Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tomorrow's Schools - Time for an update?

At NetHui there was a session which I facilitated that frustrated me. It wasn't that it wasn't a good discussion. It's just that it went around in circles. The conversation went something like this:
What does Networks For Learning (N4L) do? I went to a school recently and they only had 2 computers in the whole school - 1 for the principal, and 1 for the office admin person.
It's not N4L's place to do something about that. We're really there to take the pain out of implementing services that benefit the school.
But what about those schools out there without any sort of I.T. infrastructure?
I desperately tried to sum this up and move on but it just wasn't happening. As a facilitator, I didn't really want to get too deep into the conversation as I think this is one of those things that facilitators in general do badly. When a round room discussion turns into question time with the facilitator, something is going seriously wrong.

My summary was this:
Schools now have autonomy over their budget. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. They've had ample opportunity - through TELA (laptops for teachers and principals) and SNUP (network infrastructure) to get I.T. into their schools. N4L is another such opportunity... which they may or may not chose to participate in.
Autonomy over their budget you may ask? Back in the late 80's, while David Lange was Prime Minister and Minister of Education, a scheme was put into place - Tomorrow's Schools. To me it seems a really smart idea as it allows schools to stay current despite the slow moving juggernaut that is the Ministry of Education (MoE). Basically it means that schools get a certain amount of money allocated to them each year based upon their roll. Actually - zoning makes this slightly more complicated. Ever wondered why schools will only take so many students from out of zone? It's because those student's don't come into that calculation. The school doesn't get resources for out of zone kids.

Are you seeing a problem here? So the school is autonomous which means that each and every school is different which also means that their investment in staying current differs significantly. If you're in an area with a school that doesn't invest heavily in current skills, your options are limited because of zoning...

So to me, zoning needs a great big review as it works on the idea that schools are the same... which they aren't. As for Tomorrow's Schools, if I.T. is to be used for day to day learning, rather than computer sciences, then how does the MoE get schools to invest in I.T.? By leading the horse to water... The fact that learning outcomes can be reached without these resources (though to me implies a hole in education. If people come out of education not knowing how to search for information and critically access it - i.e. without these skills it then becomes "X textbook said it so it must be true" - then, to me, their education has been less than complete.

While the opportunities arise, the schools might not take them up. This happens not just for I.T. but also social services. Social workers may be completely non-existent if the school decides that they're able take responsibility of pastoral care themselves. Others have invested heavily in RTLBs (Resource Teachers: Learning and Behavioural) right up until the MoE decided to roll them all up into an entity unto themselves (Why the teacher's union didn't do something here is beyond me). RTLB's and social workers differ vastly as well so the option to not use them is perfectly valid. However, the choice not to use them, to me, is a serious one and one that requires serious questions and hopefully solving the underlying problems that make a school chose not to use these resources.

The autonomous nature of schools has also given the MoE a scapegoat. The collective development of a solution is made somewhat harder by the idea that schools should fend for themselves. A couple of years ago people in the Open Source community were talking about the idea of getting a bunch of schools to fund some software. It's a hard sell. The image of the software that the programmer has is often a little different from the image of the software that the end user has in mind. Now multiply that out - so if you have 20 odd end users (schools - which in turn have X number of end users), schools are unlikely to want to put the money in if the software isn't going to quite meet up to their needs.

If the MoE were to put that investment in, programmers would only be dealing with the MoE - which could be good or bad. Bad because the image the MoE have of something may differ vastly from what the schools have or need (think computer security). It could be good because something could be done. However, the development of software/systems is normally met with a hard sell. Single Sign On for example... The concerns of the MoE (usually security) may differ vastly from what the schools need (usability).

Which all leads to a situation where you have the heroes out there - Pt England and Albany Senior High School for example - but also the counter argument, those schools that feel like they're stuck in the mud. The situation is such that the MoE can not dictate that schools must have I.T. infrastructure. I don't think they should - I just wish that children weren't disadvantaged not necessarily by the neighbourhood they live in, but more so by the principal's of the schools around them.

While "the community" is used as a scapegoat for schools, a lot of what is passed and not passed through to a board of trustees is dictated by a principal. So I've heard of programmes not being implemented due to personal issues between different principals. I've heard of a board of trustees being nothing more than a rubber stamp because they have faith in the principal. So the decision around a principal, and I'm not sure how much of a say a community gets in this decision, is an incredibly important one. What happens, for example, if a community decide that the principal of a given school is not preparing their kids for tomorrow's world?

So tomorrow's schools speaks to how a budget is spent which can dictate the culture of a school (You'll love this. Someone was telling me about a new teacher into a school getting her kids using the Internet. She was the only one doing so and the "I.T. manager" asked her to reduce her usage due to data caps - so the infrastructure this school had wasn't with the kids in mind. It was keeping up with the Normals) - which is why it needs a really serious review.

What this looks like? I have absolutely no idea...

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