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Friday
Apr302010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader: Consolidation Day 1

A task a day for 31 daysThere is always a danger with any series like this that, with a new task or challenge being presented each day, it can all become somewhat relentless. For that reason I decided at the outset that I would insert some 'consolidation days'.I suppose technically that's cheating a bit, because it will make the series longer than 31 days — but I never said anything about the days being consecutive!

Reflection is a good thing, so let's cogitate on what's been achieved over the first seven days.

In fact, reflection is a good word to use in this context, because what this week has been mainly about is metaphorically sitting back and watching and listening. The exception was Day 2, of course, which was designed to both satisfy leaders' innate predilection to actually do something, and to set events in motion that would have long-term benefits without being too disruptive in the short-term. As I've suggested before,one of the worst things you can do, if you're new to the job, is to go around changing everything before you really know what's what. You want to make your mark as a new leader, but hopefully you'd prefer to be known for being incisive and doing what's needed, than for being impetuous and self-obsessed (which in my opinion is a characteristic of people who act without doing some fact-finding first).

If you've been rising to the challenge every day, what you should have by now is a kind of shopping list of issues to address, and some ways to address them. You will have found out what, in your opinion, needs looking at through the exercises on Day 1 (SWOT analysis), Day 4 (getting out and about) and Day 7 (wall displays). You will also have started to think about ways of dealing with these issues, whether in the short term (Day 6, quick wins) or the longer-term (Day 3, find a non-specialist geek, and Day 5, draw up a wish list). Remember, the whole focus of this series is to stimulate some thinking, not necessarily to solve all the problems straight away.

If you haven't had time to look at one or two of these tasks, well, today's a good day for catching up!

The next seven days will involve further looking, but at a deeper level, and will also involve other people.

Thursday
Apr292010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 7: Wall Displays

A task a day for 31 daysTake a look around you. I don't mean around the school, as suggested on Day 4, but around you. What are the walls of your classroom like? If your school has computer labs, what's on the walls? How about the walls in the general area itself, outside the rooms?

Walls are not there simply to separate rooms or hold the roof up. Well, they are, but you can use them for so much more. And if you're not allowed to put anything on the walls then investigate the possibility of having digital displays, in the form of mobile 'walls', plasma screens or, if it comes down to it, a computer station or two at the back of the room running an automated PowerPoint show. I'm not saying that's ideal, and I recognise there may be practical drawbacks, but I am just trying to convey the idea that there is no need to, and nothing to be gained by, taking a defeatist attitude in that kind of situation.

What's it all for?

Before we go any further we need to stand back and ask the big question “why?”. To put it another way: what is going to be the impact on teaching and, especially, learning, of your classroom display? If the answer is “not much”, then there’s little point in bothering.

That may seem a little uncompromising, but schools are about learning. Anything which does not contribute to that goal, whether directly or, perhaps by creating a safe, stimulating and pleasant environment, indirectly, is simply a waste of time and energy.

The same goes for notices in a computer lab. All too often they are full of what you must not do. After three minutes you start to feel as though you've entered a prison. What's on the walls should enhance your desire to learn and do stuff, not make you wish the end of the lesson had arrived.

How effective is the display in your classroom? Try this as an experiment to find out how much notice your class takes of the wall displays. Ask them to tell you, without turning round to look, what country is shown on the map at the back of the classroom. The best situation in which to do this is one in which there is no map, nor ever has been, in the back of the classroom. The pupils will almost certainly come up with all sorts of answers except the correct one.

If that happens then you will know that your display has been less than successful!

Types of display

Nothing, nada, zilch

The most basic type of display is no display at all. In other words, there are just plain walls and doors. You may think it is frivolous to count this as a display at all, but bear in mind that the environment the pupils have to work in conveys a message to them. In this case, the silent message could be that they are not important enough to worry about. Even if this is stretching the significance of the so-called ‘hidden curriculum’ a little too far, it has to be admitted that the complete absence of anything at all on the walls cannot exactly produce a stimulating learning environment.

It may be, of course, that the school has been built, and is being maintained, through a private finance initiative (PFI) or similar arrangement, and that one of the conditions of use is that nothing is put on the walls, or other restrictions. That is something that should have been spotted, and negotiated out of the contract altogether, at the planning stage, so it is too late to do anything about it immediately - although it may be possible to find ways to work around it, as suggested earlier.

Posters

Another type of display is created by putting posters on the walls. These can be obtained from companies, in which case they contain advertising, or educational periodicals. The main function these serve in practice appears to be to brighten up the room. In some cases they serve a second function as well: that of covering up unsightly marks or cracks. Ideally, they should help to provide information or points for discussion that can be brought into lessons.

