What motivates technology choices?

Posted by admin on August 23, 2013  /   Posted in Thoughts

A few years ago a friend told me that he knew for certain that schools were spending their IT budgets on playground equipment. How did he know that? He owned a company that installed playground equipment.

The reasoning was simple: to a prospective parent driving past, as bright shiny playground set made the school stand out. A computer network, on the other hand, made no impact at all.

It wasn’t about the teaching model; it was about the parent tour and the open night.

Things have changed somewhat since then. Funding models have changed, as have the priorities of parents and many schools. But the same thing still happens on a range of levels.

A few years ago, interactive whiteboards were starting to enter the mainstream. As a classroom tool, interactive whiteboards call for a very different teaching model to be used effectively. Younger teachers would tend to adapt quickly, though often they’d we working from resources prepared by older colleagues years earlier, and those materials would not typically lend themselves to getting the most from an interactive whiteboard. Those older colleagues would use their shiny new interactive whiteboards in much the same way as they used a normal white board, or a blackboard before that. For some teachers, the projector would be on all day, and the students would be distracted by whatever was being mirrored from the teacher’s laptop, even if that was the teacher’s email!

If they were so poorly used, why would schools invest so many thousands of dollars in whiteboards, projectors and cabling? Well, in some instances they were the beneficiaries of government grants or schemes; but in many instances the motivation was simple: no school wanted to be the school that didn’t have interactive whiteboards.

It wasn’t about the teaching model; it was about the parent tour and the open night.

In the last few years it has been iPads. Now don’t get me wrong: I love my iPad, and I love seeing them in the hands of students. But iPads can be a huge source of distraction as well as a great source of educational stimulation. As a principle said to me recently, “Sure, the kids are engaged, but they’d be equally engaged if they sat in front of an Xbox”. And he’s right. To a six month old, a pedestal lamp or a ceiling fan can be pretty engaging, but it wont raise the child to be an electrician.

Like the rest of us, teachers are impressed by shiny things. To have the new thing, and then to find a use for it, is a common but flawed approach. Purpose has to be the driver, but too often it is not.

All credit, though, to the schools I’ve visited that have set up trials of iPads and other technologies, and have carefully reviewed the results. Credit, likewise to the schools who put their first interactive whiteboard in the staff room, where every teacher could observe and try at their own pace.

The questions for any technology deployment remain roughly the same:

  • Does it meet a need?
  • Do we have leaders, ready to run with it, and staff willing to be led?
  • Do we have the resources to reskill our staff?
  • Are the tools available to manage and configure it, and keep it stable and reliable over time?
  • Is it scalable?

You’ll notice that none of those questions asked, “Will it look good on open night?”

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