How to have an effective whole-school approach to digital tools in education?

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Does the pervasive presence of gadgets in the classroom detract from the students’ attention? Are schools at risk of becoming technology showcases?

These and many other issues are raised on a daily basis, with arguments for and against the changes we see every day, based on research, opinions and particularly on the experiences of each one from the time they attended school. I have witnessed and been party to many discussions on the inclusion of digital tools in schools.

The answer to the question in the title may seem paradoxical: Schools need to remain open to the world and to include new tools and methods to survive. We cannot continue to keep schools in a bubble: every day our students bring the changing world inside the classroom and it all hinges on the teacher’s strategy. To be successful, any innovative project should include three key steps: Planning, Experimentation and Dissemination. To plan the incorporation of digital tools is a challenge with many variables and it is therefore necessary to experiment, to make mistakes: To learn!

Different teachers, different views

Planning requires an understanding of the human resources available before implementing any project. In my view, teachers may be divided into three digital development stages according to the way they respond to new challenges:

A - This could be useful, I’ll give it a try!
B - I should look into this, but it’s not important now!
C - I don’t have the time to look into it, and in a year’s time things will have moved on!

This is why a large-scale implementation approach should be weighted with a period for experimentation so that the A teachers may validate the process. In this way, with the smaller, more motivated group, it is possible to forge ahead and experiment without fearing failure, and gather very valuable data to disseminate the project. It is important to conduct some reflection on student-reported improvements in different educational aspects.

The next step, dissemination, will cover the B teachers, with the support of the early experimenters. This group of “pioneers” can motivate the others more easily giving examples and assisting the new group.

The C teachers who are more reluctant may or may not join the ongoing movement, since the students who are already participating in the project will now help its implementation, together with the other teachers.

How to?

Here is my view on how to incorporate digital tools in school in a meaningful way:

  • Choice of Methodology – First of all, it is essential that teachers feel the need: they have to understand that the methodologies they use are no longer sufficient, and that more active and student-centred methodologies, such as the flipped classroom, project-based learning, etc., are a suitable response.
  • Choice of Content – Many contents available on the market are expensive, or free but of poor quality. Therefore, teachers have to design their own programmes, adapting them to their situation and creating multimedia presentations that meet their students’ specific needs. At an early stage, the teacher should not vary tools a lot, but rather add new tools as they go along.
  • Choice of Devices – The best device is one that can be used for all academic tasks, i.e. with a keyboard, a tactile screen of at least 10”, and if possible a digital pen. These features will cover most activities.
  • Contagion Effect – From my experience, the best way to bring innovation to schools is by “contagion”. A teacher who experimented, failed, and learned is the best example for everyone else. A real example always works better!

Luis Fernandes is a school principal with a passion for education and technology. As a teacher (1991) and school principal since 1997, Luis has had the opportunity to lead several projects integrating innovation and ICT for students and teachers in schools. These have been awarded local and internationally, including formal recognition from Microsoft of the Freixo School Cluster as an innovative school (2012-2016). Luis is a qualified teacher and also has two Masters degrees in Curriculum Development and School Administration. He is a certified teacher trainer and regularly speaks at conferences and workshops. He is also a member of a range of advisory boards and working groups focusing on the use of technology in education.