3 things school leaders can do to advance ICT in their school

As I visit schools, it is obvious to me that some schools are way ahead of others in their use of technology for learning and teaching. I’m sure there are many things that contribute to that diversity, but one of the biggest, it seems to me, is the approach taken by the leadership. When I look at the schools that seem to be doing things very well, there are a number of common threads – things the leaders in those schools do, which make all the difference. I offer the follwoing three as perhaps the most important.

1. Remove frustrations

It’s amazing to me how many fantastic, game-changing tools are blocked on some school networks. I’m not saying we should remove all filters – they do help to prevent us from accidentally stumbling onto things we don’t want to see and can’t unsee. But in 2016, our filters do almost nothing to prevent students from intentionally accessing inappropriate material. Blocking content is ineffectual for four reasons: (1) Most students have smartphones with a direct connection to the internet. (2) Most students have unfiltered internet at home. (3) Any student who walks home past McDonalds has unfiltered access to the internet. (4) Students know about VPN services which bypasses our filters.

Over-strict filters just thwart our best teachers’ efforts to make learning more meaningful. Our failed attempts to keep a few miscreant students from doing the wrong thing just hampers the majority of students who want to use the internet for the right thing.

If we think for a moment that filters will protect students from anything more than inadvertent stumbling onto inappropriate content then we need to open our eyes! If we want to protect students – really protect students – from the potential, and very real evils on the web, then we need to educate them. Blocking just invites students to an us-vs-them, cat-and-mouse game in which the cat comes off as annoying but embarassingly incompetent.

2. Ensure policies are clearly defined and well known

I meet a lot of teachers who are hesitant to use various, wonderful tools – because they are unsure about whether using such a tool is appropriate and permissible. They are not sure whether it ticks all the boxes in terms of safety, privacy and age appropriateness. Moreover they are fearful that if they use it, they might end up in hot water. No teacher ends up in hot water for being boring and staying to the path, but when a teachers starts exploring new ways to make learning exciting, more powerful and relevant to modern life, she has left the path and is cutting new paths. That comes with the fear that one is doing something that might be seen to be inappropriate. School leaders can support that teacher by making sure that school policies about the use of ICT are explicit, clear and well known by everyone in the school community. Then, teachers can confidently explore the new, within those clear boundaries. More on this here.

3. Empower the innovators

Often, as teachers gain the authority to influence and effect change in a school, their openness to change diminishes. Teachers enter the teaching profession wide-eyed and keen to try lots of different things and experiment with new pedagogies. They don’t have much power though because they are seen as “green” by older, wiser, more seasoned teachers who hold the decision-making power. I’ve seen young teachers silenced, gossiped about and even bullied because more experienced teachers took offence at these young, upstarts thinking they know a better way to do things. Eventually these new teachers learn to tone it down and conform to ‘the way things are done around here’. The most effective school leaders I have seen, identify innovators (irrespective of their seniority or experience) and invest them with the ability to influence.

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Keeping Students Safe in a River of Content

How can we protect our students from certain kinds of information and content on the internet?  It used to be so easy to do. Ten years ago, most students’ only internet access was at school. Teachers really had complete control over what information students were exposed to, and importantly to this discussion, what information they were not exposed to.  If information were water, it was a trickling brook and it was not hard to build a weir, or divert water so that it missed our students, keeping them safe.

But carrying the same analogy forward, now, if information were water it would be a river.  Its impossible to divert water to avoid it reaching our students.  If we as teachers stand in the river, trying to divert the water to protect our students, it will just swirl around us as though we weren’t even there.  Instead we need to work with our students, and help them to safely negotiate the river of information that they are in.  “Put your foot on that rock there, be careful! there’s a deep spot there, look out for that eddy!”.

Now I am not arguing that we should stop filtering content altogether.  There are some things that we must do to try to protect students from inadvertently stumbling upon unsavory material.  But (and here is the crux of my argument) if students are going to deliberately SEEK unsavory material, the fact is, we can no longer stop them even if we try to. They have internet at home, the tech-savvy ones can often get around our filters at school, they have mobile phones with internet access.  The only way to stop students finding unsavory material is to influence them so they no longer want to deliberately SEEK it out.

At the moment, our failing attempts to protect the few ill-meaning students who deliberately seek out offensive content, are successfully frustrating the educational experience of the well-meaning majority of students.

HOW we change the attitudes of those ill-meaning students, is another (and more challenging) topic.  But in an information-rich world, the role of a teacher can no longer be “information-controller”, it must increasingly be “shaper-of-attitudes”.

Schools used to be able to choose between shaping the choices of students (“difficult”) and just blocking the content (“easy”).  I don’t think we have that choice any more, as blocking content is no longer “easy” but “nearly impossible”.