The top 10 edtech lessons I’ve learnt after 15 years in schools

I've worked in schools for nearly 15 years, and I'm about to take the next big step in my career, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to lay out some of the most important edtech facts that I wish I’d known when starting out. Let’s go!

1. Simplicity always wins, always

It doesn't matter if the technology you’re pushing is the most sophisticated in depth learning tool ever created, if it’s not better than the alternative only the most IT literate staff are ever going to use it.

The simple fact is that most people won’t change their routine unless your solution is easier, simpler, and is more effective. Yours has to be the path of least resistance.

The history of school IT is littered with the carcasses of Virtual Learning Environments. I've been responsible for rolling out a few VLEs during my career, and each one failed within a year because teachers just didn’t use them. The paper based alternative always had fewer hurdles to overcome than getting involved with something new.

So why, when I rolled out Google Classroom last September did teachers and students immediately swarm to it? Surely they would need my encouragement and training?! Why would someone want to use Google’s immature, featureless classroom management tool over something like Moodle?!

The answer is that Google Classroom doesn't take any effort to use. Teachers didn't care that the marking system was limited, or that you couldn't share classes between teachers. Simply put, Google Classroom did one or two key things — creating and sharing assignments, quickly sharing resources, and building up a student list — really, really well.

In fact it did them so well that many teachers immediately switched from paper based alternatives to Google’s online Classroom with no training or encouragement.

The smallest hurdle can result in a massive drop-off of user engagement. A different username or password, one too many clicks in from the home page, or even just a complicated login screen can mean the difference between a technology suceeeding and failing.

Every time I’ve seen a technology “click” has been because it was simple to use, not because I’d ran a fantasticly inspirational training session on it. These things have to grow organically within your school rather than trying to force people to use them.

We see this again and again with technology companies that “get” user interface. The iPad sold in its millions not because it does everything that a PC does, but because it does 80% of the stuff most people do most of the time, and it does it really well.

Which brings me on to my next point…

2. It’s about people not technology

The Share button in Google Docs is my favourite technology development of the last few years. That single button is a simple, understandable digital metaphor that replaces a plethora of real world interactions.

Google Docs is the perfect example. By sharing a document with someone you’re requiring them to participate. In order for them to view the information you've shared with them they have to engage with Google Docs. Do this enough times and eventually they’ll share a document of their own. This usage pattern then grows at an exponential rate until everyone has to be involved.

3. There’s no such thing as a digital native

Despite the popular myth, no-one is born with a magical ability to understand computers. The inverse is also true, no middle-aged teacher has a mental block on anything developed after 1985.

Where young people do have an advantage is in their ability to learn fast, adapt to changes quickly, and take risks — but this isn't something that is unique to technology — it’s true of every young person born into any generation.

As such we shouldn't mistake the ability to post sepia photos to Instagram, succumb to peer pressure to use the latest instant messaging app, or share gifs on Tumblr as being able to “do IT”.

And as teachers we also shouldn't assume that technology is a “young person’s thing”. That’s not a get out clause for learning new ways of teaching. People over 40 are just as capable as using technology as younger people.

4. Nobody cares how well you manage a server, so don’t waste time doing it

Here’s the rub of it, and I appreciate that this is going to jar with many people, but it’s the truth.

Nobody cares how well your email server is run, or how successfully your backups work, or how many redundant disks are in your RAID array. These things do not impact the daily lives of your teachers and students. They don’t make their world a better place. So don’t waste your time and resources doing it.

We’re in an amazing situation where the biggest technology companies in the world — Microsoft, Google, Apple, and others — are so massively efficient that they can give schools access to their data storage, web apps, and teams of world class engineers and support at no cost.

I challenge any school to run an email service with the up-time, update speed, backup retention, support level, and storage capacity of Google Apps and Office 365. Take advantage of it, you’d be silly not too.

5. Scrappy technology

We've spent the last 20 years thinking of computers as precious jewels that must be cared for, preserved in aspic, and never tampered with. If a student breaks a computer screen the world collapses around their shoulders and they’re disciplined.

There are several reasons for this — but the main one is that technology has traditionally been very expensive.

