What every school needs from a digital strategy

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 none 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.