What every school needs from a digital strategy —Supporting teaching, learning and an all-round education

Last September (2013) I started my new role as Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School. My brief is the school’s digital strategy. Now, I’m not the first to be appointed to lead a school’s digital strategy – there have been Directors of E-Learning or Directors of ICT elsewhere for some years, but I am one of the first to be appointed directly to the Senior Leadership Team with the specific purpose of devising and implementing a digital strategy to support teaching and learning. And I won’t be the last. Here’s why.

Technology supports teaching

Research shows that lessons are most effective when they are structured thus:

  • An initial review of prior knowledge
  • A formal presentation
  • Guided practice
  • Initial feedback
  • Independent practice
  • A follow-up review

All of these aspects of a lesson can be supported by technology. From this perspective, a good digital strategy ought to take into account how lessons are most effective and put in place the means and support to enable teachers to use technology in such a way that the quality of teaching and learning in their lessons is improved by the use of technology, when it is possible and appropriate.

There is a great variety of tools that claim to support teaching and learning, some of which are more effective than others. Too often, teachers are presented with tools that portray technology as a spell-binding elixir or a magic solution to all their problems. It is neither of these things. This does not mean that we should disregard out of hand the important role that technology can and does play in education.

This silver bullet portrayal of technology has done much harm to teachers’ perceptions and has created large pockets of vociferous cynicism, hardly any of which is sufficiently well informed. Teachers need an informed voice that can guide them past this cynicism, as well as a not insignificant amount of unsubstantiated enthusiasm, towards technologies that can really make a positive impact to outcomes for their students. In my view, this voice has to be that of a teacher. A teacher leading on digital strategy would ensure that teaching and learning determine the shape of the school’s IT network, not vice versa.

Technology supports learning

Ask your students and they’ll tell you that what they want from school is this:

  • Teachers with excellent subject knowledge
  • Feedback that is delivered sensitively and effectively
  • Resources that are media-rich and engaging

These student preferences are supported by research findings in cognitive psychology. And all of them can be supported by the use of technology, which, by the way, your students do want you to use. However, the current prevalent discourse often presents technology in opposition to academic rigour, as if you can have one but not the other. This is, clearly, nonsense and does not stand up to any form of serious scrutiny.

In addition, technology enables learning to take place more easily outside the classroom. Many, on both sides of this argument, insist in viewing this as an alternative to learning in school. It isn’t. A good digital strategy would ensure that learning in school is extended and supported by the use of new technologies that enable students to continue learning beyond the school walls, and would act as a link between formal and informal learning. Face to face contact is always preferable, though not always possible. We do not have to choose between preferable and possible, both are allowed.

Behaviour matters

The social aspect of the internet has revolutionised the way we communicate. Hidden amongst all the sensationalist headlines decrying how we are alone in a sea of constant, inane chatter is the fact that we are writing, reading and communicating with each other on previously unprecedented scales. This presents us with both opportunities and challenges.

Opportunities because we can now use these communication tools to enable teachers to network and learn from others wherever they may be in the world in previously impossible ways; to support teachers in passing on their subject knowledge to learners; and to add a new dimension to the process of feeding back to enable learning to progress.

But also challenges, as bullying and other kinds of inappropriate behaviour are released from the confines of the school corridors onto our social networks, which to this day remain vehemently a no-go area in most schools for this reason.

However, a problem has arisen when many schools have confused controlling access to social networks with total disengagement, thus depriving their students of models of appropriate behaviour, so children only have each other as models. Paradoxically, we then often accuse children of not behaving appropriately online when it was our job all along to educate them well in this respect. Every school policy that does not help students to learn to communicate appropriately should be read as admission of failure.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the adults involved in education simply lack the experience and skills to be appropriate role models in the use of social media. This is why a greater, more concerted and more constructive involvement of schools in the digital lives of their students is necessary if we want our students to understand how to be good all-round citizens. Simply ignoring this other dimension of pupil behaviour seems to me to be grossly irresponsible.

This post will be followed by more as I continue to write and develop a digital strategy for Surbiton High School. I would really welcome your thoughts, comments, advice and critique. Please do not hesitate to add to the discussion, below.