That cracked screen will probably cost £100 to replace — that’s a big chunk out of the school repairs budget. But we now live in a world where you can buy a great Chromebook for £120, or a solid tablet for £60, and repairs are even cheaper.

We need to start looking at technology as something rough around the edges, something that can be splashed or scratched without Hades opening, thrown on a sofa or in a school bag without worry. With this will come creativity and freedom.

6. Your data is everything, never let a company trap it

The days of having all your user’s data stored in one nice easy to manage location is gone. That home folder on your Windows server is now just one of many places your teachers and students can save their documents, and for many it won’t even be the first option.

Teachers now have a plethora of places they can save their work — cloud storage, flash drives, on their phone or tablet, and unless you provide good alternatives they’re going to use them without your knowledge.

You could write a strict school policy outlining why they shouldn't do these things, but in my experience these are rarely followed. And if you take the route of blocking the use of certain services it will just lead them down another potentially more dangerous path.

Some schools I've seen refuse to use cloud services and require all flash drives to be encrypted using complex desktop software. Here’s the truth — no-one is going to do that.

The golden rule is: people always take the path of least resistance so make sure your school’s preferred solution is also easy to use.

If you’re going to ban flash drives, make sure you've put in an easier alternative or don’t be surprised if all of a sudden you find Dropbox being accessed across your network.

7. Always read the terms and conditions

Okay, so this is a boring one, but it’s the biggest problem for data protection and eSafety I see in schools today.

For example, did you know that you can’t use Prezi with students under 13? Or that by default all the information you enter in Prezi is publically searchable? One teacher I know does — well, after they had their entire class enter their names and home addresses into a Prezi presentation and the complaints from parents came flooding in.

I’m all for teachers experimenting with new apps, but please read the Ts and Cs before sighing up your students.

8. Go to the technology that enables the future not supports the past

When you’re looking to use a new technology, maybe you’re looking for a new cloud service to use, always put more weight in those that support the future rather than those that help you transition from the past.

It’s very appealing to use a new technology which lets you easily transfer over your old documents, emails, or workflows, but you could be blocking yourself off from the rapid developments in other areas as well. It’s nice to bring the past with you, but make sure you’re not limiting future developments.

9. The only thing we can rely on is constant, rapid change

Standards are no more. There’s no longer a one size fits all.

In the old days if you wanted to “do IT” in schools there was a model to follow. A Windows desktop, Microsoft Office apps, and an Internet browser — boom! You’re doing IT.

That’s all gone. There is no longer a baseline on which to base our decisions, and there likely never will be again. New services, new apps, and entirely new concepts of technology are flooding into the industry every day, and it’s impossible to keep up. The best we can do is put in place policies an procedures to allow our teachers and students to take advantage of them in a safe and secure way. IT departments have to ceed control of the day to day control of many areas of technology.

It used to be that we’d stick with a software application for years, maybe even decades. In the future we’ll be switching apps daily.

10. Forget about hardware, the Internet is the platform of the future

Nothing makes me cringe more than when someone claims their school is an “iPad school” or a “Google school”. It’s all PR, stop it!

You might use iPads as your primary hardware platform, but if your data is entirely siloed in Apple’s ecosystem you’re going to find yourself with a lot of problems in the coming years when you want to switch platforms.

Keep your data and your devices independent. Become device agnostic. Forget hardware and operating systems and become a cross-platform service provider.

The great thing about companies like Microsoft and Google is that they’re becoming more and more platform independent — yes, even the traditionally isolated Microsoft has just released its office suite for Android and iOS. That means that you can choose the device you want to use and can be pretty sure that you can access all the data you need.

So what’s the answer?!

The answer is there is no answer! There’s a mindset that says we’re in a period of transition from old to new, but the truth is — this is it. This is the future. The future is constant and rapid change.

While that might be confusing for those managing technology in education what it will provide for teachers and students is a new world of creative choice and innovation. The world of locked down desktops, limited access, and choice of applications is gone. We’re entering a new world and it’s going to be really exciting!

Karl Rivers

Thinking on Educational Technology

Karl Rivers

Written by

Meanderings in Edtech

Karl Rivers

Thinking on Educational Technology