It might seem like the most exciting time for Ed Tech in over a decade. There is a government strategy, a sector leadership group (of which I am a member), and over 10,000 Ed Tech companies across the globe vying for our custom (gulp!).
To be honest, I feel more nervous than excited. Not because I do not see the potential impact that technology can have in our schools, but because I am terrified of the time and money that schools may waste (and have wasted) along the way. Too often, schools select software or implement hardware strategies that do not deliver sustained benefits. The causes of this are widely known. In 2018, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published a guide on how schools can implement new programmes and practice, noting “it doesn’t matter how great an education idea or intervention is in principle—what really matters is how it manifests itself in the day to day work of people in schools.” This holds true for new technology projects as well.
To avoid technology becoming a distressed purchase, I recommend that schools consider the following things.
Identify the problem, before finding a solution
Often schools implement a new approach or buy new software with a clear understanding of the outcome they want, but too little clarity around the problem that they need to solve. Any approach that involves technology should be nothing more than a delivery mechanism for school improvement.
In defining a problem, it is important to be precise. We need to understand why an area has become a school improvement priority. Let us take attendance as an example. There can be many reasons why students are not coming to school—Do they have poor relationships with staff? Are they unable to access the curriculum? Are there factors in the community that are causing problems? Is it a transport issue? Another example might be improving the rate of homework completion. To address this a school should be clear on what is preventing this from happening effectively now –is there a lack of adherence to the policy for setting homework? Is it related to parent support at home? Are there consequences when students do not complete their homework?
This should so far feel like reassuring advice to school leaders, as it is at the heart of any successful school improvement model.
If you have a tight area of focus, you are more likely to get what you want from a partnership with a supplier. Now is the time to start window-shopping and considering possible solutions.
Agree your impact measures and secure a strong baseline
“If I am going to try something new in my school, how will I know if it has worked?” This is an important a question to be able to answer.
Before you embark on any new school improvement project or intervention in your schools or across your school trust (whether that project is tech related or not), you should identify a secure baseline measure and establish your protocol for pre and post-measures. You might choose to use a quantitative measure such as a standardised test scores, or pastoral measure such as attendance or exclusions from your MIS, or it might be more appropriate to select a qualitative measure such as a survey. If there are non-academic outcomes that you care about, be upfront in saying so and work out how to measure them.
Yet evaluating the impact of projects in schools is inherently difficult. We are not journeying down a straight road, but facing roundabouts and messy junctions. Initiatives are surrounded by noise, and impact is hard to pin down (causation or correlation?).
"It doesn’t matter how great an education idea or intervention is in principle—what really matters is how it manifests itself in the day to day work of people in schools"
Set milestones and goals for your initiatives. These should be clearly defined and measurable (from the baseline that you have set).
It is up to you how robust these impact measures are. From a peer recommendation or an expert opinion, through to a double-blind randomised controlled trial, there is a range of evaluation approaches out there. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this, but it is unlikely that you want to wait two years to see the outcome of a randomised controlled trial before trying something new. Do what feels manageable. Evaluation is important, but it should be proportionate to the programme. Your evaluation measures should be agreed with all stakeholders (including your software partner) so that you can work together in assessing the impact over time.
Think cloud, and ensure interoperability
If you think you are ready to choose something new, then there are a few pre-requisites that I would consider. If you have not already moved most of your IT infrastructure to the cloud yet (removing servers from dark cupboards hidden around your school), then you should start to. Evidence from groups of schools in the UK suggest this can save up to 40-50percent in IT hardware and services costs over 5 years. The days of buying software that needs to be installed on physical machines on site are mostly over. Embrace the cloud and seek out software that can be accessed online, from any location, and with a single unified log in. If the software that you are thinking of purchasing relies on student and class data to work effectively, ensure that they have a clear data processing agreement, and are willing to use APIs to automatically move data between systems. It is no longer acceptable, in my view, to be uploading and downloading csv files containing student data.
Find a partnership not a contract
Once you have clarity on all of the above, you are in a better position to confidently select a partner to support you in solving your problem. You want to work with a software provider that cares about their product—one who would be upset if you wound up using it incorrectly. You want them to help you to identify and secure the data points that you need, share their product development roadmap with you, and work with you to develop your evaluation/impact measures and approach.
Ensure capacity in your school
Finally yet importantly, you need to make sure that you have structures in place to manage the change programme that will enable you to launch something new. You need to ensure that there is adequate engagement with, and training for your staff, so that you can gather feedback and iterate on new processes. You also want to have the appropriate leadership in place to keep a project on track. Without all of these steps, any new technology launched in your school is unlikely to stick.
In summary, most technology problems come not from purchasing the wrong piece of kit or software, but rather from not having the right process in place to identify the problem you are trying to solve to begin with. Both school leaders and ed tech suppliers who not only acknowledge this, but aim to address it, will find adoption and impact much easier.