If you can’t accept the premise, get out of the server room…

Accept, even if only for the time you are reading this post, the following premise: – Technology can be beneficial in education. It may be in making a school more efficient, it may be in improving learning outcomes. How it is beneficial is not for the purposes of this post important. Just for the moment accept the premise. Also, there are no blinding insights in here that any intelligent person won’t already have thought of themselves. I’ve written this largely to put some of my own thinking in one place.

If we accept that technology can be beneficial in education we are left with a key question. How do we maximise its use in schools?

Here’s a few ideas (in no particular order):-

Start planning on 5 and 10 year horizons. 5 years for end user technology and 10 years for infrastructure. There are many reasons for this (training programs, software dev cycles) but of primary importance is the ability to properly fund developments over this timescale. The implementation of decent infrastructure is a ten year cost and should be budgeted as such. This is where we have to have the only statutory change to enable everything else. Schools need to be able to borrow in order to properly fund their IT developments, either commercially or preferably through internal Treasury facilities. Other than doing this, Government just needs to get out of the way, and schools need to stop waiting for government to get in the way.

Whatever you have planned as your internet bandwidth, multiply it by ten. Then build in redundancy on top of that. The internet is not going away. Au contraire, it’s going to be coming at you faster and faster. This is not a suggestion that all learners are 21st Century Learners, or they’re all digital natives, its just a statement of the bleeding obvious. Open your eyes and look around you. Market forces are driving everything online. Don’t think learning (and the resources we traditionally associate with it) will be immune.

You can’t afford to provide all the devices. Actually, that’s not true. You can’t afford to buy all the devices, install decent infrastructure AND employ the same number of teachers you do now. You are not getting (in real terms) any more money FOR A LONG, LONG TIME.  You need devices to manage the school (including devices for all teachers) and some core devices for any curricular ‘heavy lifting’. Otherwise it’s BYOD time. There will come a time when it will be necessary for all students to have a device in front of them in order to access the curriculum. This can be done in many ways, but I suspect that the BYOD model will win out. In the meantime I would strongly advise schools to start off as soon as they can with a BYODIYWT policy. That’s Bring Your Own Device If You Want To. Stop banning, start managing. I understand that this will not be popular advice. I can understand the objections. BOYD will bring enormous challenges to schools so the sooner you start thinking about those problems in your context the better.

Another statement of the obvious. The future is in the cloud. Tear up those stupid DP tick lists and get used to the fact your data will be in the cloud. I know you want it to be secure. I want it to be secure. But look, here’s the reality. If someone really wants your data, there is nothing you can do to stop them. You can undertake best endeavours. You can encrypt you data on upload and storage. You can make it hard for people to accidentally access it and sees things they shouldn’t see. The reality is that schools hold no data that require the military grade DP measure that have traditionally been suggested. So, everything in the cloud, with broadband redundancy (which means multiple suppliers using different physical routes for critical services). This also means no server rooms and consequently a different kind of IT Support.

A different approach to buying and using software is required on top of this. Software should be bought as a service. You should pay for what you use, nothing more. You must monitor what you do use and stop paying for things that don’t get used. Sounds obvious, but you’ll be surprised just how many unused pieces of software there are out there.

You will need to take training more seriously. The operation of your school will become more and more reliant on the systems you use. Staff should be properly trained to use them. This issue will be eased as the user-experience on the systems gets better but don’t under-estimate the time that will need to be given to this. Lack of training reduces efficiency and effectiveness.

A big change to get your head around is that whilst key networking infrastructure will continue to be a capital cost, most everything else will move to a revenue model. It may even be that as (most) everything moves to wireless providers will also facilitate the movement of infrastructure costs to revenue. This will require schools to have a very good understanding of their usage in order to avoid being burnt badly by unexpected costs (as with photocopying in the past).

So what will all this technology be doing? The answer to that question is that we don’t really know yet.

Er, hang on a minute Mike. You’ve just had us spend all this money moving everything to the cloud and you don’t know what we’ll be doing with it?

The answer is “Not exactly”. Broadly I can list a number of things that we will be doing with technology in the next 10 to 20 years,  and a number of things that we won’t.

First, the things we will be doing:

Operational things. The MIS will improve and all the behaviour management etc stuff that people tend to have to bolt on will be done fairly seamlessly. As we develop better ways to assess progress this data will be available. The availability of the device will promote the development of additional information about their students to be delivered to teachers. All this will be delivered easily to a local device in real time. Developed and implemented properly this should enable back room costs to be reduced as data entry is direct by the teacher.

There will be more testing online. I don’t mean KS3 Online Testing sort of testing. I mean VLE style testing for daily/weekly/termly use in the classroom. Self-marking stuff, including simple self-marking essay style questions. Why would’t a teacher want to give out homework they didn’t have to mark that provided information to feedback into the next lesson. The reason it hasn’t happen the extent it already should have is largely due to the usability barriers that many VLEs have put in the way. Newer, more open, single function systems will facilitate this. Many (groups of) schools will develop their own bespoke systems. Again, all this info will be delivered real-time to the teacher.

