Opinion: Five pitfalls that constrain digital adoption in schools

From working on technology projects across the education sector, I see a similar culture of resistance that is bred from poor implementation planning and inadequate change management.

Many schools simply ‘drop’ computers, tablets and interactive projectors into the classroom as a replacement for paper, pens and whiteboards. This makes the value proposition unclear and technology fast becomes an inhibitor to learning rather than an enabler.

Successful technology adoption is founded on an actionable strategy, backed by rational investment decisions, an emphasis on change management, the right leadership structure, and effective ICT governance and support.

Without these components schools will struggle to see a correlation between their IT investments and improved student outcomes.

Discussed below are five common pitfalls that I see in many education technology projects, as well as actionable advice on how these stumbling blocks can be avoided to progress beyond digital learning ‘buzz words’ and see real results.
  1. Failing to establish a shared vision
Clearly defined objectives and a shared vision are the backbone of any successful project. Many schools skip this step and proceed directly to rolling out new tools without identifying and communicating a long-term strategy and the purpose the tools will play in achieving strategic objectives.

School leaders should collectively develop a digital strategy to encourage top-level buy-in from everyone who will be involved in ‘selling’ the strategy to their staff and seeing it through to success. Embed the digital strategy within the school’s existing strategic framework and ensure it is aligned with other concurrent initiatives. The digital strategy should augment existing initiatives rather than be an ‘add on’ or afterthought.

Enrol ‘change champions’ within each of the school’s departments and work with these leaders to advocate digital adoption. Establish a culture of innovation across the school that gives staff the autonomy and confidence they need to try new things. Define what success looks like and agree on ways to periodically measure your school’s performance against its objectives. Set realistic targets that motivate staff to contribute to the school’s ongoing success.
  1. Investing in the wrong technologies
Many schools find themselves caught in the hype of the latest and greatest technologies such as interactive projectors, convertible tablets and touch-enabled desks. These are all great technologies but there must be clear alignment to the school’s digital strategy before an investment decision is made. Every technology investment must be directly or indirectly solving a teaching and learning problem. Without this alignment, it becomes too easy to invest time and money in the wrong places.

It is also important to remember that IT hardware represents one of the many categories of necessary technology investments. Learning management systems (LMS), business intelligence and analytics, and educational applications are all necessary investments for driving and measuring digital adoption.
  1. Forcing staff to run at your pace
Forcing a digital learning vision onto those who are not ready for it will never work. Technology ends up being used because it has to be rather than because it should be. Everyone needs to be taken on the journey at their own pace, with adequate flexibility and independence to deliver lessons the way that works for them.

Until staff are confident using technology and see the value that it can add to their lessons, school leaders will struggle for organisational buy-in. The best way to communicate the value proposition and to build confidence across the school starts with the right culture, segmented change management and communications plans, and tailored professional development opportunities.

Staff will fall into one of five segments across the technology adoption curve: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Each of these segments require a very different approach to change management and professional development. Reach out to staff to understand where they see themselves on the technology adoption curve.
  1. Leaving the IT decisions to the IT guys
Many school IT Departments are led by a technical resource with limited or no teaching experience. On the other hand, many classroom teachers have a limited understanding of what technologies exist in the market and the supporting infrastructure required to deliver and support them. This disconnect often leads to mismanaged expectations and technology decisions that are not in the best interest of students and teachers.

It is critical that curriculum leaders and teachers work side-by-side with the IT Department. By combining the technical knowledge of the IT team with the learning and teaching expertise of classroom teachers, schools are capable of making smarter strategic IT decisions. As part of this process, identify educators that have a healthy scepticism for digital learning as well as those who will be the technology evangelists.

Assign your school’s Digital Leadership position to a member of staff who will be an effective conduit between the classroom and the IT team.
Consider your IT team as the supplier of products and services that must meet the needs of your customers - students and teachers. The Head of IT is the business analyst who translates the needs of teachers’ and students’ into problems that can be solved through technology.
  1. Avoiding responsibility for technology problems
“My computer isn’t working” has become the new excuse for “the dog ate my homework“. This creates a dangerous ‘blame culture’ between the IT Department and teachers.

For successful digital adoption, classroom teachers need to be able to assume that all of their students will have a working computer in front of them. Teachers also need to know that their students are on task.

With laptops on desks, it’s no longer as easy as casting an eye over the classroom. The reality is that teachers often don’t know what students are doing on their computers. Time that should be spent teaching students shouldn’t be wasted circling the classroom to verify that students have work on their screens.

Effective technology governance is only made possible through a collaborative effort between school leaders and the IT Department. Technology governance and support is a joint responsibility, where school leaders must identify governance and support requirements for IT staff to build the support capabilities and controls necessary for addressing those needs.

Technology adoption isn’t going to skyrocket overnight and all five of these elements will require patience and continuous improvement. Deploying new technologies is unlikely to give your school the return on investment you desire unless it is coupled with the right supporting mechanisms.

Thomas Pagram is an experienced IT Projects consultant, specialising in the education sector. Thomas partners with organisations to help them see their ICT-enabled transformation initiatives through to success.