Digital Normalisation in schools

Established education systems are very resistant to change. Developments can bloom for a while only to revert to previous practices when the innovators move on. However I am now convinced that the changes in schooling and learning being driven by the advent of ‘digital’ are unstoppable. The only question is how long it will take schools to realise and respond and how many children will have a worse education than they could because some schools are slow to respond.

‘Digital’ includes the ways that technology enhances learning and the impact of the digital environment. The reason the changes are unstoppable is because they stem from forces acting on individuals that are completely external to schools and education systems. At the core of this is that information and communication technologies (ICT) are fundamentally about learning. Organising information, presenting it and engaging in communications with others about information IS the core of teaching and learning. It is not possible for human beings to use ICT without some learning happening.

How much learning depends on how well individual people are taught to use ICT for learning, or how much they learn how to do this themselves. My father in law who was the Head of a primary school used to say that every person is interested in something. If you could find that something they would engage with energy in talking about it. The two main challenges for our schools are how to engage pupils in learning, to raise their energy in learning , and how to take advantage of ‘digital’ in doing this.

I have been conversing with Mal Lee about digital normalisation. He has written a paper “Digital Normalisation: Key Variables” as a result of many conversations with schools that have succeeded in normalising use of digital wherever appropriate, in the things that teachers and pupils do. The schools that I and my colleagues in Naace are working with around the 3rd Millennium Learning Award illustrate clearly the evolutionary stages Mal is finding in schools in other countries. There are threads of development that need to proceed alongside each other, which you will shortly find an analysis of on my website. Some of these are obvious, such as increasing use of digital by teachers and by pupils. Others are less obvious and as educators we should be discussing them much more. They include:

Vision. Schools need to develop their own vision of what learning and education in a networked world should be, and why they are important. Pedagogy and curriculum have to be discussed without any assumption that traditional ways are best. Everything has to be re-assessed in the light of the digital world.

Insular mindset. Traditional teaching and learning are in large measure viewed as insular activities. And this insular approach is deeply embedded, for example in the concept of ‘cheating’ and in the concept of a ‘class’ led by a teacher. The mindset of both pupils and teachers needs to change to a ‘people network’ mindset. Making this change drives fundamental changes in how ‘schooling’ is perceived and the roles of all the individuals involved in and around schools.

Control of ICT equipment. As ICT has been acquired by schools over the last 30 years it has been managed and controlled centrally by ‘experts’ in schools. This has in some cases been used to extend the ‘control’ that school leaders and teachers have traditionally exercised over what and how pupils learn. Control of what ICT equipment teachers and pupil use has to be devolved. Choice of what ICT to use and when to use it has to be given to individual teachers and learners, with the gatekeepers to technology use surrendering their control and changing their role to become enablers of other peoples’ choice of ICT.

Teaching and learning have to change. Discussing this calls into question many of the deep structural ways that schools are organised into year groups, classes and subjects, and the boundaries of time and space that exist between what happens in schools and learning that happens out of class and school. Schools have to start recognising and rewarding informal and personally chosen learning as well as the statutory learning the government pays them to provide.

Change processes. I can’t express it better so I am going to use Mal’s word here for how a school is progressing change by the time mindsets have started to become ‘people network’ thinking instead of insular thinking. “Positioning of the school to readily accommodate change and sustain the desired evolution. Continuing development of a tightly integrated school ecology that embraces the in and out of school contributions and learning. Escalating empowerment of and trust in professionalism of all staff.”

There are some other threads that have to be developed, such as parent and community links, the school’s online presence, use of digital in administration and of course development of the ICT equipment and systems in use.

Mal’s overall conclusion from his many conversations in schools is that there is a surprising commonality across the world between schools that have normalised use of digital. Such schools may have much more in common with schools elsewhere in the world than they do with neighbouring schools that are way behind them in evolving schooling and learning appropriate to a digital world. With their whole school communities able to use their choice of connected digital technology, for more effective, faster and cheaper ways of working, re-gaining traditional control and approaches would be unpopular, difficult and expensive. I don’t think there is any way back for schools that have properly normalised digital. For which I am very glad; this change has been too long coming. The challenge now is to see how fast we can get other schools to move through the evolutionary changes.

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