Textbooks will go online, or they will be replaced by teacher generated e-books. Because “market forces”. Sorry. No way around this one. A teacher will either have a class set of tablets to hand out or there will be an appropriate BOYD policy. Schools will develop and curate their own library of digital resources, or use one that has been created by another school. There are many public platforms to facilitate this. Formal or informal groups of schools will have a (cost) advantage in this area.

We will be doing more blended learning. Hopefully we will be doing it because it is effective rather than because we can use it to get rid of the need for having so many teachers. This is not flipped learning or machine child-minding, but short-burst independent working using adaptive (or teacher adapted) systems. There is sufficient evident for the efficacy of such approaches.

[Goes out on a limb] At the end of the first 10 years horizon the technology will be sufficiently advanced (and affordable) to enable students to move from writing in exercise books to writing direct into a device, with the resulting digital artefact easily sharable with (and markable by) their teachers. In my opinion this will mark the point that a quantum leap in the beneficial use of technology can occur.

And things we won’t be doing:

There will be some move to online testing (or other assessment) for some qualifications but generally speaking this will not happen for most mainstream qualifications. Because “politics”.  I do not expect this to change in my lifetime. This is not to say that there is not the possibility that hand-written scripts will not be digitalised at source (see last point above) in some way and some elements will be machine marked.

Getting rid of teachers. Why? Because having the person in the room who knows the stuff that the the other people in the room need to know has proved to be remarkably effective over the years. Technology can enhance that, not replace it. This doesn’t mean some won’t try to do this.

We won’t be working in 3D, online virtual worlds. We won’t be delivering large parts of the curriculum through gaming. This is not to say that the ubiquity of the technology will not enable a certain level of gamification of education, where it is beneficial.

Generally speaking, we’ll be doing most of the same things as we do now but using technology to do them more efficiently. No magic bullets. No wonderful new techno-pedagogy. Just good old fashioned teaching.

Thank you for accepting the premise. If you don’t, that’s ok, because most of the above will happen anyway. Why? Simple really. Market forces will drive most of the changes. I don’t mean that schools will become profit making and so be driven by the need to make money. I mean that many of the services used by schools will themselves be driven by the markets they work in to be delivered online. Services to schools are a sideline to many of these businesses so don’t expect them to operate differently.

Also schools will be driven, by the need to save money, to look at how they deliver the curriculum efficiently.

Technology will answer some of those issues.


7 thoughts on “If you can’t accept the premise, get out of the server room…

  1. Interesting points and well made.

    Just a minor point in your 10 year horizon. You said:

    At the end of the first 10 years horizon the technology will be sufficiently advanced (and affordable) to enable students to move from writing in exercise books to writing direct into a device, with the resulting digital artefact easily sharable with (and markable by) their teachers. In my opinion this will mark the point that a quantum leap in the beneficial use of technology can occur.

    I’m really sorry to say it…but this has already been in place since 2007 and is currently being used by 30m students around the world!

    I add formative feedback directly on students work every day which they can see as I am typing it and they can respond to.It’s free. It works on any device (including Chromebooks, less than £120 for a new laptop now, Android, iPad, Desktop). I’ll be honest here, I’m kind of shocked you don’t already know it does this!

    It’s called Google Apps for Education…

      1. Hey! I really enjoyed your article and agreed with 90% of it. So I’m happy to read more 🙂

        It wasn’t clear you were talking about handwriting – sorry!

        I think handwriting will go the way of the analogue camera. A lovely thing to know how to use, there will always be enthusiasts and experts, and you can produce better quality results if you really know what you are doing but this is expensive, cumbersome and slow technology – both handwriting and analogue cameras. Wonderful in their place and in the hands of an expert but not really fit for the 21st century way of life and needs.

      2. Apologies for the very brief replies yesterday – I was travelling so only had intermittent access via a phone.

        The installed base of handwriting machines is so huge that as in input device it is not going away. Transcription speeds for handwriting and typing are fairly similar (for non-touch typists) and hand input enables many other capabilities to be unlocked. Mathematical formula entry by keyboard, whilst possible, is laborious and is therefore not done. Illustrators almost always work with some form of stylus and tablet input device, as do most film editors. It does make sense therefore that when it is possible to bring these inout forms together with text input into one device then it will be hand input via a stylus. On this issue, Jobs was wrong!

        The comparison with the camera is interesting but not entirely accurate. The main change theta the digital camera bought about is in how the “back-office” issues were dealt with. The functionality of the camera has stayed mainly the same, just the means of the getting the end result into the hands of the user has changed.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    On the issue of BYOD, the whole point is not to fetishise hardware – I don’t know, nor do I care, what hardware will be used. And i don’t know that because I don’t really know what it will be used for.

