What you need to know about IT in a Primary School

Primary Schools and Information Communication Technologies

Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to work with several primary schools in their strategic planning to re-define and plan the future purchase of hardware for the next three to four years.

I want to give you information that I have learned and I hope that  Primary School Administrators find beneficial.

The People

It has been interesting to work with the educators in primary schools. ICT means that all levels of the school, Principals and Assistant Principals, Bursars and the designated ICT Coordinators in schools all have a critical part to play in the process, as well as the teachers on the ground. The overriding message from all parties I have talked to has been a willingness to prioritise ICT as a fundamental in the future of their schools as they have come to understand that there has been a disconnect in students’ experiences between home and school. Greater than this has been the realisation that the teacher on the ground is more than willing, in most cases, to be a part of this if given the time and opportunities. Of course it would be wonderful if they would actively engage themselves without any prompting from administrators but more often than not this is not the case. But it is important not to perceive this as uninterested. This has been what I have experienced and I hope it helps other primary schools achieve their goals in their communities because every community is different.

Seek Information

The biggest step forward for the schools I worked with was simply engaging in conversation. Start in the staffroom- ask the teachers what they have given their own children at home, ask them what they would like to be doing in the school in ICT, ask them where their fears lie and what they think they are missing out on. Now granted this list and the issues that arise from this will be long and in some cases it will be a answer of ‘I don’t know’ but that’s OK. It is not all about getting the information it is about making them feel they are part of the process, All good leaders do this! From the staffroom branch out and talk with the networks around, email individuals that hold Director of ICT positions in the surrounding senior colleges and read articles like the NMC Horizon Reports. The connections you make and the information you get from these reports will help to shape your idea of the vision in the school. It is important however, that when you do this you put aside two very important prejudices.

  1. It is not how you are using IT at the moment and meeting your current needs, it’s about how you want to be using it tomorrow to meet the needs of your students! They are the customers and we sometimes forget this.
  2. Don’t just ask IT technical staff, for too long have held the power in schools! For your school you tell them what you want not what they are willing to do or can do! They are in SERVICE to the school and SUPPORT the school vision.

Your Vision

When you have spoken to enough people and have heard them, start to write simple statements. These are goals that you want to achieve and that everyone can see eg.

  • I want students to be able to access computers outside the classroom
  • I want teachers to be creating lessons that encourage movie making in the classroom
  • I want to be able to access shared files from home
  • I want students to be able to bring their devices in from home and use them at school
  • I want a website that anyone can update not just some people
  • I want to make my teachers feel comfortable around IT not scared of it
  • I want to make sure that the money I spend will mean it lasts for a long time

When you have a list of goals and statements then it’s time to talk to the people you had previous conversations and bring them in for some serious planning.

The Budget

It was clear from the beginning that all primary schools have very limited budgets and need the best solutions for the least amount of money. It is the primary concern for all and understandable as ICT infrastructure and hardware isn’t cheap if there is not replacement plan and you find yourself doing it all at once. The reality is that you can get great deals on leases at the moment and I recently requested a lease quote for a school that was approximately $60,000 for three years. The total to pay every quarter on this was approximately $5000. Now for this amount of investment, the dramatic change that this would bring to the school would be staggering and change the way both students and staff experience IT. What to plan for in the budget depends on what your vision is but in simple terms my suggestion is to lease the computer hardware, laptops, desktops etc and purchase outright, with warranties, the network switches etc. This way you don’t have to pay in three years time for someone to come in and configure your new ones and if the timing is not good that year, another year of that same switch won’t matter too much.

The Partners

Often one of the first things that happens is that partners are involved in the conversation from the outset. When I say partners, I mean the resellers of the computers themselves. This method is fraught with danger and I recommend this be avoided most of the time. I recommend seeking out the people in charge of ICT in the surrounding senior colleges that fit your vision. It is very clear who are ‘leading digital schools’ in the WA education community and these schools are never shy at providing some form of assistance in establishing a plan or simply pointing you in the direction of a supplier that they use.  This last point I make is a big one and it is because in so many cases I have seen small primary schools go to small local ICT businesses and buy a product or a service and then find out that it will not work as intended. Now, this is not truly the fault of the business but when working within the confines of the CEOWA or DoEWA or any other organisation there are processes and red tape and all other sort of issues to deal with. Often the local senior colleges have established strong relationships with companyies that have been dealing with for a long time and can give you both the best price (because of volume) and have worked with many other schools.

Eg. – I recently saw two quotes, one from a small business in the local area and another by a larger business that has worked with the local senior college. The smaller business selected network hardware that would be out-dated in the space of two years and limited the ability of expansion and growth in the future but was at a lower price point. The business that worked with the senior college selected network hardware that was $300-$400 more expensive but would see the college through for at least six to eight years. More importantly the larger business identified other problems that has been overlooked in the past.

