A different approach to digital technology in schools

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It's 2017 in NZ, and our schools aren't producing enough confident, informed digital participants. Sure, they can play games like a boss, but that's just digital consumption. Ask them to do something useful with a computer, and precious few have even a vaguely accurate understanding of what they and their computer are doing.

The schools (by which I mean primary and secondary) have tried to "upskill" teachers, who are usually keen but have more than enough on their plates already. And what, exactly, should they be taught? Even if they were keen, the pace of technology change would vastly exceed the speed of producing more informed teachers who are confident with digital technologies - keeping up is a challenge even for those of us inherently passionate about digitech and working with it professionally every day.

We occasionally hear success stories about schools with digitech champions developing innovative programmes that really engage learners and fellow teachers alike. In my experience, these champions are either: 

  • an energetic teacher who also has a passion and aptitude for digitech, or
  • an amenable and enthusiastic teacher working with a dedicated external volunteer with strong digitech skills.

Sadly, these special individuals don't scale very well.

The Ministry in charge of education has also tried what government departments usually do when they realise that they can't employ enough staff with a specific set of competencies: they outsource... to multinational corporations: the ones who present them with glossy marketing materials and presentations, precisely tuned to be evocative for those coming from an education perspective, but remarkably skinny on the nitty-gritty.

The taxpayer pays them a top secret (but undoubtedly eye-watering) fee each year (although the schools think of it all as "free") and yet, based on my experiences with schools where I regularly volunteer (CodeClub), speak (through the TechHub programme), or meet with administrators and teachers, they still lack confidence or feel underserved in the four main ways in which they use digitech:

  1. admin staff and teachers fullfiling administrative requirements (ask any school staff member how much they love their SMS - Student Management System),
  2. teachers preparing learning materials,
  3. teachers and students accessing/presenting learning materials and undertaking projects (in any number of curriculum areas), and
  4. teachers and students demonstrating and learning about digital technologies in their own right.

Even if teachers and students were to suddenly find confidence in aspects of digitech participation, many things still go wrong with digitech that require more depth of understanding than anyone at a typical school can provide.

The mis-match between commercial IT support services and school needs is universal. Most support providers are focused on where the money is: business customers (not schools). With a few exceptions, they tend to be an awkward fit for schools who don't have a lot of money for proactive support, and often aren't good at explaining what they need. Some unscrupulous support providers exploit the relative naïvete of schools, selling them things they neither need nor can afford while not providing the levels of service they need.

What other options are there? What approach will both help these rare digitech champions to succeed and scale their efforts and address the problem of ill-suited external digitech support?

An alternative approach

Here's one that's so crazy, it just might work.

Imagine if, instead of paying for shiny multinational supplied computers and software, schools instead got good quality but low-cost computers without any expensive multinational software, and got small teams of high school students to set them up with open source software, and maintain them, and provide user support and training for their peers (a one-to-one laptop programme, for example), their juniors in primary and intermediate schools, their teachers, and admin staff.

They would act like a business unit within the school. Yes, each school system would need one or two staff - a teacher champion at least - to help coordinate these student teams and provide guidance, and to engage with external experts where useful.

But this approach would be fundamentally different from the status quo at the secondary level: the students would be in charge of their own computers. The school would extend them their trust. They would be encouraged to explore the open source software world - which, despite being largely unmarketed, is vast and rich, and eminently discoverable for anyone with an internet connection. Their teachers in each subject would encourage them to try the myriad of free software options they could safely install themselves in a minute or two: to edit audio and video, create CAD drawings, write, blog, present, calculate, make mathematical models (and visualise them), draw, paint, animate, compose music, and any number of other things. The teachers would facilitate, but the students teach themselves and one another the technology.

The student digitech teams would earn academic credit for their work and perhaps earn money for extra curricular services (like setting up the computers for their peers or visiting other schools to provide IT support or training)... and either be highly employable directly out of high school, or extremely well prepared for tertiary study if they chose that instead. All the students would be empowered to learn about the aspects of digitech that appealed to them, and there would be no cost or access barriers to thwart them.

If the school had need for specialised software to do useful things, the students could investigate options from the open source world. Or they could build something themselves, collaboratively - not only within their school, but with anyone interested, anywhere else in the world. If nothing else worked, the schools could opt for software from commercial suppliers.

It sounds pretty idealistic, I know. But it's happening right now - some of it even here in NZ. Not only that, it's been documented - there's a very readable instruction manual called "The Open School House" (and a Creative Commons licensed - CC-By-NC-SA - PDF version available gratis for non-commercial use, with express permission from Charlie Reisinger - thanks Charlie!), and a short video introduction to give you the gist.

I'm currently working to establish a pilot of the Open School House approach in Christchurch where I live. Who else wants to help their local school system/Community of Learning have a crack at it?

Also, I encourage readers to buy a paper copy of Charlie Reisinger's book and donate it to your local public library. I've got one sitting here on my desk destined for the Christchurch Public Library.

Update: this is a related talk Charlie gave at TEDxLancaster...

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