Tuesday, 23 July 2013

How technology is changing education in our independent schools - An overview

Great claims have been made over the past twenty years about the impact that ICT would have on teaching and learning, most of which only succeeded in disappointing. However, at long last, the combination of reliable ICT networks, affordable equipment, innovative educational software and an increasingly ICT-literate body of teachers means that we are beginning to see ICT making a real difference to the day-to-day education in independent schools. The impact of new technologies is being seen in every area of school life: academic, pastoral, co-curricular and in school administration.
Martini Learning. Widespread access to new technologies has been one of the most important catalysts of the shift in emphasis from classrooms being about teaching, to them being about learning. Pupils now have access to web-based to learning resources at school, at home and on the move. Learning is no longer confined to the classroom or to the prep room, it happens “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”: we are in the age of “Martini learning”. Most Independent senior schools now have the necessary WIFI infrastructure in place to support mobile learning and this is likely to be greatest area of growth over the coming years.
Online Apps and Collaboration. Some of the most innovative work that is going on in schools at the moment surrounds the use of Online Apps (such as the Google Apps suite and MS Office 365). These technologies allow pupils and teachers to collaborate online by working on the same document. Teachers are taking tasks that traditionally were set as homework (say, read and note chapter 7 of The Lord of the Flies under the following headings . . . ) and developing them into class collaborative piece of work. The result is that pupils gain a range of insights from their peers whilst practising the important life skill of working with others. Anecdotal evidence is that pupils make a greater effort when working collaboratively because of the public aspect of publishing ideas to their friends. Online collaborative working is so popular that many schools are finding that pupils find it their preferred form of independent learning, setting up shared documents to work on homework without any teacher input or encouragement at all.
Social Network CPD. Collaborative new technologies are also transforming the staff room. The rise of social media platforms (such as Twitter, online forums and blogs) has heralded an unprecedented period of collaboration and mutual support. Teachers now are able to share lesson ideas not only within the department but also with colleagues around the country. This has both facilitated the spread of ‘best practice’ and established an important vehicle for INSET.
e-Safety. Independent schools pride themselves in having outstanding levels of pastoral care and devote time and money to providing it. The Internet has brought with it a number of important challenges for all schools and e-Safety now has a central place on any PSHE programme sitting firmly alongside drugs and alcohol as one of the greatest threats to young people. Whilst many of the issues are fundamentally the same ones with which schools have been dealing for years (cyber-bullying is bullying, Internet porn is pornography, cyber-safety is personal safety), there are a number of new challenges. Arguably, the greatest dangers that young people face come, not from what they can download from the Internet, but from what they are able to publish to it. Ultimately, it is impossible to control pupils’ access to the Internet and the only way forward is to educate the young people in our care to use the Internet responsibly.
Communication. One of the greatest pastoral challenges that new technologies have brought for independent schools is that pupils have immediate access to their parents; and that parents, in turn, have immediate access to teachers, houseparents, and senior leaders. Minor issues and incidents, which only ten years ago would have been dealt with in-school and forgotten before the end of the day, are blown out of all proportion, causing unnecessary anguish, management time and paper-trails.
One of exciting benefits of cheap and ready access to new technologies is that it is relatively easy for pupils to do things today that in the past would have taken hours and an enormous budget. Every pupil now has the opportunity to make a video, their smartphone the camera and their laptop the editing studio; to publish articles and to engage a world-wide audience. There is no doubt that new technologies have given a new status to creativity. In a world where YouTube videos and blogposts can go viral – the opportunity for “15 minutes of fame” is there for all. Independent schools are well placed to harness the creativity in young people in a range of co-curricular clubs and societies of which we (of a previous generation) could only dream.
School Administration 
As with all organisations, independent schools have implemented a range of new ICT initiatives to improve school administration. It is generally accepted that ICT will not save schools money (Bursars stopped asking, “when will we see a return on this investment?” years ago) but it has raised the bar. Independent schools undoubtedly hold and analyse more data on pupils than ever before. 
Communication with parents has changed beyond belief. On the positive side, almost all independent senior schools have ditched hand-written reports and moved to a database system. No longer do teachers have to queue up in the common room waiting for the ledger containing Form 3A’s reports, but they can log into the school database from the comfort of their home. Many schools are now making the move to publishing reports only online through the ‘Parent Portal’. Whilst letters home lost in school bags are a thing of the past, one of the greatest challenges caused by new technologies that schools face today is the unprecedented level of email traffic that flows between home and school. Most schools (and, indeed, parents) can’t cope. 
Many schools have even embraced biometric technologies using them for registration, library withdrawals and even to control door entry about the school site.
Some people talk about ICT in Schools as if it were a project that one day will be complete. That is about as wrong as asking, “When will the London skyline be finished?” Independent schools have an excellent record at harnessing new technologies for education – and we can be confident that that will be the way of the future.
An article written for the Independent Schools Show magazine

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