    On the market, the issue is simply, with e-books for example, not that schools will have to make a choice, but that they will have no choice. There won’t be books.

  3. Thanks Mike, really interesting post.

    In your first point, are you asking us to accept that technology *has* been beneficial in education (either in general or in specific cases), or that it has the *potential* to be beneficial? I would willingly accept the second, but the first only to participate in your thought experiment.

    I don’t dispute your advice on BYOD as a matter of resourcing, and I welcome your recognition that this advice may be contentious and bring with it some management issues.

    But I do question the significance of the BYOD issue as a game-changer, for two reasons.

    1. It is generally acknowledged that we have focused too much on the hardware – and yet BYOD (if you advocate it as an answer to a resourcing problem) continues this hardware fetish. In my view, what is missing is the educaton-specific software. As the purpose of any hardware is only to run the software, then BYOD is not going to make a huge difference if you don’t have the right software to run. I do not accept that hardware + generic software + “21st century skills” answers the problem – but that is another discussion.

    2. My hunch is that the ever-falling cost of hardware means that the cost of handling the management issues that BYOD raises are likely to be more than the cost of providing cheap and perfectly acceptable devices, that will live in racks alongside the coloured pencils.

    So I don’t have strong views on BYOD, other than to say that I don’t think it is the key lever for change.

    I agree with you on cloud and avoiding “military grade DP”. But we do need some, well understood DP standards, which should be seen as an enabler of the free flow of data between different trusted cloud services, and not a restriction on it. A major cause of the failure to pick up the child grooming rings in Birmingham lay with the paranoia of police and social services about sharing data. I see similar concerns becoming a major inhibitor in education as well.

    While I agree with you on training and the cost of unused resources, I think there is an inverse relationship between ease-of-use, built into the user interface, and the need for training. The consumerisation of technology is taking us towards the ease-of-use option. You might answer that it is one thing to show people how to use software technically, quite another how to integrate it into their pedagogical practice. I would answer that with the education-specific software that we need but do not yet have, this pedagogical aspect will also be increasingly automated and encapsulated in the software. Consumerisation goes hand-in-hand with the development of increasingly high-level, requirement-specific software – which comes back to my argument about education-specific software.

    You write:

    “So what will all this technology be doing? The answer to that question is that we don’t really know yet.”

    I think this is the pivotal point of your post which needs to be written in 10-foot-high letters somewhere. And it underlines the folly of top-down initiatives, including much training, which pretends that those in power *do* know how this is going to be done and are the ones to take us there. The role of the government – and it is vital that ETAG understands this point – is to enable innovation to occur and not, as Becta tried to do, to steer the market. It is the same point that I made in the final slide of “What do we mean by content?” at http://edtechnow.net/2012/04/03/what-do-we-mean-by-content/.

    I agree with you on the importance of testing and would go a little further in the same direction in which you are headed by saying that there will be less and less distinction between teaching and assessment, which was always an articifical one. Assessment is just practice that is monitored, activity and practice lies at the heart of teaching and learning, and given that the student is practicing, why would the teacher not want to monitor their progress? Formative assessment lies at the heart of good instruction and there is no really substantive difference between formative and summative assessment, except for their position in a programme of study.

    My problem with e-books is the book metaphor generally is that it suggests a rather expositive sort of content – what ed-tech has suffered from over the last 15 years, as I point out in my article referenced above. My problem with teacher-generated ebooks is that teachers do not have the resources to generate the interactive, instructional software that we need but don’t have. But I agree with where you go with this, which is that the teacher’s role will be to adapt, contextualise and sequence information and interactive software – more of an exercise in control-and-curate rather than generate-from-scratch.

    I agree with your section on things we won’t be doing (which are often prominent on the wish-list of those trying to dictate where we should be going over the next ten years).

    But I am not sure that I agree with you that this will happen anyway because of market forces. Because the market for formal education, not just in the UK but all around the world, is highly uncompetitive because of bureaucratic control. And it is exactly this sort of bureaucratic control that the FELTAG report proposed to strengthen – thankfully, to no effect. The government must make a conscious effort to do the opposite – to set up a pseudo market that will allow innovators and teachers to take the technology where they will.

    That is why I disagree with you that there is no place for ETAG. But instead of coming up with long wish-lists for new regulations and new government-driven funding streams, what ETAG needs to do is to recommend how government can, in your own words, “get out of the server room” and create the free spaces in which innovation can occur.

    You may argue that market forces will drive education through the market for informal learning – but the requirement in this space is very different from the requirement of formal education (more about acquiring information than developing capability) and I am not alone in being sceptical that techniques being deployed by MOOCs, that might have a place in adult education, will ever hack it at school or HE.

    10 years isn’t long. Most of us have been in this game long enough to see the decades rush by with virtually no significant progress being made. Which is why I think it is really important that ETAG gets it right.

    Thanks for hosting my long comment!

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