school’s vision and its limitations.
Therefore, a school’s ICT vision should explain why it wants to incorporate digital technologies in teaching, learning and administration and how that vision better enables curriculum delivery. Having a vision is absolutely critical to the successful implementation of ICTs at your school because the vision will guide and impact significantly on strategic planning, purchasing, teaching and learning.
For example, knowing you want students to access the internet from anywhere on campus will make wireless networking and mobile devices a priority for your school. Does your school have a vision for learning and teaching with ICTs?
2. Strategy, change and guiding principles
a. In addition to a vision, schools need a strategy to guide ICT decision making. A strategy is a practical roadmap to achieve the vision. For example, if your vision was to provide a 21st century integrated digital curriculum, your strategy might require teaching professional learning development in that area. Strategy should be informed by a set of guiding principles. Guiding principles provide a decision making framework without compromising a school’s ability to change and adapt.
Guiding principles are distinct from rigid policies. A guiding principle could simply say: “when selecting software, the school will preference open source solutions over paid solutions where the functionality or outcome is similar”. What guiding principles does your school use to shape its ICT decisions?
b. A key part of your strategy must include change management. Have you ever tried to get your kids to take off their shoes before entering your home or start a new exercise regime? Tough, isn’t it. This is because established behaviours (habits) are difficult to change. And it turns out that teaching practices and routines are strongly habitual and therefore difficult to shift.
Leadership cannot buy devices and infrastructure and hope for the best. They need to think critically about how they are going to change teaching habits. Many teaching practices, that are now habits, were formed in a paper-centred, non-digital world. The challenge for schools is to address this. What is your school’s strategy for changing teaching practices to align with the digital age?
c. Creating a digital strategy cannot be an academic pursuit. The school leadership must constantly promote and sell the strategy. Schools often underestimate the stakeholders in their digital strategy. Make all of your staff, students, parents, board and governing body understand where you are heading, the benefits it will deliver, and the level of effort required to get there. Strong communication will engage your stakeholders and build a sense of urgency.
3. Network architecture
It’s a no brainer, students need to connect to the internet quickly and share digital content efficiently. In the connected age, the network is the most critical digital technology at your school. Wireless networking is the only access type that schools should consider. In the last decade, network teams used to focus on coverage – can I get a signal? But an effective digital school network needs to consider:
Density – how many people are there in any given area?
Throughput – how much data do they need to move?
Application set – how do they want to use it?
Never make assumptions about your wireless network. Like traffic flow in your city, it constantly changes and rarely makes any sense when you get stuck in a jam. This is why you need to monitor your wireless network in real time and regularly re-test it to ensure it meets your school’s expectations.
To provide an effective environment for learning online, you are going to need a fast internet connection. What is fast? Bandwidth requirements vary with the number of devices and the maturity of your digital curriculum, but experts (such as SEDTA and US President Barack Obama’s ConnectED Initiative) believe that 100MB per 1000 users is a good starting point. As learning goes increasingly online, this target should grow to 1GB per 1000 users.
These are baseline targets, so those schools wanting to lead the digital revolution will want to be ahead. Falling behind on access to the internet is going to impact many areas of education, from online testing to data storage. If you haven’t done so already, move networking from the wish list to the critical list.
4. ICT policies and guidelines
Because you are giving your students access to the best and worst that has been thought and done, you must provide clear guidance on how students should access and upload information. A common error is to focus only on negative behaviours. For example, “The use of personal mobile phones is banned on the school campus”.
Instead of stipulating every possible misdemeanour and the associated punishment, develop guidelines on acceptable use that model positive behaviours (the “acceptable” part of Acceptable Use policies). Ensure you involve students, parents and staff in the creation of ICT policies.
5. ICT technical support resources
Effective digital teachers and effective digital learners must be confident in their technology and confident that they can find quick solutions to problems. Effective technical support is the best way to achieve this. Match your level of support to your requirements and explore your options. Dedicated on-site resources are great, but they are expensive and can reduce the agility of your environment. Engage vendors that support their products and outsource to experts when needed.
A small investment in student and staff capability can build a strong peer-to-peer support team. Once again, make sure you communicate clearly the level of support users can expect and how they can access it.
6. A digital learning space
You need a location to store and share your digital content. A digital learning space should be driven by the approach to digital learning at your school. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to digital learning spaces any more than there is to physical learning spaces.
You can choose a K-12 specific product (eg. iScholaris) or use general purpose solutions (eg. Office 365). You should ensure that your digital learning space can evolve with the school. Whichever path you choose, it’s important to consider these functions:
Distribution – how to get content to your users.
Collection – how to get content from your users.
Storage – how will users store the content they generate?
Assessment – how will you assess students, especially consider formative assessment.
Collaboration – how to share activities between users.
Accessibility – how to access your learning space, from where with what device.
7. 1:1 access
The target of any digital strategy must be a device for every student. Yes, some pair or group work on single devices works well but sharing and accessing content requires a 1:1 context. This is because it’s difficult to share the digital content students have created without basic services like email and the option of taking a device home or accessing material in the cloud.
Which device you choose is not that important – do all students need a 17” laptop capable of rendering complex 3D models? Fundamentally, students require a device that connects to the internet, runs contemporary apps and includes enough performance that it does not impede learning. It is more important to consider how devices will integrate with your digital learning space than worrying about performance.
8. Applications, software and instructional toolsets
Once you are set up to work digitally, your school will need to procure a set of applications. Of course you’ll need a Student Information System but what about apps that enhance learning? Because there are thousands of new apps each month, our recommendation is to start with developing teacher capability in at least 12 foundational apps for learning.
These apps themselves should align to the key ICT capabilities in your curriculum. In Australia, you’ll needs apps for creation, investigation, communication, ethical use and managing ICTs. As you build your staff ICT capability, it makes sense to have all teachers using the same application for the same type of task. This makes skillset development across the school scalable, enables peer-to-peer support and increases the reusability of your content.
9. Professional learning
As you establish an effective ICT environment, your school needs to consider how it will make effective use of its new technology. For this reason, you need a professional learning plan to upskill teachers. First, in consultation with teachers, leadership should identify the key skills and technologies necessary for teachers at your school.
These should be linked to the general capabilities specified in the curriculum, eg. collaboration, creativity and ethical use. Second, the school should audit teacher practice in relation to these key skills, identify areas for growth, and provide a professional learning program to upskill teachers.
All leaders should attend professional learning as actions modelled by leadership are also indexed as important to staff. Professional learning can be provided in-house, through integrators, and externally, through consultants. If you choose an in-house option, you will need to appoint staff to professional learning roles.
These roles should be incentivised with additional time or money. This could end up being an expensive option, as staff may not spend every day or week providing professional development. A second option is to employ consultants for short periods of time to complement your integrators.
The consultants should be made accountable to particular projects and deliverable outcomes.
So, how’d your school go? What ingredients does it have? What are missing? How might this list start a conversation around ICT use at your school? Whatever the case, if you make sure you are using digital technologies to improve learning outcomes you are heading in the right direction.