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Right, Not More: Choosing tech that fits your unique culture and context

Technology is about an experience. We don’t simply want new features or aesthetically pleasing user interface. We want technology that augments our work day, social interactions, routine tasks and hobbies.

Technology is best when it understands cultures we operate in every day. The same is true in our schools; technology can change the way we host and foster our unique learning culture and school values.

In this ongoing series, I am inviting you to question the kind of experience technology is providing you and your school community and whether technology accommodates your unique structure, operations, and pedagogical requirements across academic, pastoral and extracurricular activities.

Modern learning is messy, but it doesn’t have to be unmanageable. The goal of this post is twofold: 1) to offer a framework for evaluating your school’s technology use 2) to provide some processes for maintaining a progressive technology policy. The last post questioned if we are able to ask the right questions when we evaluate technology without a vision for technology use in our schools.

In recent years, tech-friendly schools have adopted a strategy of maximalism. By this I mean that tech-friendly schools have adopted or implemented just about every kind of technology available. iPads. G Suite -Forms, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites, etc. Nearpod. OneNote. Audacity. Padlet. Kahoot! Khan Academy. Adobe Suite. Digital textbooks. Trello. Quizlet. This is a partial list of the tools I used just last year as a teacher.  

While maximalism is an interesting ideology, it is not a strategy. It may feel like embracing technology is a strategy in itself but to echo Kevan Collins, CEO of The EEF (Education Endowment Foundation), strategy isn’t about if a school adopts new technology but how they do so. There is however a place for testing new technology in classrooms which could be done yearly as a matter of honing teaching practice without undermining the value of a refined curriculum.    

Identifying and prioritising your growth areas and essential needs

Call them pain points. Call them opportunities. Whatever language you use, we all have them at some level - curriculum, academic, pastoral, etc. The run up to the summer holidays often gets teachers and management thinking about these growth areas for the coming year, even if just vaguely. The new academic year is a blank canvas. With a bit of time to rest and reflect and hopefully coming to the next academic year with a clearer sense of those growth areas.

What rises to the top of your priority list? Whole school engagement? Capturing the complete learning journey? Teacher collaboration? Implementing technology amidst budget pressures?

Let’s take differentiated learning as an example. The goal is clear: I want more of my students to attain deeper levels of knowledge and skill on a chosen topic. Finding solutions doesn’t just sit in the realm of pedagogy though; it is also tactical. A core tactical issue: How do I distribute resources at different levels without also creating an organisational headache? If I can, I’d like to avoid creating yet another system to look after. 

To identify and prioritise an essential need try completing the following sentence:  I need to _______________. It would be great if there was an app/platform/program/tool that was able to __________________. In my example of differentiated learning, I might complete that sentence as follows: I need to deliver differentiated learning without creating more systems to manage. It would be great if there was an app/platform/program/tool that was able to organise resources at different levels on a single central hub allowing me to control which students can access specific resources

Without a clearly defined essential need, I wouldn’t have a way to begin comparing ed tech solutions and quickly sift through my options. In this instance, Firefly could be my solution. Using its ability to permission specific items on a single resource page, I can create one page for a particular class topic while controlling which students have permission to view each resource. 

Use a framework for technology adoption and experimentation

Sometimes, a defined essential need is all that is required to solve a simple problem. On a day-to-day level, this degree of strategy works well enough. However it doesn’t produce long lasting change or substantially better solutions and without that students won’t truly benefit from a modern learning experience. Thus a further evaluative step is needed.

I was introduced to Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model a few years ago. As a chronic early adopter and constant experimenter, his framework helped me crystallise my process for introducing technology. It also helped me guide new teachers when mentoring. Ruben Puentedura does an excellent job explaining how the framework may be applied as well as its impact. His ongoing blog also has a wealth of thoughts. For the sake of this piece, I will only briefly summarise.

At its most basic level, new technology is a substitute for an existing technology (e.g. typing on a word processor rather than writing on paper). At its heights, new technology completely redesigns the possibilities for teaching and learning and fits seamlessly within the landscape of the school community. The British School, New Delhi, embodies this with their adoption of Firefly. Whether technology is simply substituting or radically redefining, the ultimate strength lies in the ability to have a conversation using common language. Schools have a grid of sorts for evaluating the technology they use and how it impacts the whole school community. Consider how an introduction to SAMR followed by an application to current school technology could make valuable use of an inset day meeting.

There is a lot more that could be said about the model itself. Read the links to Puentedura’s work above for a robust discussion of the finer points. That said, I do want to offer two brief observations that I believe are strategically important:

  1. The introduction of cutting edge technology does not necessarily result in modification or redefinition. It is how you use the technology that makes it transformational. Some research perpetuate the myth that new tech equals deeper learning. Take the example above. Writing an essay using a word processor as opposed to on paper is not inherently anything more than substituting. Imagine your students were using the notes app on their smartphone or MS Notepad to write up a lab report.  Not so great a substitution. However, formatting tools, ease of drafting and the rest that makes a word processor augment the task. Further, the ability to collaborate for feedback or easily incorporate multimedia might allow for the use of a word processor to modify the task. It’s all in the way that a technology is applied.
  2. Not all aspects of the  school day need to be transformed. Continual improvement is a worthwhile goal, Sometimes, the biggest benefit of a technology is simply that it augments an already solid teaching practice. Other times, substitution is appropriate as old technologies become obsolete or expensive. This note is not intended as an easy off ramp for the technologically wary though. Instead, it highlights the importance of critical evaluation in the process of technology adoption. Not every technology can or should transform a school. For instance, one new tool may be a mere substitution because attention is being given to the adoption of another technology for transformative purposes. My suggestion: Develop a strategy that benefits from the full range of the SAMR model. Sometimes, going further each day is just a single step.

As noted, SAMR is just one model. It is a fairly straightforward model to apply which is why I chose it. You could see quick results by introducing the framework to staff and practising it in the upcoming academic year. This process could be woven into staff meetings, inset days, department planning, etc.  Smaller, focused applications are likely to produce the best results. Others like TPACK may offer a more precise evaluation but will require a bit more legwork in order to build the foundational knowledge needed to implement it. It is key to use a framework though. Frameworks produce consistent and durable ed tech strategy. SAMR is a great way to start a structured discussion.

How does this all translate into a process? I want to avoid all of this content serving only as a conceptual touchstone: just a nice set of ideas to summarise the next time an edtech conversation arises at school. My hope is that it translates into discussion, development, and implementation of a technology plan. I’ve created a discussion starter resource as a takeaway; feel free to use it with your school staff or simply for your own practice. The best school cultures are rooted in habit of reflective questioning. I hope the discussion starter get you started. Best of luck as you forge ahead - after a well-deserved summer holiday of course.

Check back soon for upcoming posts. We have two particularly thorny questions to address: 

  • How much technology should a school adopt? 
  • How do schools adopt new technology and not increase teacher workload?

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