5 Reasons Why The Gatekeepers Don't Listen
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the reasons why it is important that we think about technology investment and who the gatekeepers are. I argued that the digital skills gap in the UK currently stands at 40000 and is showing no signs of shrinking. I began discussing a report I have been writing on behalf of Netsupport, kindly supported by Al Kingsley and his wonderful team based down in Peterborough. After a great discussion in September 2018, I have been conducting some research to look at finding some answers to the question, "How do we convince the gatekeepers in schools that we need to invest in technology?" In this next instalment, I will be looking at some of the reasons that perhaps the gatekeepers don't listen.
1. Lack of financial planning
Often the gatekeepers don’t realise the financial benefits - LONG TERM - of investing in correct infrastructure. Follow Me Printing saved a school I worked in 50% on printing costs. They halved that again when they removed departmental printers and printers from SLT offices! Hear hear I hear you say! Many schools get tied into long contracts - a school I did some advisory work in had an £80k server renewal bill that was due which forced them to look at Cloud solutions.
We all know that budgets are tight; the Guardian reported that real terms per pupil funding in 2020 will be over 50% higher than it was in 2000 and it is said to be as high as 91% of schools that are facing school budget cuts. Indeed, the IFS have evidenced that the average cut is at 8% and a BBC report states that sixth form funding has been cut by 25% and local authority support is down by 55%. That said, some of the issue is not in the reduction of budgets but rather a lack of planning through asking questions like, "How sustainable is this policy?" or "How soon is this piece of kit going to become outdated?" Instead of looking at initiatives like BYOD or progressive investment in the network and removal of peripherals from classroom (saving labour costs and downtime), many leaders are reactive (to a shiny tool or app) as opposed to proactive.
2. No joined-up thinking
Lots of tech decisions are made in isolation - there is usually no SLT or governor responsible for this - and if there is, it is usually amongst 5 other priorities or the governor is in the industry, meaning they sell hardware or software that might just (surprisingly) solve the problem! I have only ever seen 2 schools who have a technology strand in their Improvement Plans. And usually it is about embedding certain apps rather than thinking of the pedagogical sense that self-marking homework would have for teachers or collaborative planning solutions or Remote Access would have for staff.
I worked in a school who invested in becoming an Apple RTC - it was a 1:1 iPad school. They only had WAPs in corridors and they were shared between three or four classes! They did not invest in their pipe in and thus teachers and students gave up when nothing would work. Not installing an MDM meant that the network team didn’t have full control of these iPads and much of the guest network usage was on additional devices. Conservative estimates now suggest that most people have at least 4 devices accessing the internet at any one time - in a school of 1100 students and 120 staff - you need to think about your infrastructure!
The investment in IWBs and touchscreens has been an epic waste of money - because they looked good and because they simply substituted one expensive solution that didn't have an element of redefinition. If you don’t invest heavily in the training for staff - they become glorified blackboards. Because many schools still listen just to the IT Manager or the person who has had the most experience in the 'tech' field, people aren't asking the questions about how it will save teachers time, how it will lead to improved outcomes, how it makes pedagogical sense or why the investment will increase collaboration. Although the phrase 'joined-up thinking' is a little overused, I am not sure we have been very good at the 'joined-up talking' or 'doing' that must come after the thinking!
3. Fear of the unknown
Moving to the Cloud or rolling out iPads comes with a certain level of uncertainty - is it safe, is it going to create me more work, I have always done it this way, I like sending emails, I like my USB drive (even though it isn’t encrypted and causes 1000s of issues not least GDPR, trust and compatibility issues before we even talk about cybersecurity and malware!).
James F Byrnes famously said, "Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity." I am convinced that the psychological phenomena of Fight, Flight or Freeze is prevalent in education, not least with gatekeepers. Fear that comes from a lack of control and/or security, although often legitimately motivated (indeed, we are gatekeepers that must protect the vulnerable and preserve some level of innocence in children), is leading to a lack of decision-making, an avoidance of discussion or, worse, fighting to protect a job or a tool that is no longer fit for purpose.
The investment in technology is often preceded with a fear that the children will know more than us or heaven forbid, that we might have to undergo some training. Sometimes, the gatekeepers are indeed scared that the decision or idea isn't theirs which automatically makes it less likely to succeed! I have seen so many leaders reject suggestions because they were worried about what it would mean for x, y or z. Often, fear is indeed crippling.
4. Plethora of options
Most gatekeepers are overwhelmed with the options - iPad, Chromebook, Android device? SMART board, HD TV, ActivPanel, projector, Jamboard? Google, 365. SIMS, Canvas, Firefly, RM, Bromcom? Do we need a VLE? Do we want an integrated system or a multitude of separate apps? Shall we open the App Store or should we lock it down?
The fads have come and gone and we as technologists/network staff have been as guilty as anyone with the dazzling new kit. Or on the flip side, refusing to move from what we know due to fear for our jobs. Lots of FE colleges are moving towards having tech coaches and Digital Learning Specialists - Leeds City College is one such model. We have to evolve as techies rather than being comfortable in our own stuff - remember why we do it - for the kids and their progress.
The plethora of options is only a problem if we don't use sound rationale for investment. It is easy to say no to something if it doesn't fit the strategy at this stage of curriculum development. That isn't a forever no; indeed, it is probably worth keeping a list of options for the 'just-in-case' moments. That said, some big decisions that have been deliberated over probably don't need regularly revisiting. For example, if you have gone GSuite, the argument for spending on Office 365 isn't necessary.
5. Poor advice around gimmicks
We have all met those Principals or Assistant Head for Teaching & Learning who go on a conference and think this next bit of kit or software will be the next big thing and throw our money at it. Programmes like Hegarty Maths or eMaths Master are great for Maths development but are they worth the investment that could be spent on 121 support for disaffected or struggling students? I am not saying either way; indeed I love the work that is out there for Maths and English improvement. What I am asking is, "Who is telling the gatekeepers that this is THE solution? Who is asking the context and content questions? Who is looking at the big picture?"
Lots of advisers and salespeople talk of the next big thing . I have had a number of really bad experiences with this and on one particular occasion, the school invested well over £4k on a video observation kit for staff for it to gather dust in the AP’s cupboard because there wasn’t training time. It's not always the cost of the kit that is the issue; it could be the ongoing investment in training and evaluation of the software or hardware. The worst thing is that isn't just tech that is often gimmicky; one only needs to look around a typical classroom to find posters or hats or wipe-able desks or Help Hubs as trophies of tried (and tired) but not fully tested 'next big things'.
I haven’t even mentioned the big ones - Time and Examination Pressure. Much has been written on how these issues are affecting investment. That said, I do believe that Google's Transformation Center training materials can help avoid these and other pressures and obstacles to investment but more about that in the next part.
Any comments gratefully received.