Ensuring your IT really makes a difference

How can schools ensure that their IT provision is inclusive, effective and tackles digital inequality? Niel McLean, head of education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, suggests five key questions to ask

Computing and digital skills are vital to enable young people to access opportunities across society and technology. Properly used, they have ‘the potential to enhance teaching and learning across schools and colleges, including in curriculum design, teaching and learning methods, and digital approaches to assessment’ according to Pearson’s report into the future of Qualifications and Assessment.
The Covid pandemic and lockdowns greatly accelerated schools’ adoption of technology, particularly to support students working at home. Despite the inevitable challenges caused by this rapid change, the DfE’s EdTech survey in May 2021 reported that; ‘the majority of headteachers (88 per cent) and teachers (84 per cent) indicated that technology had or would contribute to improved pupil attainment’ and that technology already had, or would in the future, contribute to reduced workload.
However, this potential can only be realised if young people have the access they need, both at home and in school and through schools ensuring their computing provision is inclusive and enables children from all backgrounds to thrive in the world of tech.  
The Learning Foundation, a charity that works with schools to support one-to-one schemes, reports that despite growth in home access to the internet, there are still more than two million children and young people in the UK who have little or no access to a device or cannot get online at home.  
This is a real challenge, and the Digital Poverty Alliance has brought together industry partners, charities, educators, and other stakeholders to tackle it. Many schools are already working with these two organisations to support their students’ access at home. This article focusses on what schools can do through their in-school provision of technology to ensure all students benefit from their use of technology. It suggests five key questions that schools could discuss when thinking strategically about deploying technology.

Question 1: What’s the ‘theory of change?’

Too often I’m asked, ‘does IT improve X’, to which the answer is nearly always ‘it depends.’  A theory of change spells out the links in the chain connects a use of IT to a desired outcome. Usually, it involves a change in how something is done. For example, the banking sector invested in ICT infrastructure so it could move to online banking, to improve 24-hour availability at less cost. Without modern supply chain management, point of sales systems in supermarkets would not provide enough return on investment. Often this helps identify to other things that need to be implemented to reap the rewards. In schools, we need to take the time to think through what it is that will make the difference (for example, allowing students to revisit ideas they have found challenging) then think through how the IT enables that.

Question 2: What’s the evidence that backs up the school’s theory of change?

While the idea of IT as a ‘cure all’ for all the complex things that schools do is not supported by evidence, there is a wealth of evidence about the specific things that IT can support. Nesta’s Decoding Learning report (produced by London Knowledge Lab) lists the areas where evidence is strong such as ‘learning through making’ and ‘learning through practising’.

The Education Endowment Fund’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit provides helpful guidance on teaching approaches that have been shown to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and young people. For example, the toolkit identifies that encouraging parents to support their children’s learning has a significant positive impact. The schools IT strategy could take for this as a focus. For example, we are going to improve boys’ reading by involving parents in their children’s reading by using IT to share texts and tips with parents.

Question 3: Does the theory of change which is driving any IT investment line up with the school’s wider plans?  

The previous example assumes that improving boys’ reading is a school’s priority. Being clear how the IT strategy is linked through the theory of change to the school’s aspirations for all its students is essential. Without it, teaching staff and others risk becoming confused about the purpose of the IT investment and suppliers will not be able to ensure they meet the school’s needs.

Question 4:  How do you ensure that the school’s IT actively engages all students?

The adaptions put in place in haste by schools during lockdown varied greatly. Some teachers tried to replicate the classroom experience in an online environment with varying degrees of success. A teacher using a presentation can hold students’ attention in a classroom by gauging reactions, pausing and asking questions based on how the students are reacting. This form of direct teaching struggles in an online environment where these cues are not available. Interaction needs to be built into the lesson explicitly, especially with students who struggle to concentrate. This means providing students with the tools to create their own content rather than expecting them to consume and respond to content created by others, so that IT is used not simply as a ‘conduit for content’ but as a powerful tool for thinking.

Question 5: Which suppliers understand what we’re trying to do?

Schools increasingly are moving away from buying kit to a strategic approach to tech procurement that supports the schools’ ambitions and the plan to achieve those ambitions. In the words of one supplier, ‘we have all the jigsaw pieces, but the school needs to show us the picture on the box’. This changes the relationship between schools and suppliers. Rather than a purely transactional relationship between school and supplier, schools are increasingly looking for ‘partners’ who buy into the school’s vision, strategy and theory of change. If my barber understands that I’m having my hair cut for a job interview, or going on holiday, they will provide a far better service than if I just call in for a haircut. This is especially important as the school’s IT become more central to what the school does, reaches out beyond the school, and integrates different aspects of teaching, learning, assessment and management to include the widest range of learners.
Finally, if all this seams a bit time-consuming, the time taken to think things through is nothing compared to the time that is wasted when schools buy IT kit, content and services without the clarity that comes from strategic thinking. The past thirty years are full of examples from around the world of schools, school districts or even whole countries rushing, hoping that magic will happen, then being disappointed in the results. Let’s learn from the past and build on a new interest in IT in schools to really make a difference to young people’s lives.

Niel McLean is head of education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. He chairs the Learning Foundation and is a board member of the Digital Poverty Alliance.