People not technology

Getting full adoption of ICT in schools to obtain the startling improvements that are possible is a people problem, not a technology problem. But the drive from the UK government and Becta has been focused on the technology. What matters is when teachers and pupils irreversibly change their work processes to become more effective. Achieving this requires addressing human imperatives, not technology or education imperatives.

Learning to use computers takes effort. They can be frustrating and annoying and the software keeps changing. Just as with any technology there are early adopters who are excited by what computers are and the ideas of what they can enable, but for the majority there has to be a strong imperative to use them. The imperatives for ICT in education have not so far been made clear. The early adopters have assumed that the majority will naturally perceive the imperatives as soon as they start using computers in their work. But that misses the point; the majority of people resist change unless it is forced upon them or the benefits of changed practices are abundantly clear in the first few minutes of trying. They won’t on their won persevere long enough to grasp the imperatives.

In the fairly early days of the BBC Computer a piece of software appeared that could convince teachers that the computer had a future somewhere in their lives - Wordwise. Though Wordwise was not easy to use for anything beyond straightforward typing, in that it beat the typewriter hands-down. The bit of magic was the delete key!

But though offices could force their employees to switch from typewriters to computers and could provide the necessary infrastructure of printers and soon networks, because words and documents were their main task, this did not happen in schools. Typed documents are not the main task of schools, so this wasn’t a strong enough imperative to cause change in work processes. Most schools have finally got to the point of widespread use of word-processing for office tasks - but not for the main task of schools, pupils’ learning.

Through the various sections of these writings I am trying to unpick the imperatives for ICT in different aspects of education and learning, but let’s talk about whole-school adoption of ICT. It’s really hard for an individual teacher to use ICT effectively if the school as a whole does not espouse it.

There is of course a pre-condition. For all teachers to use ICT the computers have to be available, networked to enable access to resources and communication, and always working. But if the Head of a school understands the imperative this can be arranged, even in small schools with small budgets.

We’ve been through a rather confusing period in the last 5 years, because the main promotional focus for ICT in education in the UK has been learning platforms. Confusing, because Becta’s approach did little to point out that there are different imperatives for primary and secondary schools. The approach also suggested to teachers that they should change their teaching to use virtual learning environments, with work set online and students using independent learning software packages. Small wonder the majority of teachers were not interested. Slowly, where there have been interested school leaders and groups of teachers keen on ICT, good usage of ICT has developed in some schools - but still very much the minority.

So what are the imperatives?

I put it to all secondary school headteachers that it is managerially stupid not to get all teachers and admin staff using computers - not for teaching and learning reasons, but because the organisational complexity of secondary schools demands it. Just in eliminating paper for school notices, cover notices, school handbooks etc and the time taken to handle all this paper, a secondary school can save upwards of £10,000 annually. Then there is the much enhanced communication with email. And the time teachers save on admin tasks. Then some more innovative things become possible, such as engaging the middle managers in creating the school’s self evaluation form.

Best of all, the teachers and admin staff get early pay-back through all sorts of small things becoming easier. When it is necessary to get a late notice into the next week’s school notices, instead of having to persuade an admin assistant to re-print and re-distribute the notices she has just done, and stay a bit late on a Friday, there is a happy admin assistant only too willing to help. Her weekly photocopying and notice distribution task as become creation of a PDF doc that is uploaded to the school’s platform in seconds. It is so easy to be helpful by taking only a few minutes to add the late notice and re-upload. Notice the increased happiness of both the people involved in this little scenario.

Then with all staff starting to use the school’s online platform, it becomes a lot easier to propose that it should also host information for the students. In 2005 for a study on an early learning platform I visited a school in London. Esmond, the teacher I had gone to visit, delightedly told me of how easy it had become to deal with pupils who had lost the information for the Geography field trip or any other of the pieces of paper distributed in form time. “Have you looked on the platform and printed another copy?”. What really impressed Esmond was the student’s reaction and the realisation that actually it was her job to deal with things like this, not the teacher’s job. We discussed how apparently tiny little happenings such as this had led to the students taking more responsibility for their learning. They didn’t expect him any more to provide handouts to support their homework, they had internalised that they should go and look on the learning platform to see what support might be available to help them with their homework.

We now have a small but critical mass of secondary schools using their online platforms for organisational and information reasons, that have become ‘transformation ready’. And the teachers, used to logging on regularly, are now noticing the functionality and opportunities to enhance their teaching and students’ learning.

So how about primary schools? What is the imperative for them to adopt ICT for all?

The above scenario is relevant to yr 6 pupils getting ready to move to secondary school, but not so relevant to the teachers of younger pupils and the pupils themselves.

I don’t believe that a really strong imperative to use ICT in primary schools is properly visible yet. It is happening in some schools but not yet in a critical mass of schools and visible in the school down the road. There is plenty of ‘nice-to-have’ usage but this is insufficient to convince those schools that so far don’t ‘get it’.

This is a guess, but I think a really strong imperative for primary schools to use online platforms is about to happen. A key effect of ICT in primary schools is to make student’s work much more visible and usable for assessment for learning. With a visualiser all kinds of concrete work can be digitised and displayed in class galleries. Pupils can be encouraged to talk about their work, recorded as MP3 files that the teacher can listen to and discuss with them. It also becomes a lot more possible for the teachers to compare work between classes and to understand what to look for to assess pupils progress. Pupils can more easily see each other’s work and be stimulated by it.

But I think this imperative is really going to kick-in when the online platform is used to engage parents and family. The majority of families can now access the Internet, so if the school has organised to enable easy uploading of children’s work it can be seen and applauded by parents. When their excitement at having seen the work comes back to the school gates and to meetings between teachers and parents, and when the teachers hear from the children what Mummy and Daddy said about their work, that will be the imperative.

When ICT makes people happy and fulfilled, then its worthwhile and will be used.