Leading technology

We have a lodger staying at the moment – a primary school teacher. While chatting I discovered that the laptop she was using was a school-supplied unit from the Laptops for Teachers (LfT) initiative, a programme kicked off by the DfES and Becta in 2002. “Of course I can’t do anything useful with it,” she said. “Huh?” I replied (in my usual articulate fashion). “They don’t like me to put any of my own stuff on it.” I’ll admit this floored me. One of two things was possible:

a)  Working on national projects with aspirations at the cutting interface of education and technology has unhitched me from the reality of technology in schools at the coalface, or
b)  My lodger’s school is at the end of a, no doubt, long, trailing technology tail.

I think it’s probably a bit of both. I won’t go into the conversation that ensued, but it became clear to me that the technology in her school was being managed, not to enhance learning and teaching, but to minimise technical issues. Even now, it seems this is far too common.

I’ve been very lucky in my career so far to have visited many hundreds of education organisations. I’ve engaged with all manner of staff from leaders to technicians. What’s become clear to me over time – and please accept that this is a generalisation to which there are notable exceptions – is that the majority of education leaders built their education experience in a pre-digital age. They are not digital natives and regard technology as something between an expensive distraction and an interesting diversion. They don’t intuitively ‘get’ technology and they certainly don’t trust it to make a significant difference to learning outcomes or life chances. Their perception is that budget allocated to ICT is displacing spend on things they do understand, like teachers, and this is uncomfortable and so unwelcome. Furthermore, technology is evolving rapidly and so the knowledge they do have is constantly challenged and there’s relentless pressure on them to refresh their investment in terms of stuff and skills.

As a general rule, leaders are not very good at being out of control and I think technology is one of those areas where many leaders feel exactly that. I’ve met many heads who’ve been proud to tell me they don’t even own a computer, yet their organisation’s raison d’être is to prepare young people for a digital age. It’s also not uncommon to see a head wielding his or her iPad as evidence of a progressive attitude to ICT while their school languishes in the middle ground of technology adoption. It is one thing to be a user of technology and appreciate its merits, but quite another to develop and drive an ICT strategy for an organisation.

So technology is often perceived by leaders as a threat rather than a valuable ally in achieving successful outcomes. The usual responses to a threat are either to marginalise it or dominate it. Given that the former is becoming more and more difficult in a digital age, the latter is the usual course of action. The most common way of dominating technology is to regulate it into submission by creating ring-fenced, in-house control structures, both curricular and technical.

An internal structure is far less likely to expose or challenge than an external one. Better the devil you know. The technology manager in a secondary school usually becomes the trusted source of technical advice, despite the fact that he/she is probably under-qualified to be making learning-focused, strategic decisions about technology adoption. Yes, I know there may be another member of the SMT with the  portfolio for technology, but I’m as wary of technology enthusiasts as I am of Luddites. I can count with the fingers of one hand the number of technology leaders I’ve met in schools who have any significant professional technology experience outside of their school. They usually mean well but lack perspective.

My contention is that in-house technology management is almost always inefficient and a distraction from the core organisational mission. In my opinion, the necessity for an ICT department has become a self-perpetuating myth in most schools and colleges. To change would involve asking the turkeys to vote for Christmas. This is of course why leaders need to get to grips with technology and lead their organisations from the front, not by becoming experts, but by taking expert advice.

To be clear, this is not a gratuitous critique of education leaders. The reason for making these observations is to shed light on the current state of technology in education organisations. In general, we see a very conservative landscape, with significant tracts of technology experience out of bounds for learners, let alone staff. We see tragic waste through under-utilisation of technology assets. We see technology managed to reduce support rather than to enhance learning and teaching. We see inefficient procurement. Mobile phones are a threat. Social networking is a threat. Parental access to school data is a threat. Data is a threat!

I see the proliferation of Interactive Whiteboards as a symptom of this malaise. It is a comfortable choice of technology because they simply perpetuate the same didactic techniques as before but delivered with elevated anxiety. Do they improve learning outcomes? Where is the evidence? Yet the idea of engaging young people through their mobile phones in social learning is almost non-existent in schools. Did you know that 1 in every 5 minutes of Internet time was spent using Facebook in 2011? Where does the opportunity really lie?

My intention over the coming few weeks is to challenge the status quo and blog about how technology in schools can be different and better while costing less. I want to engage education leaders in a dialogue that’s about relinquishing technology control and focusing all their effort on their organisations’ core mission. The trend is already well underway in business, with many SMEs letting their CIOs go and outsourcing their ICT. They see they get better advice, better value, a more agile organisation and better outcomes. I think the education sector is ripe for a revolution and I’m delighted to be one of those waving a red flag.

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