Roundtable: powers of persuasion
How can educators get senior leaders on board with edtech? Steve Wright asks the experts
Rachel Ashmore, Head of Promethean Academy
Sophie Bailey, Host of The Edtech Podcast
Antony Mellor, Head of HE and FE at Stone Group
Ty Goddard, Co-founder of The Education Foundation and Chair of Edtech UK
Dave Kenworthy, Director of Digital Services at CoSector, University of London
Q. Why is it so essential to use persuasion to get senior leaders on board with edtech procurement and implementation?
Rachel Ashmore: Edtech is proven to be an extremely valuable investment but, in order to maximise impact and prosper from the benefits in the long term, school leaders should be engaged with procurement. Through buying into technology, school leaders are far more likely to see commitments to training, maintenance and integrating edtech use into the school’s wider strategy.
Sophie Bailey: There are a few things at play here.
1) What gets measured gets done. A teacher or lecturer’s day-to-day life is so busy that, unless something is deemed essential, it risks falling by the wayside.
2) Procurement is a senior-leader decision made by CEOs, headteachers, vice-chancellors, finance directors and governors. With many educational settings strapped for cash, getting the best ROI for learners is a priority, and edtech is ‘one of many’ on the budget agenda. 3) Whilst teachers and lecturers may have a spirit of adventure when it comes to personal use of technology, they may be more risk-averse when it comes to the use of edtech in the classroom, with its complex system of assessment, parental and student expectations, student and school online security, opportunity cost, and attention and behaviour management. Unless there is a work culture which accepts careful risk and experimentation, the introduction of new ideas, innovations and systems will not flourish.
Antony Mellor: When it comes to the procurement of new technology, it’s the leadership team who are in the best possible position to help drive the digital strategy. This makes leadership buy-in when it comes to creating that strategy. A good strategy can save an organisation time, money and resources.
Ty Goddard: I think it’s key and essential to any project/roll out. Without senior leadership team (SLT) buy-in and, importantly, understanding, everything is harder. Senior teams also need to be responsive to voices across their institution, and to enable innovation around technology adoption and usage. The Edtech 50 programme from the Education Foundation and Edtech UK has shown that culture change, tech adoption and planning for impact has to be led and understood by senior teams who can build trust and catalyse change.
Dave Kenworthy: At CoSector, we’ve realised the importance of engaging with both academics and university IT staff. The primary connection, though, needs to be with the academics, the educators and the learning tech professionals. To put in place systems that can really drive change in an organisation, you have to collaborate not only with end users, but also with those accountable for the positive outcomes.
Selling edtech directly into the IT departments of learning organisations can prove challenging, as the people within these departments are not always directly involved with the outcomes and influence on the end user. It’s important to engage with academic leaders because they are driven by different goals, such as student attainment or numbers.
In order to feel encouraged to get involved, leaders need to understand that the technology, system or service can in fact help them deliver on those overall goals.
Edtech procurement should always be a whole-school decision – Rachel Ashmore
Q. How much buy-in should senior leaders have on these decisions?
RA: Edtech procurement should always be a whole-school decision. Throughout the procurement process, school leaders, IT managers and teachers should all play an active role to ensure that any technology acquired meets specific classroom needs. School leaders may lead considerations around budgets and school strategy, whilst IT managers will factor in networking capabilities – and teachers may prioritise how the tech may be used in the classroom.
SB: Without new ideas (and not just technological), an organisation will have a sort of slow death-by-attrition warfare, losing its standing in terms of relevancy, collaborative working opportunities and connectedness. Senior leadership is important because, otherwise, innovative teachers can move elsewhere, taking their innovative approaches with them.
However, the fast pace of change also demands flatter structures that allow more ideas to come from ‘the edge’ – including teachers, students, lecturers, parents, employers and administrative staff.
Senior leaders will want to be careful in their choices, as every investment has an opportunity cost in terms of time spent implementing – time taken away from other sources of support for students. The alternative, though, is an ever-increasing disconnect. For example, 70% of students feel that digital skills are important for their chosen careers, but only 42% feel that their (FE/HE) courses prepare them for the digital workplace.
TG: We’re researching and writing a ‘Guide and toolkit to Developing Digital’ for senior leaders, governors and stakeholders across education, which wrestles with those key issues of vision, implementation and managing for impact.
