Sunday, 7 March 2010

Think differently about ICT strategy - think of ICT as you do electricity

There is a real danger of putting ICT strategy into a special category, but this status is unjustified. It may be helpful to consider ICT in the same way as we think of electricity. Electricity is taken for granted in every classroom; it undoubtedly facilitates teaching and learning, but it would be odd to ask how teachers might use electricity in a Geography lesson. This might have been a hot topic a hundred years ago, but not today. ICT in essence is no different to electricity. It is the newness of the technology that has blurred our vision. Much is made of ICT networks, but, when distilled down, there is very little fundamental difference in delivering electricity to a classroom and providing connectivity and Internet access. Both are delivering power through cables, routers and junction boxes.

Consider how you organise your school ICT team.

Our forebears throughout the twentieth century had to come to terms with the power of electricity – first light and heat, then plug-in appliances, such as washing machines, televisions, dishwashers, microwave cookers and so on. Two key aspects that faced electricity users of a previous era, face schools today in regard to ICT today – namely infrastructure issues [wiring the building] and training needs [how to use and maintain the appliances]. It is helpful to think of ICT strategy in terms of these two categories. ICT has now reached a stage in its development in schools where there is much to be said for separating the two areas of ICT network and ICT support.

The ICT Network Team

Network managers are concerned with infrastructure issues – thus this is essentially an “Estates Department” matter. As with the wiring of a house, there will be times when an area needs to be upgraded in order to cope with the additional demands of what is plugged in [consider how schools have had to put additional electricity sockets into boarding house studies in order to cope with the demands of the twenty-first century student], but fundamentally supplying connectivity is something that will be routine from now on.

The ICT Support Team

There are two key areas of ICT support: maintaining the machines [think washing machine or photocopier repair man]; and training people to use the machines and to get the most out of what they can do. The computer is, after all, just another electrical device.

On the whole, school ICT support teams have focussed on the first of these roles, replacing maintaining, repairing and replacing computers, upgrading software, distributing printer cartridges. Schools will always need this sort of support to trouble-shoot the inevitable technical problems, although as ICT equipment become more reliable, the relative importance of this role is likely to diminish. However, a strong ICT Support Team that is focussed on training can transform the way in which ICT is used in the classroom and can make a significant difference to teaching and learning. This is the more important area to which School Leadership teams should direct their energies over the coming years.

This blogpost includes material from an article "What a Head needs to know about ICT - Structures and People" which will be published in the ISC Bulletin next month.


  1. Mark

    I read this post with interest. Being part of a busy school support team, I have to raise a query on the point," ICT equipment become more reliable, the relative importance of this role (ICT support)is likely to diminish." I've yet to see ICT equipment become that much more reliable and I fear that the belief that a machine can almost "look after itself" because the technology has advanced, will give many people an incorrect view on how much time is put into the old fashioned support role. It would be excellent if reliable and better (best?) equipment was given as standard in the IT industry - but it isn't.

    In fact, I've found the premise to be exactly the opposite. Hardware, software, and network cabling all fail at one point or another. All of these require constant and regular attention in a large school. We're often talking of supporting 350+ computers or laptops and nearly half as many printers, plotters, scanners, touch pad devices, digitisers, digi cameras, probes, visualisers, digi microscopes etc. on a day to day basis. Add to this regular or constant updates to operating systems, academic software and network protection systems, and the time of the IT support person becomes very tight.

    The need and pressure to provide as much of the technology as we can, and to provide it at best "value" can and does add to the old fashioned support role. People also want to be able to do more with the technology, further adding to the busy "hands on" nature of the role. All our staff have laptops. Moving these around as constantly as they are will naturally cause the devices to produce errors and faults - all requiring fast turn around support. I've never seen a support manager in a school sit on his "laurels" and I think it will be a long time before I do.

    As for the traditional support role model being enhanced by those who will cover the academic support - well yes, that's true. Elearning,(Web 2.0)the MIS, VLE (delivering teaching and learning via a walled garden), extending basic ICT CPD and honing key strategy to keep a school moving forward with IT all need to be in place in order for a school to keep on top of its provision. However, I cannot see the role of the support manager being shadowed by any of these, as without working technology, you almost have no need of the rest.

    Kerry Turner

  2. I agree Kerry,
    Companies, more than ever are manufacturing cheaper products with a shorter life span. With the pace that technology moves at do you think it makes sense to buy cheap products and replace every couple of years?

  3. Kerry and Mike thanks for your comments. I am not suggesting that ICT technical roles will not continue, indeed they will still remain important, but I believe that if we limit our view of ICT support to repairs and maintenance then we are missing a trick. The classroom support role is one that needs to increase over the coming years. Indeed once all are trained up, that role itself will reduce.

    I welcome the comments on the reliability of ICT kit, and share Mike's view that replacement is probably the way things will go. We gave up on repairing video and DVD machines and just replaced them and I suspect that, as costs of ICT machines reduce, it will be more cost effective to replace than to repair. Given Moore’s Law and the analogy of the shelf life of mobile phones [about 18 months], why not just replace? There are important implications here for School’s renewal strategies. One reason why some kit now appears more reliable is that consumers are less willing to buy into the arms race between software and hardware suppliers that drove the Market for so long [well until the launch of Vista].

    Kerry’s point about the growth in the range of devices that are being used in the classroom is an important one and does put a strain on the ICT support teams, both technical and classroom.

    The blogpost is part of a wider article, which I shall amend in light of your helpful comments – much appreciated

    Mark S. Steed

  4. Hello Mark,

    Given the vast array of hardware, software, and web-based programs on offer, and the rate at which they change, I can't see the training requirement diminishing. Over the last 8 months I've chomped my way through over a hundred different web 2.0 tools. How many of them do I think we should use at Berkhamsted? A small handful.

    Amongst that list: Blogger, Google Apps and recently I've been unleashing Wallwisher on my KS3 and Sixth form students. Delicious is good for sharing ideas, and I'll be using Xtranormal with my ICT students soon. That's not an extensive list, but rather a snapshot to illustrate the main observation I wish to make.

    It's interesting that at no point in your post do you mention pedagogy or the integration needed between qualified IT/e-learning teachers and the technicians. This is something that is happening far more regularly now, and is, I think, bearing fruit. An IT support member can teach someone how to push the right buttons, but without an academic or pedagogical framework it can be hard for teachers to see why or how they might use IT effectively. And that is where the nub of the problem with IT in schools has been historically. As Ian Yorston said in his recent talk to staff, producing vast numbers of IT labs doesn't address the learning needs of 21st Century students. What it does do is put up barriers between subjects, their syllabus requirements, and the use of meaningful IT.

    In that sense, I am fully in agreement with you that the electricity metaphor is the way forward. Making technology a powerful tool to enhance learning is what it's all about. Meshing it into the fabric of every classroom, using tools that make it accessible and unobtrusive to all is the starting point for real progress.

    With kind regards,