From keeping in touch with friends, to hailing a cab, and even allowing us to control the temperature of our houses from our phones, Technology has become increasingly pervasive, changing the way we do things and how we interact with one another. Contrary to what some would think, Education was not left out of this revolution. In recent years, an incredible number of digital tools and platforms have seen the light of day which try to improve how people learn, how teachers share their knowledge and allowing pedagogical resource providers to reach an ever increasing number of people. But in Education, things cannot change as rapidly as in other sectors because the cost of doing something wrong has long lasting consequences. Pedagogical practices have been refined over the years and introducing changes requires a lot of thought.
In this post, we would like to first look at some areas where Technology could actually add value to existing practices, and how it can be used to solve particular pain points. Then we will move on to sometimes unforeseen challenges schools and universities face when going digital. Finally we will provide some thoughts on how to ensure the digital transition is as smooth and as successful as possible.
Here are some areas where digital solutions could make sense, with the things they enable:
Probably one of the biggest challenges any teacher faces with a classroom is to ensure all students acquire the knowledge they are supposed to. But each person learns in a different way and at a different pace. Using digital tools can allow teachers to provide different teaching materials, such as text lessons, videos, exercises or even pedagogical games, that cater best to individual student's needs. Making those resources available online, opens up a world of possibilities such as Flipped Classrooms, Differentiation, or Gamification.
One important aspect of a student's academic success is the ability to self-assess, as this gives the student more ownership over their learning process. For parents, it is also important to make sense of their children's report in order for them to give better support. As such, crafting good user interfaces, with common components such as dashboards, that are adapted to both the student's age and the subject matter help make this information more understandable.
For teachers, new developments in Docimology may impact the way they used to work and assess their students. A digital solution that helps them reuse their existing teaching material will make adoption of new assessment practices easier and more widespread across faculty members.
Improving communication between teachers, parents and students is an ongoing effort and digital tools have become the de facto solution for most communication channels. From email to forums, or even using Slack in the classroom, there is a plethora of tools that try to make communication more efficient or have information shared be more accessible. For institutions, this can raise important issues such as privacy, moderation or centralising communication channels. More often than not, existing products don't fulfil every requirements and bespoke solutions could make more sense rather than just falling back to email.
After having glanced over possible use cases for technological tools in Education, we now will start looking at some usual problems that arise when it is time to actually implement those solutions. We will focus on three points: Costs, Security, and Tool/Practices fit.
Budgets in Education are notoriously constrained, that is why careful costs consideration are important. One common example is a school deciding to buy 30 computers or tablets for a room so that every student can have their own online access while in this classroom, only to find that 30 devices trying to watch the same video on Youtube can put some serious load on your internet bandwidth. Aside from the aforementioned not loading, it may impact the classroom next door or anyone currently trying to get some work done online. The naive approach to this issue is often to increase the bandwidth, which entails an unforeseen cost increase for the institution. To add insult to injury, schools usually find out that increasing the bandwidth does not fix the actual issue and they just end up with a pricier internet bill and expensive devices not being used any more.
This scenario could easily be avoided if the institution had a technology partner, as this is a known and solved problem in IT.
It is also good to keep in mind that financial costs are not the only ones involved in modernizing the classroom. Other kinds of costs come into play such as time, as educational institutions have hard deadlines, and people that either need to be trained or hired to ensure the success of the digital transition.
Privacy, Security and Resilience
One major source of concern for schools is the security aspect. Besides obvious authentication (who can access) and authorization issues (what can a user have access to), there are potential legal considerations to keep in mind with regards to what information is being stored, where it is being stored, and how it is encrypted. This is where off the shelf solutions usually fall short.
Those considerations also lead to some more thoughts around the defence mechanisms against inside and outside threats. As the information stored is highly sensitive, both on site and in the cloud solutions have to mitigate external threats, but also prevent students from changing their own grades for example (yes this happens).
One last note, maintenance, backup and overall availability are key in making sure services are always up when needed and that catastrophic scenarios can be recovered from.
When it comes to adoption of new tools and technology, a few items can play a part, but the most important is that the proposed tool actually solves a use case for their users. On one hand, tools that are pushed from top to bottom usually face a decent amount of rejection from end users. On the other hand, trying to reach a consensus on what available tools to use can be hard. That is where custom built solutions usually shine, as a competent technological partner can help design a system for school users and integrate it tools users already love and use, bringing in the best of both worlds.
Another area where custom built solutions have an advantage over off the shelf ones is that often schools have students of different age ranges. Having 6 year old using something like Excel or young adults using a Fisher Price like user interface is ... less than ideal. Don't force a digital solution to your users if it does not meet your actual requirements.
Considering the challenges that may arise, we'd recommend not trying to do it on your own, but instead to search for a partner to help you modernise your institution.
Before even starting your search for a digital solution provider, make sure you and your team are in a good position to start the actual transition:
- Identify stake holders inside your institution and figure out where you all want to move towards to.
- Decide on where your initial efforts should focus. The idea is to start small, then reiterate on the solution to reach your end goal.
- If it doesn't exist yet, create a technical referent role in your institution. This role should preferably be filled by a faculty member as that person will be the main liaison between your external partner and your institution.
Here are a few of the things you should look out for in a potential partner:
- As obvious as this may sound, don't hire your nephew to create your website. Go for a company with experience in building tailored solutions for businesses. Keep in mind that paying for expertise will prevent you from spending more due to unforeseen problems.
- To protect you from high up front costs and to make sure you end up with the best fit for your institution, prefer potential partners who practice Continuous Delivery.
- Try to find a partner with previous experience dealing with your industry, as Education has a distinct set of requirement and practices.
When it is time to start making the digital transformation a reality, it is important that it be done in a timely manner. Again, try to start small, provide frequent feedback to your technological partner so that they can iterate quickly on proposed solutions. With both parties doing their part, you can be confident in the quality, usefulness, and overall fit of the end product.
There are many valid use cases for introducing technological solutions to existing classrooms, providing value for all parties involved, improving existing workflows, and helping solve some new challenges. But deploying digital solutions is something that needs to be done with care so as to avoid unnecessary strains on budget, to ensure private data is being kept securely, and to make the digital transition the success story it should be. In order to achieve that, you will have to identify the key areas where you should start focusing, selecting a partner with the right technical skill set, and implement the solution in a gradual manner.