The challenges are many but not insurmountable. Vitally, we have a growing body of evidence on the key elements for success. UK schools, colleges and universities are changing cultures fast, understanding what works or doesn’t. I would argue that the Edtech 50 captures those lessons.
DK: Senior academic leaders should play a role, but they must also consider the perspective of academics doing the day-to-day teaching and research. It’s the individuals in these roles who should also have buy-in on the decision-making process, as they are closer to the challenges of the current systems in use. IT and other functions should serve an advisory role, particularly when it comes to ensuring that the system is secure to implement and can be correctly maintained.
Q. What are the current challenges in getting senior leaders to implement upgraded tech?
RA: The implementation of new school technology can be challenging, particularly with numerous options on the market doing (apparently) so many different things. Another extremely influential factor is school budgets – in the Promethean State of Technology in Education Report 2019/20, 54% of school leaders said that budgetary pressures will make it difficult to realise their school objectives this year. Despite this, technology has risen to fourth place in school budgets for 2019/20. Sixteen per cent of school leaders say they will spend most of their school budgets on edtech in the coming year, compared to just 4% in 2018/19. This trend suggests that school leaders are increasingly aware of the benefits of edtech, and prioritise the maintenance and improvement of technology provisions.
SB: Every educational setting will have a personal set of needs. As such, it is hard for senior leaders, who are under immense pressure, to evaluate what technology is needed and to avoid a wasteful investment.
There may also be resource or structure requirements to implement technology effectively, which may delay implementation. For example, will technology be implemented centrally or locally? What training will be needed for existing staff and students?
What edtech providers include this as part of their offer? How interoperable are new technologies with existing systems? How will the educational technology company handle student data? What is the opportunity cost of the time and investment needed for this new technology, and what risks are there if we do not upgrade?
There is also the factor of push-back from colleagues who ‘have always done things this way’.
AM: There are several major hurdles to tech upgrades. Cost is always the biggest consideration and, especially when budgets are tight, leaders will perhaps be reticent. If cost is an issue, it’s worth exploring alternative funding methods to secure new technology. Many IT providers offer leasing schemes on technology refreshes.
A lack of understanding can also be a factor. If you’re trying to sell in an upgrade strategy to the leader of your organisation, you have to question if the leaders fully understand all of the benefits of the proposed technology. Or, if a previous strategy didn’t deliver in the past, this can lead to hesitation – especially if the experience has tainted their view of edtech as a whole.
DK: Some of these upgrading systems and decisions can be daunting for senior leaders, particularly if the IT function currently takes responsibility for the implementation of new technology. Uncertainty around whether the new system is secure enough is one of the main such challenges.
Often, institutions will diligently judge a new system by assessing its benefits, weaknesses and risks.
What they should be doing is fully evaluating the benefits and risks of the current system and weighing that up against the equivalent analysis of a change in system.
The biggest driver of success is knowing how a system will be used – and how it meets the needs of the organisation. It’s about giving senior leaders the confidence and practice of managing the relationship between other functions or departments.
Change management is massive. Essentially, these are people projects – Sophie Bailey
Q. How can educators and tech providers convince managers to adopt updated systems?
RA: Successful adoption of edtech by school leaders is most apparent when they feel knowledgeable and confident about the technology they are investing in. Edtech providers must give schools objective support and demos during procurement to help make the right decisions. If school leaders know that teachers are onside, they are far more likely to invest in the tech.
As budgets tighten, the value of edtech will continue to play a key part in procurement – especially the wider value that can be gained from specialist edtech providers. We’d encourage schools to consider aspects such as training, resources and support: factors that make a huge difference in the long term, but may be overlooked during initial procurement.
SB: Adoption of new systems comes about when there is a solid use-case for the technology, either pedagogically or because it will reduce administrative burden. Better research and evidence is needed, in tandem with less bombastic marketing claims by technology companies. Systems which are to some extent modular and open to an iterative process of co-development with and for educator and student users do well, as do those which offer training support.
Budget is often a factor, but less so than the long-term viability of the technology company as a trusted partner. This is important, as many edtech companies do not generate huge profits as sometimes suspected, and the alternative ‘freemium’ model is troubled by its dependency on data-usage.