Showcase

A third type of display is intended to showcase children’s work. The walls are festooned with print-outs - sometimes annotated in colourful felt tip - and extracts from pupils’ folders. If you have someone on your team who is great at putting things on walls in a way that makes people burst with pride at seeing their work on them, ask them if they'd be kind enough to be in charge of all that sort of thing.

Perhaps in return you could negotiate some sort of quid pro quo with the powers-that-be, something useful like having one or two guaranteed free periods a week in which to manage it. If that's not an option or not applicable, then take away some aspect of administration, or even try to obtain a small salary increase for them, although that is both unlikely to happen and is not without its difficulties if it does happen. If the person is a teaching or classroom assistant, then build in display duties as part of their timetable if you can.

The point is simply that although many staff in school do extra things and go above and beyond the call of duty, that's no reason to expect it and take it for granted.

Guides…

Another type of display consists of sets of instructions. Information on the walls tells users how to achieve something, like printing to the colour printer.

… and Guidance

A related type of display is sets of rules, intended as guidance on how to behave near the computers or how to make sure the equipment stays working. I have always applied Freedman's 5 Minute Rule: Someone should be able to come into my computer suite, log on, do some work, print it out and save it and log off, all in the space of 5 minutes even if they had never set foot in the school before. See 7 Rules For Teachers and ICT Co-ordinators for more on this plus six other great rules.

Terminology

Finally, the display may consist of sets of technical terms, or key words, which the pupils are expected to learn. These can and ought to change to some extent to reflect the topics currently being considered.

Issues

There are a number of important issues to bear in mind:

  • All of these types of display may be important, but possibly not equally important.
  • The different types of display are not mutually exclusive.
  • You, the teacher, don’t have to actually do the work for the display necessarily - but you do have to manage it.

Action

So, how might you improve your immediate learning environment by addressing the wall displays? Could this be another 'quick win', as discussed on Day 6?

I am currently in the process of updating and expanding my book about the importance of display. Look out for announcements about that.

Wednesday
Apr282010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 6: Find Quick Wins

A task a day for 31 daysIf you have been reading and carrying out, or at least thinking about, the tasks so far, you're now in a position to think about quick wins.

I said on Day 1 that the last thing you want to do is go in changing everything before you've had a chance to see what's going on. In fact, I read some advice for new Heads of Department to the effect that you should make no suggestions in senior management meetings until you've been in post for at least half a term. That may not be entirely feasible, but there's a grain of common sense there, and the same applies here. A major change, like getting rid of the computer labs altogether, may fly in the face of everything the school holds dear and has been working towards for years, in which case you'd have a hard time even getting the idea off the ground. Big changes need time and ground work.

But quick wins, as the term suggests, are different. They are small changes which you can bring about immediately, or almost immediately, but which have a profound effect. The key thing is that they are often incredibly simple. Here are some examples from my own experience:

Putting a printer in each computer lab

In the school I joined as Head of ICT, there were two and a half computer labs (one was really a Business Studies room), but only one really expensive printer, which was locked away in the server room. Indeed, it was so expensive that when it went wrong the call-out charge for a service engineer cost £60 (approximately $90) — and that was before they even did anything. And hardly anyone used it anyway, because it was locked away.

At that time, new inkjet printers cost around £70, so it made perfect economic sense to buy three of them and install one in each room. Suddenly, printing out your work was easy and natural instead of the dreadful hassle it had been. Bringing about this change took just a week, from placing the order to having the new printers up and running on the school network.

Changing the room-booking procedure

Another small change, which was big really, was changing the way the computer labs could be booked by non-ICT classes. It took me about an hour to change the procedure such that it would now take someone two or three minutes to book a room instead of an hour or more. I'll be saying more about what I did on another Day.

If you've just joined the school, or if you followed Doug Woods' advice, namely:

Try looking around your school as if you were a visitor and see what perception it gives.

you're in a great position to look at the situation with fresh eyes — a situation which most people have become so used to that they never question it.

Making small changes can have a big effect on what you might call 'the user experience'. The benefit usually far outweighs the effort involved. So now that you've carried out a SWOT analysis (Day 1), walked around the school (Day 4) and thought about what you'd do if you had bucketfuls of cash (Day 5), have a think about what you could change or put into place today or tomorrow that would make a huge difference to the way your colleagues, and the students, perceive and use educational technology in the school.

Tuesday
Apr272010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 5: Draw Up a Wish List

A task a day for 31 daysLet's take a break from looking around — a break, mind you: we haven't finished yet — and do a spot of introspection and daydreaming. I've always thought it a good idea to draw up a wish list of stuff you'd like to see in the school as far as educational technology hardware and software is concerned.