Given this situation small savings in the short-term means issues in the long term. With this information and now that you have your plan and vision and what you want is time to select and trust an IT partner to work with. This choice should be based on pricing tempered by whom you are comfortable with and what company will be there in the future and not gone the next day. They will do a scope of works. If they don’t then warning flags should be arising and you need to walk through an implementation process. Once it has begun be prepared for delays and changes, as there is no real way that everything goes smoothly in IT. It’s like finding a spare bolt or nut at the end of an IKEA piece of flat pack furniture…

My recommendations for primary schools…

The Computers

1.Stop putting in desktop computers. They limit your ability to have flexible learning spaces and require you to always be in the same location when doing IT related course work. I understand that in some case you want to take students to a lab environment but set that up when you need. The key is to be flexible.

  1. Go Apple… at the moment there is no suitable alternative but make sure everything you do can be used/viewed on any platform. Remember if you don’t know Mac then that’s your prejudice and should not be the reason for you not selecting it for your clients- the students.
  2. Stop thinking that using Apple iPads as shared resources is going to be easy. In fact its actually very hard and time consuming to be flexible in this model. iPads are a great resource for individual learning, differentiation and reducing ITTW (information technology time wasting, when you have to wait for it to turn on or get fixed or anything that means you are waiting for the IT to catch up to where you are at).

If you want it to be shared here is the only way it would work.

2.Create an iTunes account for every iPad… yes I know… it’s time consuming and imposes a number of issues.

  1. Stick this information and the password to the back of the iPad so everyone using it can see it.
  2. Set the parental controls that will allow you to have a passkey for the adding of new apps.
  3. Have a tile for each year group with the apps that relate to that week’s work etc. Make the students arrange and organise them.
  4. Understand that for every iPad you must purchase the app not syncing one app to five iPads. If you as a school break the copyright licenses we cannot expect students to follow the rules…

It’s not a pretty solution but they were designed to be used 1:1 not 1:many

Learning Spaces

1.Create flexible learning spaces with furniture that allows students to sit wherever they want when using the computer. You expect that when you sit at a desk it is comfortable, well don’t expect students to be comfortable for an hour at a desk that you wouldn’t sit at. Our students use technology on the grass, beach, couch, bed etc… remember this when selecting furniture.

Networks

1.Network Infrastructure must be based on the premise of providing wireless access. Gone are the days when you need 48 port switches because there are hundreds of network points in rooms.

  1. Honestly, and I don’t often make calls like this, use CISCO network equipment. The reality is that most issues you could have with CISCO switches can be found and fixed by any company with some good searching. They are priced well and you are entitled to education pricing which is very good.
  2. Make sure your wireless networks take into account outdoor spaces so it is all encompassing over the campus. These are areas like ovals or gardens or spaces between buildings. If a wireless network is not covering everywhere then its users are going to see it has a flawed implementation and we’re trying to push anywhere/everywhere learning.
  3. Be aware that if you are upgrading your cabled school infrastructure that is more 10 years old you may have issues supporting the latest Gigabit (100/1000) speeds across the school. This is one of the great benefits moving to wireless. Some cabling contractors will still install the older Cat5E cabling specification, request them to install Cat6 cabling despite the extra cost.
  4. Don’t think you are required to have a wireless access point in every room to provide wireless coverage across all areas. I have seen schools do this and it is just not needed and becomes a very expensive exercise. I have had 150 students running from 3 access points with no issues.
  5. If you can afford it purchase a wireless controller. This will all depend on your size and the number of wireless access points you require for your campus.

The SOE/MOE (Standard/Managed Operating Environment)

1.Get the company that is selling you the hardware to create the Standard Operating Environment for you. It will save you time, effort and money in the long run.

  1. It is important for the school to value-add to any laptops to provide the Microsoft Office suite and the Apple iWork Suite (assuming Apple solution).
  2. Factor in the cost of updating your laptops and desktops to be on the latest operating systems.
  3. Get Apple Remote Desktop or equivalent working on the network so you can change things without needing to go to each computer. This is not for teacher access to monitor student machines; it is for managing the computers with ease.

Overall most schools have recognised the growing priority that ICT has in our primary schools to provide a relevant technological learning environment for the students of the 21 century. Remember, getting this right leads on to all the other important parts such as pedagogy, digital citizenship and IT Professional Development. Just putting computers in schools does not necessarily mean a happy digital ICT school.

3 Responses to “What you need to know about IT in a Primary School”

  1. Jenny Jongste 15 February 2012 7:44 pm
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    Thanks for such a great article on the pros and cons of creating effective ICT integration in primary school. The primary school setting is vastly different to a secondary school and the same rules cannot be applied in all situations. I find your comments about the iPads fabulous and accurate -- we cannot continue to perpetuate the inappropriate installation of apps onto multiple devices.

  2. Heath 6 June 2012 6:54 pm
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    An excellent round-up. I particularly like the talk of iPads being a 1:1 device, not a 1:many device, and they copyright issues with apps. Apple Configurator on Lion should help with this… I’m guessing. Well done Brad!