I have previously (here) suggested how schools should be looking to develop their technology infrastructure. I have also (here) alluded to how I think students should be using technology to best support their learning.
The big issue we face now in schools is that the cost of staff (not just teachers, but all staff) is running towards 80% of total income in many schools. This position is not going to get better soon (as discussed here). Given that these costs are so high, it falls on the management of the school to ensure that they can get the very best out of their staff. This means making sure that each member of staff is supported in the best way possible to deliver to the school the things they are best at, and which will best benefit the children at the school.
Marc Andreessen has spoken about how technology can give people ‘superpowers’. I suspect that he has his tongue slightly in his cheek when he does this, but there is an element of truth in what he says. However, as previously discussed on this blog schools have been particularly let down when it comes to technology. It has over promised and delivered in sporadic ways.
It is, however, clear to me that technology has the ability to do something every teacher wants, which is to reduce workload. Of course, there are three essential precursors to this.
Firstly, schools have to up their game (and for some this will be akin to a football moving from the Second Division to the Premiership) as regards their technology provision. I’m not talking here about providing iPad for everyone. Just about making the very basics work. In schools where this has been professionalised it works. It works better, and it works cost effectively. For many primaries, working alone, this is going to be very difficult. Not through any lack of professionalism, but purely due to scale.
Secondly, teachers have to recognise that simply reducing workload is not going to happen. There is a load of work. It exists. Rarely would it be possible to just stop doing something. Around the margins perhaps it can be tinkered with, but it will still, in the main, exist (the real danger occurs when politicians start looking at this; they usually come up with a bureaucracy to prove workload is being reduced that actually means more work to provide the evidence that workload is decreasing). So, we can spread that workload out (recognising that sharing work often means an overall increase in effort required) by bringing in more people at a quite high cost. Or, we can do the sensible thing and change the workload by introducing technology to make everything more efficient. This in turn will require two things. It will require a degree of up skilling for some parts of the workforce and, more importantly, it will require elements of compromise to be reached.
Thirdly, the Competition and Markets Authority have to (finally) play hardball with Capita SIMS. Their API must become completely open, transparent and free to use for anyone who wishes to do so. This is an essential if schools are going to be able to take full advantage of modern technology.
And what should schools concentrate on? In one sense this is more about a state of mind than it is looking at specific areas for change (although I will come on to that in my next post, I promise).
I see merit in adopting a small number of key principles:
- Principle 1:- Never do anything twice.
- Principle 2:- Never use paper.
- Principle 3:- Never delegate an admin task.
- Principle 4:- Device and location independence
- Principle 5:- Zero training requirement
- Principle 6:- Secure as needs be
- Principle 7:- KISS
As with any set of principles you should bear in mind what I call the Konigsberg Conclusion – “There’s nothing wrong with having principles you would die for, but you should keep those kind of commitments to a bare minimum.” They are aims, ideals, they are the stars you are aiming for so you hit the moon.
Lets have a look at each one in a bit more detail:
Principle 1:- Never do anything twice
This is obvious. If you collect some information, be it a test grade, a reason for lateness or a great set of lesson plans then once collected they should stay collected and be made easily available to those that need the information, in the form they need it. Principle 1 is our key saver of time and reducer of workload.
Principle 2:- Never use paper
Paper is easy. There is always a piece available to scribble that important note on. Then lose it. Or re-write it somewhere else. Once we make a note on a piece of paper, we have broken Principle 1, kind of a BOGOF. The more we move to a paper-free environment the more likely we will be to be able to keep to Principle 1.
Principle 3:- Never delegate an admin task
A better way to posit this might be to say ensure that using technological means to perform the admin task is quicker than delegating it. Why ask someone to print you list of students when you can get that list delivered to your device (keeping to Principle 2) at the touch of a button. Any task that requires repetition should be a candidate for computerisation.
Principle 4:- Device and location independence
This is pretty clear. Unless there are specific reasons (i.e. mandated by security – but see Principle 6) you should be able to access all information and perform any task using any device in any location. For example, if you are marking a set of books at home and you need a mark scheme and you need to record the marks then this should be possible. No need to remember to take anything with you. Of course, Principle 1 should ensure that much of your marking is done automatically, so that will help as well.
Principle 5:- Zero training requirement
The reason people fail to use computer systems is often because they are too complex. This need not be the case. As far as I am aware no one, outside of Whitehall, has ever required training in how to use Facebook, or Twitter, or Amazon, or how to shop at online at Ocado. These are as complex as any school based system needs to be. Zero training requirement is possible and should be demanded of all systems.
Principle 6:- Secure as needs be
I’ve said before that if someone really wants your data, there is nothing you can do to stop them, short of turning off the system. Some pieces of information need to be more secure than others. Most school-based data requires only the very basic levels to achieve the necessary degree of security from those who might be trying to (incorrectly) access it. This security should be the minimum levels to ensure ease of access for those who are legitimately trying to gain access.
Principle 7:- KISS
Software vendors seem to believe that a system with 50 functions is better than a system with 10 functions. My view is that it is better to get 100% out of 10 functions than 50% out of 20. Increased functionality usually goes hand in hand with increased complexity of use (which starts to impact on Principle 5). And it’s here that the compromises are often required. A good example is that of an online mark book. Tried to do this once at school. Ran up against the desire for every department to have their own marking scale; some wanted 1 to 10, some A-G, some wanted percentages, some wanted descriptors, some a simple pass/fail. All those were possible, but only at a cost to Principle 5, which then impacted on actual usage.
These principles are something to aim for. To test everything we do in schools against. Somethings will be much longer term than others. In the end, this is how technology will most improve learning, by allowing teachers to be as efficient as they can possibly be and spend more time teaching.
The next post in this series will provide some examples of what I think every school should be doing to use technology to reduce workload.