We sat down with Dr Neelam Parmar, Director of E-Learning at Ashford School, to discuss Edtech implementation and integration in schools and where the challenges and opportunities are to be found. With her experience as Director of Digital Teaching and Learning, as well as her work in reducing the digital gap between generations, she is perfectly placed to give us the inside track.
According to Neelam, there are several ways to start with EdTech. Every school has a range of stakeholders – students, teachers and parents. From a school perspective, it is the duty of a school to provide their students with the necessary skills for their future. Our students are growing up in a world rich with digital technology and industry expects our pupils to have a wide range of experiences using technologies, or at least the competence to create, invent or make with new technologies. Schools need to be able to get their students to a place where they can deliver higher order thinking skills such as computational thinking, communication, collaboration, creative and critical thinking. While this concept is not new in teaching, the difference comes with how technology is used to facilitate these digital skills in preparing students for their future.
The next step, after understanding the overall objectives for using technology in school, is the preparation of a whole schoolwide digital strategy. Neelam highlights the different ways in which this can be implemented. According to Neelam there are at least three distinct ways in which technology can be implemented into teaching and learning. She has found that most schools have often adopted a blended learning approach in which in which teacher’s dip-in and dip-out using technology within traditional classroom settings. The technology is used very much within school and with an active, hands-on learning setting. This is one effective way in introducing students to the various school based technologies without making dramatic changes to the way teachers teach and conduct lessons in their classrooms.
A second more intermediate approach is to introduce virtual learning environments or school based flipped learning workflows in which students are not only working within a blended environment but are also afforded the opportunities to access school resources, lessons, tasks, feedback, grades, etc. online at anyplace, anywhere and at any time. A third far more radical approach for implementing EdTech and where Neelam believes would be the greatest challenge is to take the Khan Academy or K-12 model and bridge the growing gap between schools. According to her, the real big bang is when schools eventually open their doors to other schools and share their lessons, knowledge, facilities and “who knows, possibly teachers too?!”
With the United Learning group for the last three years, Neelam has worked with several schools that are a long way on the journey towards full integration, but equally some that are only just starting. With those that are further ahead, she believes they are at the point where schools can work together and conduct individualised online courses for their students. She describes this as what currently exists for some university students; “we can offer a similar model to senior students and potentially even to primary pupils… this would be particularly beneficial to those students who are home schooled, or to those who have limited access to education due to long distance travel, severe weather conditions, sicknesses, etc. Technology has advanced so rapidly and Neelam stresses “we are now in a place where I think we can do so much more in education.”
When asked if she sees the technology as a way to level the playing field, Neelam responds that a lot of schools now have some strong systems in place and are considering how best to share them. “There are some exceptional schools who are now ready to contribute into the community.” However, Neelam reasserts her belief that remote learning is still a relatively new concept, and as such is still an untapped opportunity for the education sector.
So what is holding these schools back from implementing it all? Neelam is to the point; a lack of understanding and strategy.
This dearth of understanding needs to be combated with setting a strategy, understanding online pedagogy, engaging content creation and CPD for teachers, students and the community. “This whole process can be overwhelming for the school and/or a teacher who may be assigned the task in leading digital teaching and learning in a school. E-Learning is a big project to take on and can be time-consuming if not fully encompassing. Leading a digital vision in school is not a job for a committee or a strategic team of heads of departments (each will have their own vision) but a task for a high level professional educator, and preferably for someone who has experience working in digital education.” As a minimum, there are three steps in shaping EdTech in schools; implementing the technology, shaping the pedagogy and creating online content – it “can be a minefield, but with a roadmap, it is achievable.”
She concedes that finance is a factor too, “because these things are always very expensive,” but in her own experience, once the technology and educational workflows are implemented effectively, schools have the potential to save money. She highlights the example that once schools have virtual classrooms set, they have the potential to become paperless, thus saving money on copying and printing, notwithstanding the time saved on documenting progress and administration, as all the evidence is on the screen and readily available. Administration is therefore reduced and school processes are streamlined.
Another issue schools now need to factor in as they move into e-learning is the new GDPR rules and regulations. Again, Neelam stresses that schools are on a broad continuum as to their compliancy readiness. “Ashford started its process in January, directed and advised by Head Office, and hence are in a stronger position than most schools, but I am led to believe that some other schools have yet to catch up.” She asserts that someone has to be responsible for its implementation in every school. This person needs to consider where personal data of individuals are stored within the school, their systems, apps, on paper, USB’s PC’s, the Cloud and re-assess school wide policies, forms, privacy notices, local procedures, set staff training, etc. This is no small task and the sooner schools can make a start, the better it will be for them in meeting the deadline. What is certain is that “every single school needs to get on board so they can become compliant by May.”
Finally, schools are subject to the politics of the technology that is out there, says Neelam. “Schools are expected to just get on EdTech landscape and run with it. This is where a lot of confusion lies.” According to Neelam, the problem lies with visions that demand digital restructuring, where perhaps the concept seems fascinating, but without the ability to put it into practice, it is rather pointless. Unfortunately, schools are not in a position to over haul all that they know best to do a complete re-structure. While it is important to have a strategy, and a grand one nonetheless, unless it has a starting point and can pragmatically be integrated into teaching and learning, it will quickly become redundant and lead to theoretical targets that bear little or no relation to real life in a school.
“My biggest worry is that we talk too much and do too little… people have good ideas, and that is where we need to start, but if we don’t have a roadmap, we can lose days, weeks, months even years, with nothing to show at the end of it.”
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