I think this is an important thing to do for two reasons. One is that I think every good leader has dreams. Maybe your particular vision seems impossible right now, but it's important to dream about it nonetheless. Thinking of what could be has, I think, a subtle aspirational effect, and that rubs off onto others. Another is quite simply that if you suddenly find yourself with a windfall to spend on educational technology, or are asked to bid for some funding with very short notice, it's as well to have a sort of shopping list up your sleeve.

And I should say here that, whilst I like to think of myself as both a practical and pragmatic person, there is absolutely nothing wrong with daydreaming. Indeed, I think it is necessary. Where it all goes wrong is where someone has a dream, and does nothing whatsoever to bring it to reality. Dreaming is necessary, as I said; it is not sufficient.

Without a vision, how could you even start to draw up a wish list? A wish list should not be a ragbag of random items thrown together, but should reflect what you'd like learning and teaching with technology in your school to look like. That's the starting point: not "How many pocket camcorders would I like?", but "How can we help youngsters express themselves without having to speak it or write it?".

I suggest the following 'rules' for drawing up a wish list:

  • Base it on a vision for learning and teaching, as already mentioned.
  • Discuss it with colleagues and students. Perhaps your wish list could start as the 'seed funding' for an ideas bank. Why not set up a wiki for this?
  • Organise it into price bands. The reason for this is that I think it's good to have an instant answer to each of these questions, and all the ones in between: "How would you spend £100 if I gave it you now?"; "How would you spend £5m if I gave it to you now?" Sometimes you may find yourself in a situation in which you have to come up with an answer very quickly (in one case for me it was instantly) in order to acquire the money. Therefore it's a good idea to adopt the Boy Scouts' motto, Be Prepared.
  • Keep reading magazines, educational news, and blogs. You need to keep abreast of what's 'out there' in order to be able to include it in a wish list. I'll cover this in more detail at a later date. But it's another reason to make sure others may contribute to your wish list, since they may know things that you don't.

Above all, keep your wish list up-to-date. Is a new dot matrix printer really the pinacle of your aspirations?

Monday
Apr262010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 4: Get Out and About

A task a day for 31 daysA really useful thing to do is to get out of your own learning area and walk around the school. It's hard to find the time to do, because you're either teaching a full timetable or you need to use your non-teaching periods for lesson preparation and marking and so on. But if you can arrange it you will almost certainly find it quite enlightening.

The point of the exercise is to quickly get an idea of how embedded is the use of educational technology in the curriculum. Checklists and surveys often tell you what people would like to see happening, but not necessarily what IS happening. Walking around the school can give you a rough and ready idea. It's not scientific, but it may help you to pinpoint areas to focus on — either because they seem especially strong, or particularly weak.

Things to look out for include:

  • What is the signage like on the display boards in the different parts of the school?
  • Are there photos up of kids using technology?
  • How many lessons are actually using technology, or at least include some children using it, as you walk around?

One thing you need to try and avoid is walking around the school at the same time every week, because it stands to reason that you're likely to keep seeing, or not seeing, the same thing. So a variation of this is to ask members of your team to do this as well. If they don't have time, then keeping their eyes open on the way to and from the staffroom and when they're walking around the school anyway can be very useful.

And as you walk around, think to yourself: does this feel like a school which has technology at its heart? Remember: it's the general impression, not the nitty-gritty detail, that you're supposed to be aware of.

Sunday
Apr252010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 3: Find a Non-Specialist Geek

A task a day for 31 daysEconomists have a concept called 'Comparative Advantage', which runs like this. Suppose I'm really good at painting, but lousy at plastering, and you're a wizard at plastering but don't know one end of a paintbrush from the other. It doesn't take too much mental effort to work out that you and I should come to an arrangement: I'll do your painting if you do my plastering.

So far, so obvious. But here's the surprise: it turns out that even if I'm better than you at both painting and plastering it could still be worthwhile us coming to exactly the same sort of arrangement. It all depends on one thing: are you relatively, ie comparatively, better at one of the skills than I am, and vice-versa? If so, it makes sense for each of us to focus on our strengths.

So what does all this have to do with being an ed tech leader? Quite simply that even if you're the acknowledged ICT expert in the school, there may still be colleagues who could teach some aspects of ICT much better than you can for the same amount of effort.

