Events over the past 18 months have highlighted just how inherently valuable technology has become for educators. From the remote delivery of classes and classwork notes and facilitating communication and collaboration between isolating students, right through to the expanded resources available by being able to access education from anywhere, technology is delivering both resilience to the education sector, and generating better outcomes.
At the same time, there are many opportunities and challenges that educators and school leaders need to grapple with regarding technology to deliver optimal student outcomes. Here are ten of the most pressing considerations:
1) BYOD vs managed technology
Some schools will prefer to allow parents and students to make their own technology purchasing decisions, while others will give students access to a device. Both solutions can work, but one important consideration, Travis Smith, Education Industry Lead at Microsoft said, is that “schools should set technology requirements not only around specifications like RAM and speeds, but also focus on capabilities.”
“It doesn’t really matter if a student has access to an i5 or i7 processor, if that student doesn’t have a stylus and can’t do mathematics,” Smith noted. As Microsoft has noted: maths teachers, do rely on pens. As do chemistry and physics teachers, probably supplemented with video or multimedia in the classroom. Meanwhile, for English students, a keyboard might be the most appropriate, but ideating on a story or essay is better done with a stylus too. Someone in a STEM class might use MR/VR and students are creating multimedia assignments all the time. And then learning online with strong requirements for audio and video. The span of information types is diverse now, and that is why Microsoft has been so active in pioneering the 2-in-1, to give the ability to transition quickly from one information type to the next.
In other words, letting students and parent go and buy the most powerful computer they can afford isn’t necessarily the answer. “There’s got to be a minimum level in terms of specs, but that’s not the most important consideration,” Smith added.
Securing a modern school environment means securing many logins, cloud-based services, and a lot of sensitive data around student performance. For schools, being able to rely on the same vendor behind the technology that is already being used for the security is a key differentiator. Microsoft’s approach to security in education includes leveraging its enterprise capabilities – such as Azure AD, End Point Management and Microsoft Threat Protection tools– which provide schools with a holistic end-to-end approach to security and provides AI and one pane of glass to identify and manage attacks and support remediation.
Students can be rough with technology and devices. These days, with cloud storage such as Microsoft OneDrive and cloud-based working environments, data loss is less of a concern, but instead schools – particularly those that have a BYOD approach to technology, need to consider the implications that the potential for damaged IT to have on the continuity of learning.
As Smith said, when he was piloting Australia’s first laptops in the classroom program, the SLA that device partners were held to included provisions for the support of damaged computers. With BYOD, parents will need to address support through the retailer, and repairs and replacements might take weeks to process. So how does the student continue their learning in such circumstances? Any good technology strategy for the classroom needs to account for continuity.
A core role of education is in preparing students for the future ways in which they will be working. That includes the technology tools. “Take Microsoft Teams, for example,” Smith said. “Teams is used by 190 million people in businesses. We have an education-specific version of Teams so that kids get experience on something they will use in the workforce, while at the same time ensuring that they have access to the unique tools and features that they need for their education.”
One of the key skills of the 21st century is collaboration, and likewise education needs to be highly collaborative, both from teacher to student, and within groups of students. As a leader in workplace productivity, Microsoft’s collaboration tools have been adapted to the education environment in a way that ensures that Word, PowerPoint, OneNote and other applications, anchored within Teams, allows students and teachers to freely share ideas, review work and co-create in real time. Furthermore, Microsoft Whiteboard has strong education applications. Whiteboard provides a digital freeform canvas that allows teachers the full flexibility of the traditional chalk-and-blackboard, replicated onto a digital space, with the added ability that teachers and students can collaborate in real time and over distance.
6) Modern device management
Most schools don’t have large IT teams, and therefore having external support and managed services will always be a key consideration for educators in terms of how they adopt technology into their environments. Additionally, the security and stability of the school’s network relies on it being able to manage a large fleet of devices on the network. Modern device management needs to be centralised – allowing a small team to manage authorisations, access and devices from a single pane of glass.
7) Staff training
While technology in the classroom is no longer a new experience, the speed in which innovation is being brought to classrooms is accelerating. Microsoft HoloLens in education, for example, deepens the learning experience through a mixed reality experience. Through the pandemic, Case Western University shipped out 195 HoloLens headsets to students that allowed the university to teach an anatomy course remotely, with students looking at a holographic projection of anatomical structure.
Ensuring that this opportunity isn’t missed means educators need to consider the ongoing teaching of staff – particularly teachers – on the applications of the technology to ensure that it’s not dismissed as a “gimmick”. To help facilitate this, Microsoft maintains a Microsoft Educator Center, which provides free teacher training and resources, as well as an LDS (Learning Delivery Specialist) programme, whereby it recruits former educators to assist teachers with getting across the technology.
If you’re going to bring technology into the classroom environment, then it’s important that every student has access to the same learning experience. Part of this is a cost consideration. For example, it’s important that the learning environment will work as well on a $300 computer as a $3000 device, but equally, it’s about making sure that everyone can interact with the technology, regardless of their circumstances. “We're very focused on creating technologies to support students who might be emerging readers, struggling readers, or who might need other support. Whether it's vision impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, cognitive impairments, it doesn't really matter, as we need to provide for all these students,” Smith said. Microsoft’s Immersive Reader, which assists students with dyslexia or who need passages read aloud to them, is one such example of this in practice.
9) Remote learning
Remote learning has been of particular concern through the pandemic, but on an ongoing basis educators, students and parents alike will want to be able to leverage remote learning tools to provide a more comprehensive and flexible education experience, giving students access to greater resources, regardless of their physical location.
To fully facilitate remote learning, however, and ensure no student is left behind, educators will need to account for environmental conditions (the student’s working environment and their Internet connectivity at home).
10) Digital Inking
According to research from IDC, 90 per cent of teachers believe that digital inking improves the quality of their curriculum. The simple addition of a stylus to the technology mix has meaningful education outcomes, Smith said. “Much of the content that students learn actually has a symbolic language associated with it,” he said. “So, think about mathematics, for example, or about chemistry, or physics, or Japanese or Chinese language, or art or music. They're all got symbolic languages, and those are not very well suited to teaching via a keyboard-only device.
“Another example is note taking. Note taking is has been proven time and time again, to be less effective when done on a keyboard than it is with pen and paper, or with digital pen and paper.”
Educators and school teachers that can grapple with all these considerations will find themselves delivering deeper and richer educational outcomes to their students. For many, it rests in finding the right technology mix, as well as the right partners and providers to deliver it.