A relationship which generates value to both partners over a long-term period should be sought, as well as an open, respectful dialogue about the difficulties of ‘digital transformation’. In short: it’s messy.
AM: A good start is to clearly outline the current challenges of the system in use, and to explain the benefits to the organisation if investment is given. It’s then advisable to use examples of where similar organisations have adopted refreshed tech and have seen positive outcomes as a result – these can often be found through the social media channels of other organisations, or through case studies and testimonials on their websites.
Another approach is to remind managers of the cost of doing nothing. A lack of investment often leads to organisations falling behind. By spending a little now, you could save a lot in the future by not having to overhaul your entire IT provision.
Inclusion is perhaps your best weapon, and by making leaders part of the discussion from the get-go, you’re making them part of the journey, and offering them the opportunity to take a cut of the appreciation when the implementation is a success.
TG: I think the demonstrator schools and colleges programme as part of England’s edtech strategy is an important and welcome step for the classroom use of edtech and the thinking needed across whole institutions.
The ‘tyranny’ of the perfect case study never helped anyone: much more useful is the power of peer-to-peer support for educators and leaders.
I would also like Ofsted to really enter the debate and help us distil and share the power of edtech for teacher collaboration, knowledge and creativity.
Edtech does not sit in one department: it should be a key support or even ‘signpost’ in the strategic direction of senior teams.
DK: Before a manager can be persuaded to update technology, the case for how the tech solves a real-life problem must be made clear. By using real-world examples of the need for new solutions, you will highlight the real issues and help to convince managers.
As a rule, more capable systems tend to cost more money, especially if you’re upgrading and enhancing a system. There will be challenges around the long-term cost profile of any system. This may start with an attractive deal from a supplier – but, years down the line, the true cost comes out.
This often prevents institutions from upgrading in the future as they can be wary of further charges. To prevent this, a realistic and justified cost profile should be implemented over multiple years to give organisations confidence around how much the new system will actually cost.
Q. How does change management feature in digital strategies?
SB: Change management is massive. Essentially, these are people projects. For universities (and for MATS), there are the decisions on whether to develop and deploy digital strategies centrally or locally, with arguments for both. Communication is a critical piece, and should be resourced and budgeted for, as miscommunication can spread and undermine the best-laid plans.
Building trust is essential: many digital strategies will challenge people’s working practices and comfort zones. Some universities allocate change management roles to see projects through. The temptation with terminology like ‘digital transformation’ is to think of digital projects as one-off initiations which, once completed, are finished: but, of course, digital is continuous.
As such, change management should help to equip existing and new teams with resilience to learn, unlearn and relearn. In these contexts, perfections and isolationisms do not work, and along with blended learning and collaboration that we expect from students, we should have blended expertise – with all departments and colleagues working together to inform and develop digital strategies.
AM: Change management is important because it identifies the processes and actions required to achieve the outcomes of any digital strategy in place. It’s also key when it comes to putting processes into a strategy, such as plans for how a learning organisation is going to retire its legacy equipment and upgrade.
DK: A common problem in HE is the moment when organisations go out to seek new tech systems.
The process tends to start by looking for ‘off-the-shelf’ systems that are cheap and easy to maintain but then the list of requirements is often complex and unconstrained and requires the system to be customised, thus negating the cost effectiveness of a ready-made solution.
The approach should involve more research into the systems available – how affordable are they, how easy are they to maintain? It’s also worth looking into how flexible they are, whether they can be easily modernised, and whether processes can be simply updated to fit those systems. I don’t see that scrutiny happening often enough.
Often institutions quickly focus on the particular software or tool they want, and not on how to implement it – Dave Kenworthy
Q. What are the biggest challenges in moving to new digital systems?
RA: Schools are constantly having to adapt to keep up with fast-moving technological developments and are adjusting their digital strategies accordingly. Despite pressures, schools show real optimism for enhancing edtech provisions. Our 2019/20 report has highlighted that 90% of educators believe tech is a great way to engage students in the classroom. Furthermore, 60% of educators say they are constantly striving to innovate by using technology as a tool for education.
SB: There is no blueprint. With each pedagogical trend or government announcement, there is ambiguous research to either support or disprove its positive effect on learning outcomes or time savings.