For example, I know a Teaching Assistant who is an artist and poet, and a visual thinker. The consequence of this is that he will often think about using animation, video, or photo story-telling techniques to get the point across. If I worked in the same school as him, it would make perfect sense to try and arrange for him to work in the ed tech lessons teaching the kids all about using those approaches. Even if that were not feasible, at the very least I would try and cajole him into running a training session for staff, or even only my team, so that we could start using those techniques effectively too. I could do all this myself, but even if I know more about all this than he does (which I'm sure is not the case anyway), in the time it takes me to prepare one animation lesson and all the resources I need, I could have prepared two or three lessons centred on spreadsheets. Using this fellow would be a much better use of resources.

When I was Head of ICT, there was a science teacher in the school who knew a database I'd just purchased inside out. I knew it well too, but I asked her if she'd be good enough to run a training session for my team and me. It seemed to me that, having used it for longer than I had, and having used it with students in the classroom, she'd be much better than me at pointing out pitfalls, workarounds, extra resources and so on. I was right.

So this is what I mean by 'non-specialist geek': someone who isn't a specialist in educational technology as such, but has an in-depth knowledge of one particular field that has a place in the ICT curriculum.

There are lots of examples once you start looking and listening. They may even be in your own team. Perhaps one of them has been delving into their family history, which makes them a geek of sorts on research and databases. Maybe one of them works as a DJ at weekends, in which case they know about compiling playlists and mixing sounds.

Who do you know in your team, or in the school as a whole, who has expertise in one particular niche of educational technology? Who has such a passion for it that they can make it come alive in a way that you cannot?

Once you've identified such people, it probably won't take too much effort persuading them to talk about something they're passionate about, but you have to think of practical issues, like:

  • Are they able to help out in your lessons, ie does the timetable permit it?
  • If they do help out, can you negotiate a quid pro quo with whoever arranges cover for absent staff, eg that they're not called on to cover for those lessons?
  • If they give up an hour after school to run some training for your team, what can you offer in return? Training their team in some other aspect of educational technology perhaps?

Whatever arrangement you come to, even if they don't actually want anything in return, I think it's important to send an email to their own team leader saying what a great help they've been, and thanking him or her for allowing it to go ahead. Thanking someone is both good manners and costless, and by doing it in writing you ensure that the fact that they helped out isn't lost in the fullness of time.

Saturday
Apr242010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 2: Delegate a Unit of Work

A task a day for 31 daysDesigning units of work is quite a labour-intensive task. Even if you’re using a set of ready-made units, you will probably still want to customise them  for your school or class. One way of reducing the burden on yourself, and at the same time injecting fresh ideas into your lessons, is to ask others to take responsibility for one or more units.

This is much easier to do, of course, if you lead a team of people than if you’re co-ordinating the efforts of people who are not answerable to you. Even there, however, you can often find a colleague who is mad keen on one particular aspect of educational technology, and who would not require too much persuasion to take on such a task.

For example, is there a teacher who enjoys making videos? Is there one who enjoys geocaching? Does another colleague love graphic design?

It’s crucial to delegate the responsibility, not merely the task. Nobody would thank you for being asked to be a glorified work experience assistant! It entails setting the main objectives, to ensure that overall the curriculum or scheme of work is being fully covered, and then leaving everything to them. And I mean everything:

  • The lessons
  • The lesson materials
  • Preparing resources on the school’s VLE
  • Booking computer equipment as required
  • Organising permission slips if a school visit will be involved
  • Running training sessions with the rest of the team.

You may find, as I did when I tried this out, that some colleagues are a little under-confident. In that case, by all means provide them with the lifeline of being able to have meetings with you to discuss their ideas and any practical matters arising.

The result, as I can testify, is a set of teaching units which contain ideas you’d never have thought of, devised by colleagues who feel a great deal of ownership of, and pride in, the scheme of work. Crucially, engaged and enthusiastic teachers generate engagement and enthusiasm in their students, making it more likely that they will make progress.

Friday
Apr232010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 1: Carry Out a SWOT Analysis

A task a day for 31 daysWelcome to the 31 Days series. The aim of it is to provide challenges to help you become an even better educational technology leader than you already are. If you have only just found about the series, I suggest you read this article first.

In case you have already read this article through the preview sent to Computers in Classrooms subscribers, I've added more at the end.

Businesses do this all the time. The acronym ‘SWOT’ stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats, and carrying out this kind of analysis is a good way to start looking at your circumstances in an honest and holistic way.

You can carry it out in a back-of-an-envelope kind of way, on your own, or use it in a team meeting. The advantage of the former is that you can very quickly generate ideas about what needs to be done, or at least what needs to be discussed.

