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The ICT Landscape in Schools

In the last ten years, technology has become pervasive across the education system. Through a wave of initiatives, including the National Grid for Learning and Harnessing Technology Strategy, most classrooms across the country now have internet connected computers, and many have projectors and interactive whiteboards. But technology doesn’t stand still. So what will we see arriving in the next five years, and how will it have an impact in the classroom?

According to Gartner Inc., the top technology trends for 2011 include cloud computing, mobile applications and media tablets, and social communications and collaboration. Which of those might have relevance in schools?

There are lots of definitions of cloud computing, but I would describe it as technology that’s not in your school, that you don’t have to look after, and often that you don’t even have to pay for, but which offers valuable services to you. Services like Google Mail or Google Apps for Education, and Microsoft’s Live@edu, offer large scale solutions to problems that have previously required school based technology. They take away most of the administration and technical support, and deliver these services to you, currently at no cost. But it’s not just about e-mail. These services also offer online storage which can be used for homework and class assignments, collaboration services including voice and video conferencing, and online document collaboration. Imagine how powerful some of these tools can be if used in the classroom, or at home.

So what else might work well in a cloud computing environment? If you use a learning platform in your school, the chances are that it is being run for you “out in the cloud”. Are there other services that could move there? Does every school need to have a management information system running locally? Many businesses run their core IT systems in the cloud, and schools are starting to do that too, with a number of management information systems now available that can be accessed through a web browser, without the need for a server in school.

Mobile devices and applications are also becoming more and more common. While some may see the number of smartphones in schools as a threat, particularly in terms of behaviour and discipline, many schools are now embracing these technologies and the benefits that they can bring to teaching and learning. A survey recently undertaken in a large secondary school revealed that students had access to over £1 million worth of technology. Why not find ways to make use of that technology by opening up access to the school network (in a secure way), making sure that online resources provided by the school work well on smartphones and tablets, and encouraging students to use these while learning, both inside and outside school?

Social communications and collaboration is also becoming more widespread. Many websites now carry the Facebook “Like” button, and the use of this and other social tools continues to grow. How might this affect tools used in the classroom? While Facebook might not be welcomed by some, driven by concerns over bullying and the use of these services by younger children, these concerns can and are being addressed and resolved through better education of students and parents. Schools that use Facebook-type functionality in their online learning communities, with collaboration made possible within groups of friends and classmates, are finding real benefits in terms of learning outcomes.

And what is the future for using technology in assessment and formal examinations? It is unlikely that we will see the widespread use of technology in traditional exam settings just yet. Providing hundreds of computers in a controlled environment in every school where exams are being taken is technically challenging and unaffordable for most schools. Yet sitting a three-hour computing examination without access to a computer seems bizarre to many of today’s students. So it is likely that new models of testing and assessment will be needed. Recent news stories about the demise of pub quizzes in an age of smart phones and internet access highlight the challenges from a different angle. But as technology becomes ever more sophisticated, with ubiquitous computers and fabric based (wearable) computing also highlighted by Gartner Inc. as trends for this year, they are challenges that will need to be met.

This article was first published in OCR’s Agenda Magazine in July 2011.