By Mal Lee and Roger Broadie
Central to the workings and continued evolution of every digital school is a highly effective and efficient digital communications suite – a comprehensive integrated suite of digital services that allows all within the school’s community to readily and inexpensively communicate and interface with the socially networked world. Its construction should be one of the first tasks. Importantly, it falls into the ‘low growing fruit’ category, where the school can make significant progress relatively quickly.
The likely reality is that some of the key elements will already be in place, ready to be built upon. The core component has to be the school’s URL and website. That core, in time, will provide the school’s community ready access to all the school’s online services and facilities, and make a significant contribution to the school’s workings and evolution.
Experience with short-sighted education authorities that stop schools having and managing their own websites underscored how vital that core, that digital interface, was to the growth and evolution of the school’s ecosystem. Education authorities have also been known to put pressure on schools wishing to adopt managed-service digital environments that provide website and other functionality, using the false excuse that the service will ‘compromise’ the authority’s network. Indeed, without the control of their websites, schools cannot create an effective digital ecosystem.
The likelihood is that the nature of a school’s website will be consonant with the school’s evolutionary position (Lee, 2012). Schools at the paper-based stage will invariably have rudimentary websites, often ‘cookie cutter’, largely peripheral to the everyday workings of the school. Even schools at the early digital and digital evolutionary stages are likely to have websites that are still peripheral to the school’s everyday workings and teaching which are primarily an online brochure maintained and controlled by one of the school silos, such as marketing.
The aim – fleshed out in The Changing Role and Purpose of the School Website (Lee, 2015) – should be to create a dynamic working website central to the everyday workings and growth of all facets of the school, both educational and administrative. While that will take time, fortunately the suite’s development can be graduated and upgraded when the school is ready culturally and educationally.
The best way forward is moot, and might well be different for a primary and a secondary school.
Over the last twenty plus years, companies and education authorities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to provide the ideal school learning management suite, where highly sophisticated technology would meet all of the school’s needs. Many, if not indeed most, of those highly ambitious omnibus solutions have failed, with governments globally having to pull the pin on the vast, largely wasted investments.
The challenges facing both the authorities and companies are many and major, and include the rapid pace of technological change, rising client digital expectations, the considerable and growing difference between schools, the uncertainty of evolving complex adaptive systems, the surge in social networking, the difficulty of the one solution meeting each school’s evolving needs, return on investment, the expense of omnibus systems and schools being locked into dated, expensive long-term contracts when better free or low-cost alternatives are available for key parts of the system.
School leaders need to think carefully about what they choose, whether their school is a primary, secondary or K-12 school. The potential of external cloud-based learning management systems is there, but one has to ask will such a system be able to meet a school’s rapidly evolving, often as yet unidentified, requirements at a fair price on a long-term basis? There are now a growing number of commercially available services that integrate a wide range of systems, including the free systems, providing a consistent interface and single sign-on to everything, while still leaving the school in full control.
Tellingly, most of the pathfinder schools studied have opted to use inexpensive or free, externally hosted, modular, template-style services as their core. These services have allowed them to readily and inexpensively add facilities and links. The user sees a home page – a façade – with hyperlinks to all manner of services. Some of those services will be free, others will entail an annual free, some will be hosted services provided by the authority or government and others will be the likes of Google Applications for Education.
The value of a modular structure is that the school:
- can readily add components and replace the superseded services
- has total control of the suite
- manages the risk associated with each component
- decides who can publish to its various modules
- decides where to spend its monies and for how long
Critically, the school’s clientele know they can reliably turn to that page for the very latest information, with the same kind of expectations as they have with the top commercial websites.
While the website will carry the full array of detail on the school’s teaching and operations, that information will be complemented by a digital communication suite that will include the likes of:
- a tailored e-newsletter service
- an interactive school calendar
- class blogs and wikis that provide an insight into the daily teaching, class activities, projects and home study, as well as the opportunity for instant feedback
- email communication
- a school app, tailored for use with mobiles
- an online payment facility
- an RSS feed, Twitter and Facebook
- access to the school’s learning, assessment and library management systems
- the online reporting of absences, excursion permissions and the like
- a student e-book collection
- links to the parents’ and alumni blogs
In brief, the schools are making astute use of the best of the social networking tools and cloud services.
That said, the pathfinders are increasingly conscious of the part the major social media are daily playing – intentionally and unwittingly – in the school’s digital communication with its community and the importance of managing that risk. Much of the school’s digital communication to its community is instantly re-transmitted, with comment via social networks. It is a development that bears noting.
Interestingly, in several of the schools, the school app has been slowly but surely replacing earlier disparate services by integrating most in the one app.
In assembling the suite, it is advisable to identify from the outset its underlying operational principles, and remain conscious that they need to be consonant with the school’s wider thinking and its shaping educational vision. If the school wants genuine collaboration, to socially network, to empower, to encourage a culture of change and to not burden the school’s community with digital communiques, those attributes need to be embodied in the suite.
Do schools, for example, want to open most parts of the suite to public viewing and interface with other ecosystems or do they wish to retain a cyber wall and remain insular? Currently, most school websites are password protected, accessible to a limited number of approved users and are highly insular and inward looking. Does the school want that or does it want to openly engage with the socially networked world? These are the kind of issues that need to be considered in the design. Be conscious that with the modular configuration, refinements can always be made.
One major danger that needs to be avoided is the propensity to use the ease of sending digital communications to overload the school’s community. Clear operational parameters that obviate that plague and ensure the communication is apposite can help.
From the outset, tackle the mechanics of readying the school community to use digitally based services and operations 24/7/365. For example, it is critical to select and have the client maintain a Web-enabled database of all current emails, understanding that with each new cohort of students the school will need to make a concerted effort to ensure all the new email addresses are added. Similarly, the school would be advised to secure the parent’s permission – again from each new cohort – to publish children’s photos. Both tasks in the early stage will likely be a slog, but in time folk get more into the swing of operating digitally.
It is also important, as the communications go digital, that a full audit trail is maintained. All users of these systems need to know that any inappropriate use will be recorded and be available for any subsequent investigations. Staff, pupils and parents all need to understand this, to build e-safety and responsible use.
The ideal should be to move to a wholly digital suite of operations, eventually doing away with all paper-based practices. It then needs to be asked, again at the outset, which of the latter should be superseded and when.
While on first glance the creation of a digital communications suite might appear to be a lower order mechanical change, the experience of the pathfinder schools reveals this development is crucial to the school’s evolution and growth. Seemingly small initiatives like a school app have profound multifaceted implications that impact the tenor of the school’s workings. Interestingly, it has often been the principal’s insistence that all staff use email, or that the class rolls be marked digitally, that brought about major whole-school change.
The key is to shape a digital communications suite carefully, with understanding of the central role it will play in the performance, growth and digital evolution of the school.
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Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.
Roger Broadie has wide experience helping schools get the maximum impact on learning from technology. He is the Naace Lead for the 3rd Millennium Learning Award. In his 30-plus years of working at the forefront of technology in education, he has worked with a huge range of leading schools, education organisations and policymakers in the UK and Europe.