31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 24: Removing Barriers to Entry

Educational technology is different from other areas in the curriculum in one respect especially, which is that its success is partly measured by how much it is being used by non-specialists. With that in mind, the final quarter of this series is about encouraging other staff to use it.

A task a day for 31 daysIn fact, not merely use it, but want to use it. For that to happen, the technology has to be useful, exciting, easy to use, easy to access. Today, I'm going to concentrate on that last one, making the educational technology easy to access. I'll continue with this theme tomorrow.

Let's start with a simple proposition. If the educational technology is easy to access, other staff may or may not make use of it. If it is difficult to access, then they almost certainly won't, except under sufferance, such as if they are forced to by the senior leadership team, or on a particular day they have no alternative.

You have to bear in mind that, these days, it is really quite easy to gain access to a computer if you really need to. Many public libraries have computers which can be booked for an hour at a time, and there are internet cafés, not all of which look like dives. Many teachers have their own computer or, in the UK, a school laptop.

Bottom line: when it comes to using a computer outside school hours, teachers have a lot of choice as to where they go if they want to use a computer for lesson preparation or report writing. In a few days' time I'll be looking at how to encourage teachers to use the school's facilities for their own work.

But what of using the computers with classes? There are several things you can do in order to encourage or facilitate that, but within the context of this series I am going to focus on just one: making sure the equipment is accessible. Today, I am considering computer labs; tomorrow I shall look at equipment that is loaned out.

Remove the barriers to entryThe first step in making a computer lab accessible is to enable staff to actually get into it. Yes, I realise that is pretty obvious, but consider the situation I found myself in in one school:

  • The keys to the computer labs were kept in a Deputy Headteacher's office.
  • You were allowed to go into the office to get a key as long as the office was (a) unlocked and (b) not in use for a meeting.
  • You were allowed to take only one key at a time. (The significance of this will become apparent in a moment.)

What this meant was that what should have been a very simple act — walking into a computer lab — required meticulous planning if you were not to end up waiting outside a computer lab with a class of kids who were becoming more and more unruly by the second while you frantically tried to gain access to the key.

That is assuming, of course, that you had been able to book the use of the room in the first place, because that was another major hurdle. Each room had its own booking timetable, which was available on the teacher's desk in the room.

Sounds logical enough, doesn't it, but suppose I wanted to book the use of the room next Wednesday morning for one of my classes. This is what I could end up doing:

  1. Find key to computer lab A.
  2. Check timetable in Lab A.
  3. Return key and, if computer lab A was booked at the time I need it, take the key for Lab B.
  4. Check the timetable for Lab B.

And so on. There were three computer labs, so checking their availability could, by the time you'd managed to get hold of the key each time, easily take your whole lunch hour. Little surprise, then, that most staff did not bother most of the time. It would be untrue to compare the computer labs to the Marie Celeste, because at least that ship showed evidence of recent occupation.

Sorting this out took surprisingly little time, using a few simple expedients.

Firstly, I redesigned the computer lab booking form. I figured that nobody would care much which computer lab they used (we didn't have a specialist area set aside for, say, multimedia; the only real difference between the rooms was the number of computers in them). Therefore, I amalgamated the room timetables for all the rooms onto one booking sheet, and organised it by time rather than room.

In other words, if you wanted to use the computers next Wednesday morning, you looked at the sheet to see which room(s), if any, were free at that time.

I then placed the booking timetable in the staffroom, which seemed quite logical to me.

These two steps meant that booking a computer lab went from possibly taking an hour to taking less than five minutes.

I also asked the school office to take charge of the keys. After all, there is someone there all the time, so that made perfect sense too.

All of a sudden, gaining physical access to the rooms was no longer a Herculean labour.

There is also the matter of access to the network. I understand the need for security, but I could never understand why some Heads of ICT made it so incredibly difficult to get into the computers unless you ahd your own user ID.

My view is this: there are always going to be students who forget their login details, new students or staff who have not yet been given their login details (even though they should have been) and visitors to the school. So why not create a bank of generic user IDs, like User01, User02 and so on? I believe that as long as people know that the work they create under these names will not be kept very long, and so must be transferred or saved to an external medium if they want to keep it, that's fine. It will only be the odd one or two in a class anyway (one hopes).

Another aspect of access is ease of use. These days, many applications are fairly intuitive if you've been using computers for a while. But not everybody has. When I was Head of ICT I came up with Freedman's Five Minute Rule. This states that someone should be able to come into your 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.

One of the things you might do in order to meet this requirement is to put up posters giving step-by-step instructions for starting each application, how to save work in the word processor, how to print off your picture, and so on.

To be accessible, the computer systems also has to actually work. I will be covering technical support another day, but it's worth saying at this point that if your computers are unreliable, people won't use them. If, for example, there is an intermittent fault such that every so often the network crashes for no obvious reason, you really need to get it sorted out. It may be that it "only" happens on average once a week, or even once a month, but no teacher wants to be the one in the computer lab with a class when it does.

None of the things I've discussed here will in themselves make teachers want to use the computers. What they are all about is reducing, or even removing, the barriers to entry, to borrow a term from the econommists' dictionary. Think of it as a shop might: opening the doors of a shop and putting in signs reading "Menswear 1st Floor" won't get people flocking through the doors. But make it hard to enter the shop in the first place, and then fail to let people find their way around easily, and you will certainly deter all but the diehards or the desperate from even trying.

Look out for another article, coming soon, on why your computer facilities may be lying idle much of the time.