Buying into the future

Schools need a coherent procurement strategy if they’re going to avoid incoherent learning technologies, says Rob Eastment

School IT procurement often lacks strategic oversight and threatens to add to, rather than alleviate, teachers’ burdensome workloads. Individually, technologies such as virtual learning environments, interactive whiteboards and school information management systems can be fantastic aids for the classroom or for school administration. But when they are implemented piecemeal and on a departmental or teacher-by-teacher basis, they lead to confusion, resentment, poor uptake, loss of momentum and – worst of all – “innovation fatigue”.

Take the example of Mr Crocker-Harris, the venerable classics teacher. He does his lessons with nothing but a blackboard and Bennett’s Latin Grammar. He marks his pupils’ exercise books in red ballpoint and writes out his reports in longhand at the end of each term. Compare him to Susie, the bright young physics teacher fresh from teacher training. Susie’s lessons are interactive and she encourages pupils to use their own devices in the classroom; she uses an online platform to share learning resources, for homework submission and for direct contact with parents.

Taken in isolation, there’s nothing wrong with either of these approaches, but that’s the point: these tools are often not applied uniformly throughout a school. Allowing technology to proliferate without a centralised strategy is a recipe for incoherence. Teachers are forced to train on multiple systems; pupils are left confused by the bewildering array of ways in which they are expected to learn or submit homework; parents are unsure how they should engage with teachers. Meanwhile, the bursar is left to puzzle over a Byzantine library of software contracts.

Clearly, implementing a long-term strategy is the best way to avoid the pitfalls of platform proliferation and to ensure that school technology is coherent for staff, students and parents alike. The first priority is to ensure that there is the right team in place to plan, implement and manage this strategy. It’s critical that there is no single point of failure: no school can risk placing such an important project in the hands of a single staff member who might leave at short notice.

Instead, those responsible for purchasing decisions – typically, the head of IT, the network manager and the bursar – need to form the nucleus of an IT committee within the governing body. While ultimate decision-making must rest with this council, it’s vital to engage as many different stakeholders at the very earliest stage, to hear their views, make them feel part of the process and give them ownership of the project. Ultimately, there must be a pedagogical reason for selecting any technology, so the voices of teachers are incredibly important at this stage.

Once there is a clear idea of the technology to be implemented, thought must be given to how everything is joined up so that the new tools work seamlessly and schools can centralise administration of the different systems in use. Just as important is ensuring that new technologies are “future-proof” and can work on multiple platforms when hardware needs to be replaced every three to five years.

There is no universal strategy that will work for every school: each establishment will have its own priorities for what it wants to achieve with its technology strategy. Nevertheless, the best route to success is to form a team with clear responsibilities, engage the people who will end up using these systems, create a centralised platform for management and integration and plan for the future.

One last piece of advice is to talk to other schools that have made this journey, find out what’s worked for them and what they’ve learned along the way. They will be the best source of advice for how to implement a system that’s suited both to Susie and Mr Crocker-Harris, not to mention pupils, parents and school administrators alike.

Rob Eastment is client experience manager at Firefly:    

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