The best examples of navigating new digital systems that I have heard about have always remembered the values and needs of their learners, kept their own identities, started small, piloted and expanded from there. These approaches have not expected change to be done with existing teams and timetables, but allowed for these new approaches to develop their own culture, to set aims, to trial, to measure and review, and to invest in training over long-ish time frames.
Trust in colleagues and projects themselves was important, as was the ability to change tack if necessary.
AM: A lack of knowledge can cause navigational issues. In order to successfully transfer to a new system, it’s important that the organisation knows how they are going to do it. If they don’t then it’s worth bringing in support in the form of managed IT, or working with an IT provider who can navigate the whole process, effectively buying back the organisation time to focus on other areas.
Budget underpins everything when it comes to new technology. If there is no clear indication of cost, or if it’s unclear whether the investment will achieve ideal outcomes and ROI, the project will hit a wall quickly. Again, there are a lot of options when it comes to cutting costs. Refurbished technology is a good way to replace hardware with a new system: it works as well as a new product at the fraction of the price.
There are often issues around stakeholder buy-in, and if the learning providers who work closely with the technology believe the changes being made are right for the organisation. This is another area where having examples of other organisations, who have seen positive results from the implementation of the technology you want to purchase, can be effective.
DK: Universities and colleges should be challenging their thought processes about the adoption of digital systems, away from simply needing to change and towards thinking about navigating a change in the way they teach and learn.
Often institutions quickly focus on the particular software or tool they want, and not on how to implement it. For example, with flipped learning, universities should be thinking outside the box regarding how this can change their approach to teaching.
Universities can often go straight into the technical implementation before asking: what does the change actually mean? Certain considerations need to be made, such as changes to the classroom space and timetable changes, as well as various thought and design processes that need to be made before the technology is implemented.
Q. Are certain technologies easier/harder than others to a) get senior leadership buy-in on, and b) implement once agreed upon?
RA: Upgrading and replacing existing technology is often easier than introducing emerging solutions, as there is usually a strong case for the use of the tech – particularly with front-of-class displays. In recent years, schools have started to upgrade ageing interactive whiteboards to interactive flat panel displays – with the main barrier here being budget. However, where budget is available, replacement and implementation are often seamless, especially where teachers can use the same lesson resources and software.
SB: Absolutely. For schools and colleges, technologies which marry up with school improvement plans will have priority. These may be technologies which set out to save teachers’ time (timetabling, cloud-based collaborative tools, or assessment tools) or tools to support special educational heeds and disability (SEND) and English as a second language (ESL) students. For universities, the focus might be more on student enrolment, student experience or alumni relations (administration support, mental healthcare apps, or soft skills and workplace learning development).
In either case, because of the systems we operate within, priority will go to technologies which ease or boost budgets, support assessment goals and/or ease workload on staff. For universities, the onus will also be on student support, while for schools and colleges, if any, government funding will also affect buy-in.
AM: Many leading-edge and untested technologies promise great things but, until there is tangible proof that they work, no one wants to be the guinea pig. Similarly, when it comes to costly solutions, some may well purport to transform outcomes – but the large investment may negatively impact other areas.
It’s often easiest to get buy-in for low-risk technologies, IT services that seem to deliver positive results for little overhead, or technologies that are proven – established solutions that have delivered for similar organisations, for example cloud services or updated AV equipment and robust laptops and notebooks.
DK: New and emerging technologies can often be easier to get buy-in from an innovation perspective. That being said, they can be the hardest to make a strong business case for.
An example I often refer back to is the implementation of AR and VR. It’s very easy to go into a university and get senior buy-in for VR, because everyone is talking about it and they will want to be seen to be at the forefront of technology. However, this can end up taking precedence over the implementation of solutions that can make a real difference and are easier to install.
For example, a piece of new software which can improve the quality of all the data in a student record system can have a far more beneficial effect across an entire institution. By comparison, VR is hard to implement because it’s not necessarily solving a real need that the educators are experiencing. A pilot or project with the solution will almost immediately run into difficulties because no one quite knows what they’re trying to achieve with it.
It’s important to keep it simple, to identify goals and understand how the tech can help achieve them.
Further reading on persuasion:
● Promethean State of Technology in Education Report 2019/20:
● Education Foundation/Edtech UK: The Edtech 50 Schools
● Sophie Bailey’s interactive presentation on digital leadership
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