In the illustration below, for example, you could take all of these points and turn them into an agenda of issues to discuss with your team.
Example of a SWOT analysis
The advantage of the latter approach as a starting point is that you get everyone else’s ideas too. If you’ve just joined the school as the ICT leader, the last thing you want to do really is go in like a bull in a china shop changing everything based on what could turn out to be mistaken assumptions.

This exercise is a good way of getting the lowdown on the situation, or at least your colleagues’ opinion of what the situation is, before devising a plan of action.

Variations on the theme

The whole point of carrying out a SWOT analysis is to get the big picture of the ICT provision in your school very quickly. Checklists have their place, because they help to ensure that you cover everything, but this kind of broad brush approach can lead to people identifying issues that they would probably never think of even putting on the checklist in the first place.

But you don't have to use the standard SWOT table as exemplified above. You could, for example, take the approach used to do assessment in many primary schools: three stars and a wish. So, you ask each of your colleagues to come up with three things they think are really good about the ICT in your school, and one thing they wish was in place.

An alternative is to ask them to suggest three things that are really good, two things which could be improved and one thing they'd really like to have.

Yet another variation, if you don't have a team as such or are feeling fairly brave, is to set up a survey for staff at the school (pupils too if you like, but I'll be dealing with them separately in this series). There are two problems with asking staff for their opinion:

The first is that it can become a bit depressing if people start throwing all their ICT-related problems at you in one fell swoop! However, this is an excellent exercise to carry out if you have only been at the school five minutes, because nobody could reasonably blame you for all that's perceived as being wrong.

Secondly, you would need to handle your request very carefully, not just because everyone is busy, but because it's easy to raise false expectations. Some things simply cannot be changed overnight, but not everyone understands that.

Of course, if few people are using technology in their lessons, or do so only sporadically, you will need to ask your colleagues for their opinions in order to find out why.

Getting back to the SWOT analysis carried out only within your team, there are variations in the way you go about it. For example, you might ask each person to carry out a back of the envelope exercise before coming to the next team meeting, so that you can all compare notes in the meeting itself. This saves time in the meeting, but does require you to ask busy colleagues to do yet one more thing.

Once at the meeting you could organise a 'snowball' activity, whereby colleagues go off in pairs and agree the list of strengths etc. Then the pairs get together and agree the list as a foursome. This approach is an effective way of getting to the key issues if you lead a fairly large team (four or more), or if you were doing it as a whole staff exercise.

An alternative approach is to ask one member of the team to come up with a list of three or four strengths, another to focus on the weaknesses, and so on.

Next steps

Once the issues have been teased out through the SWOT analysis, priorities for action will need to be established, followed by courses of action to be carried out by each person, and by when. In other words, the SWOT analysis helps to guide the team's future activity. The nice thing about working that out in this sort of way is that each member of the team will have had a say in the matter.

If you have any views about this idea, or can suggest a different way of obtaining a similar result, please leave a comment.

Friday
Apr232010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader: Information

A task a day for 31 daysThe first part of this series will be published at 8am this morning. The whole point of it is to suggest ideas, so have a notepad and pen ready (remember those?) and a mug of tea or coffee.

The things I'll be suggesting have worked, they're not just theories I came up with whilst lying in the bath. However, they may not all work for you in your particular circumstances. So be creative! Use the ideas as a starting point for your own thinking. I promise I won't be checking up on you!

I'd be interested to learn how you find the series, and how you've adapted some of the ideas.

Wednesday
Apr212010

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader

How do you get to be a better educational technology leader in a school? Lots of reading, obviously. Plenty of networking, both online and offline. Getting to conferences, again both online and offline. But where do you go for a more structured approach, that you can do in your own time and at your own pace?

A task a day for 31 daysI don’t know the answer to that question, so I thought I’d start my own ‘course’ – actually just a series of blog posts for the next 31 days. Inspired by such luminaries as Darren Rowse, Steve Dembo and Shelly Terrell, the 31 Days series sets a new task every day. Taken as a whole, these challenges should help you do an even better job than you’re doing already. So it should prove useful even for old hands, as well as folk who have just taken on a new job as ICT or Technology leader or co-ordinator.

What was that about a daily task? Don’t worry: I know everyone is busy. Therefore, the task I’ve set for each day shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to consider and start the initial steps. I’m not suggesting that each task will only take 15 minutes in total; rather, I am asking you to set aside 15 minutes a day to look at the tasks, maybe jot down some notes about it, perhaps talk to colleagues about it. In other words, each task is a sort of jump-starter to get some different ideas flowing.

The new series will start on Friday, but you can read the first two instalments later today if you’re a subscriber to Computers in Classrooms, the free newsletter.  You can sign up using the form on the newsletter page.

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