A digital strategy to enhance teaching and learning
Why we need a digital strategy
Each school, academy and Trust should have a visible digital strategy aligned to the organisation’s vision and its development plan. Before the pandemic the best schools were leveraging technology to enhance and improve educational outcomes. But too many others were buying technology with too little connection to their wider educational strategy, often wasting money, time and effort on poorly implemented solutions which negatively impacted on learning.
Irrespective of how schools adapted to remote learning, or interventions they took to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on pupil outcomes, schools and trusts now need to develop and implement a digital strategy to make the most of the recent gains progress made in the use of technology for teaching and learning. This strategy should aim to reduce inequality of access to an outstanding education that many children experience if their schools do not utilise technology effectively in their teaching, or exploit the opportunities to extend learning beyond the school gates.
Getting the strategy right
The recommendations from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report on Using Digital Technology to Improve Learning will help shape thinking about how technology can enhance teaching and learning. I really can’t emphasise enough how vital a starting point this is: why would any teacher waste time using digital tools that don’t make their teaching more effective? Most failures can be explained by the misalignment of the tool with the task, with an exuberant focus on the former (“Wow, new tech!”) and too little time spent on the latter (“Wow, this will help me model things more effectively to my pupils!”)
This should be followed up by visiting schools who are similar to yours and are successfully implementing a digital strategy to see: what is possible; how technology can effect positive change; what good technology adoption looks like; how schools are measuring impact; allowing you to reflect on how this all might look in your school.
At Trust level this should also be about consolidating around core tools and services: migrating all to one MIS to provide consistency and enable data analysis; using one platform (e.g. Google or Microsoft) to ensure easy collaboration; simplifying adoption and support staff development and resources; and coordinating innovation so successes can be shared.
Once written, the digital strategy should be owned, exemplified and led by a member of the senior leadership team, ideally the person with responsibility for teaching and learning (as any digital strategy worthy of the name will aim to deliver improvements in these areas). The leadership should not be delegated to a middle manager, or someone ‘technical’, although it may be implemented by them. Senior leaders should not expect staff to adopt new processes or systems if they are not willing to do so themselves. Once a clear vision of what you want to achieve and a strategy to achieve it has been determined, this needs to be clearly communicated to staff, students and the wider community – change is coming, and it is important they understand why.
The first steps
It is vital to audit hardware, software and online solutions to enable you to make the most of what you already have, identify underlying infrastructure issues, and stop paying for services which are under-used or have little or no impact on pupil outcomes. Using the Department for Education’s Digital Standards will enable you to develop a solid and reliable foundation upon which to build a sustainable long-term digital strategy.
Funding your strategy
A sustainable digital strategy will need a long-term funding strategy from within existing budgets. At its most simple level, this is about replacing equipment as it becomes obsolete, but ideally should be about a planned programme of equipment replacement, delivering your ideas of how staff and pupils should be using technology. For example, this may well entail entirely new approaches to teacher hardware. Centralised procurement can support Trusts in ensuring procurement processes are robust and in line with statutory guidelines, support standardisation of equipment where appropriate, improve cyber and data security, and are time-efficient to allow for greater focus on effective implementation.
Implementing the strategy
Implementing a robust and reliable infrastructure is the critical first phase. There will be little outward sign of work being done bar a more reliable system, but if users can’t rely on high performance and resilience the rest of the strategy will collapse, especially as rates of technology use in the school go up.
Once ready to roll-out new user equipment, I’d be wary of the temptation to go big and implement all in one go. This is likely to fail, with little hope of recovery, as staff and students become disillusioned with the challenges they face. Instead, piloting with staff and departments who will work through unforeseen challenges and identify solutions with colleagues and technical teams (a ‘coalition of the willing’ approach) means you can create the scaffolding for successful implementation for others. Finally, until teachers are comfortable using technology in the classroom, there is little benefit in rolling devices out to pupils as they will not be used in any meaningful way.
During the early phases of adoption, it is important not to be afraid to accept that something isn’t working for your school and to discover why, possibly resulting in a change of direction. Was it how you implemented it? Unreliable infrastructure? Too many points of 'friction' for users? Lack of staff training? Ineffectual leadership? Or is the solution simply not appropriate for your context? Asking these questions means that your next steps with a digital strategy stand a better chance of becoming successfully embedded into practice.
Training and development
Technology adoption often does not fail because the tool is bad, but that staff (and pupils) have not been given the time and training to embed it within their teaching/ learning. When developing the digital strategy sufficient time needs to be allocated for staff to learn how to use the new tools, review their practice and have follow up training. Staff need to be able to share experiences of what has gone well and be supported in overcoming any challenges. It is likely staff and students will use it in ways which were unforeseen, some positive and some negative, and the strategy needs to be reviewed and adapted in light of these.
Reviewing the implementation
Many strategies falter as they are not reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that the agreed outcomes are being achieved, the tools adopted are meeting expectations, and milestones achieved. This may result in the strategy being updated because some technologies need to be abandoned, others amended in light of unforeseen circumstances or the pace of adoption slowed or increased. As the strategy evolves it is necessary to report back to stakeholders, sharing successes, explaining why changes have been made, acknowledging challenges and showcasing the positive impact it is having on outcomes.
The long-term future
Neither education nor technology remain static, and the digital strategy needs to adapt to changes, as well as be mindful of what the future is bringing. The improvements in adaptive learning and formative assessment tools will continue (the development on formal online assessments is already underway in small scale pilots), and VR/AR technologies continue to evolve. The pitfalls to avoid will be tools and technology which are sold well but have little substance or offer little impact on the educational processes referred to in the EEF’s report. Small scale pilots and shared best practice will continue to be important in avoiding wasted effort as well as peer recommendation sites such as EdTechImpact
Even the digitally mature can learn from others
It is possible for digitally mature schools to become complacent in their adoption of technology and fail to innovate as the technology develops, or simply not make the most of the platforms they have invested in. The EdTech Demonstrator programme exemplified the benefits of school-to-school support with those developing their digital strategies benefiting from the experience of the digitally mature. Similarly, demonstrators learned from those they supported, reviewing the received wisdom and reflecting more deeply on what they are doing and how they might be even better.
An unremarkable utility
Although we should all seek digital maturity, it will not be an end in itself but a state where we consciously review and evaluate the tools we use to ensure they still deliver the improved pupil outcomes we expect. Technology should become an ‘unremarkable utility’ that teachers and pupils use to amplify teaching and learning and not viewed as something extraordinary. This will only become true when it is deployed with a relentless focus on how it improves teaching or learning.
James is Director of IT at United Learning, a Multi-Academy Trust of over eighty academies and independent schools; currently he is also the programme lead for the EdTech Demonstrator Delivery Partner managing the EdTech Demonstrator programme on behalf of the Department for Education. At United Learning he leads the Education Technologist, Technical Specialists and IT systems Teams at United Learning, supporting schools to implement technology successfully to support teaching and learning in the classroom and enable schools to leverage the benefits of technology to: reduce workload, improve communications, and enable more flexible working. He has led United Learning’s Cloud First strategy and developed their Group Digital Strategy, currently being adopted by the schools, prior to taking on his current role with the EdTech Demonstrator Programme This has enabled over 2000 schools and colleges to benefit from peer led EdTech support. He is also a school Governor and a Trustee of Sheffield Theatres Trust and member of the Bett UK Advisory Board.