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  1. We are almost 3 years down the road from the official start of our journey at CC. I have ceased to over intellectualise (no offence Jose) because most teachers seem to react badly when lectured to about this. Our choices. Of GAFE allowed us to then go Chromebook, whilst slowly weaning staff and pupils off network stuff. 550 chromebooks plus hundreds of other devices have proliferated and 6th form go 1to1 chrome book in September.
    The opening of BYOD 2 years ago has allowed all to see which works best. For plain work share and collaborate cb beats iPad most times.
    Now we are comfortable with the tech and GAFE, we test 7inch android slates and wearables this month.
    Our experience is driving us towards a no more than 1/3 digital experience as a rule of thumb…
    Departments now producing SAMR infographics to show what works well at subject level…
    …and all underpinned by relentless expectation that staff will acquire GAFE skills. All management info for teaching and learning is created in and shared through Google drive, and secure ecosystem of our Sites Hub keeps malpractice at bay.

    1. We’re planning to go down the tablet route, rather than Chromebooks. But your journey sounds otherwise similar to ours: starting with BYOD in 6th Form (interestingly very few of our students opt to bring laptops or netbooks of any kind – they tend to stick to tablets in some form or another) and then gradually move to 1:1 across the school. We are still at the stage of exploring and negotiating different financing alternatives.

      Teacher training and “acclimatisation” is next. I fully agree about the over-intellectualisation – though I would add that over-use of jargon and acronyms is just as unhelpful. The way I describe my thinking here in my own blog is not necessarily how I would communicate this vision to my colleagues, it’s more of a self-reflection and invitation to have this thinking peer-reviewed – in the full knowledge that I might be totally wrong!

      When it comes to “selling” the idea of 1:1 to colleagues, in my experience, it pays to avoid over-egging the pudding and promising the world. The most remarkable thing I’ve observed in schools that are already fully functioning 1:1 environments is just how normal the whole thing is. Some teachers run with it, others prefer a more leisurely pace. That’s fine with me.

      Many thanks for your contribution.

      1. What I’ve seen work particularly powerfully with ‘convincing’ teachers is having a pupil – particularly the type of pupil who very rarely stands out – talk about what this technology lets them do which they otherwise could not.

        For example, the child whose literacy skills and perception of themselves as someone who hates writing but who is actually very interested in science talking about how the ability to video experiments and then voice-over and annotate the results of this has allowed them to achieve and break through a previously undefeatible barrier

  2. Hi Jose

    I spent 5 years helping Academy sponsors construct digital strategies, the first action of which was invariably ‘Create a senior post with the sole responsibility of strategic leadership of technology…’. Without this person, and that ability to specialize, schools will always struggle to capitalize fully on tech’s potential.

    I then took one of those jobs and became Director of IT for two schools, where technology was my only focus. *Even then*, I found that whether the head really ‘gets’ technology or not is another determining success factor (something that becomes very apparent when carrying out the same role for two schools!)

    Totally agree that a coherent Digital Strategy is the way to achieve sustainable change. It’s an uncontroversial and well understood principle; first envisage what you are trying to achieve, then define the steps you need to take to get there. Both these visioning and strategizing phases should be led by an expert, but must be collaboratively constructed; want them to enjoy the journey and not whine the whole way? Let them help pick the destination.

    Here’s the document that we were using: https://www.dropbox.com/s/v1g6j29n0nvwl1z/Digital%20Strategy%203.0.docx

    1. We’re still very much at the painting a picture stage. We have taken steps to ensure that both students (through our Digital Leaders group – composed of 2 or 3 representatives from each year group from 6-13) and staff (through our 18 strong Digital Strategy Team) have a voice and steering capabilities to ensure we plan the journey together. Our next step is to establish a parent focus group formed by parents with relevant expertise and experience.

      But you’re right, the Head needs to get it. None of this would be happening if we didn’t have the full support and backing of our Principal who, in appointing someone in my role, identified the need to develop a coherent Digital Strategy to move the school forward.

      Thanks for your comment, advice and really helpful link. It’s very much apreciated.

      1. Sounds like all the ingredients of a well-informed, challenged and grounded technology vision will come from the group you’re putting together. Incidentally, I have several examples of schools’ technology visions if these would also help.

Your feedback and comments are very welcome