Since term began, it would appear that my prediction has proved to be accurate, with multiple schools having faced these issues already. What makes these issues even more worrying is that they are already causing problems when there are limited numbers of students actually on-site in schools right now. What happens when they eventually all come back to campus? Will schools’ IT infrastructure collapse under the weight of all those concurrent users? Will schools be forced to abandon digital learning and revert to traditional methods, thus negating all the hard work and progress that has been made with digital learning?
These questions are integral to an organisation’s digital governance and IT strategy. Whilst schools should indeed focus on what is happening right now, provision should be made for what comes next. Making sure that you have future-proofed your digital systems is particularly crucial. Too many schools rely solely on IT managers to make all necessary decisions when it comes to IT infrastructure and these decisions are often made from a sense of immediacy rather than a more strategic, long-term mindset.
If your staff need new devices right now in order to deliver hybrid learning, then that’s definitely a priority, but if you buy 100 devices now, how long will they last? Will protocols be set in place to replace them when they are no longer functioning at full capacity? What happens if a member of staff breaks or loses one? The more questions you can ask, the more information you can sew together into what becomes your school’s digital governance. Right now, WiFi really is the great commodity. Online teaching can only be seamless if staff and students can access online platforms readily and maintain a clear connection throughout lessons. When staff were connecting from their homes during distance learning, that was one problem, but with staff now back on site every day, making sure you have enough “lanes on the road” (to borrow an analogy from the IT strategy maestro Mark Steed) is imperative. The higher proportion of your students who are on site, the more crucial this becomes since traffic will be heavier and digital congestion a greater possibility. Moderating device volumes and usage as well as ensuring coverage across the entire site is consistent are also key factors when it comes to equitable access.
The other big problem is power – having sufficient charging points in a classroom or learning space. Even newer schools will typically not have a wealth of plug points in a single classroom and many will already be in use for the teacher’s own equipment. We faced this issue at JESS Secondary back in 2016 when we originally rolled out the 1:1 Surface Pro scheme in Year 7. The devices would typically last into the afternoon but by then many would be drained completely of battery. This would be dependent on the timetable on a given day i.e. if they had multiple lessons whether the devices were not used such as PE or Drama, the battery issue was generally negated, whilst lessons in Science and DT labs afforded them 1:1 charging facilities. For lessons in typical classrooms though, it could often mean a cluster of students gathered around an extension cable plugged into a lone power socket. Not ideal by any means – any not even possible right now due to social distancing limitations. Our solution back then was to install charging stations around the school and train the students to moderate their battery levels more independently. If anyone did run out, they would use their Universal Exercise Book (a physical notebook used in any subject) to work unplugged and then upload this to their digital notebooks in Office 365 later.
So what is the solution for schools in this regard right now? Clearly extension cables are an option but they bring with them health and safety concerns, especially if you end up with an octopus of cables spreading out between multiple, socially-distanced students. You could add more plug sockets of course, but once civil works costs are factored in, this can be incredibly expensive and also require a lengthy planning and permission process to be completed. As such I’d probably suggest the lesser-considered option right now: portable power banks. These are light, compact and relatively inexpensive. Depending on the model, they are also capable of adding a good few hours of usage to a device during a school day. Schools typically house banks of laptops and iPads in carts and trolleys but what would be more beneficial right now would be sets of power banks that students can use when their devices are discharged. Alternatively, a power bank could become a recommended accessory for students to bring with them when they are studying on campus.
Addressing this issues now will prevent them becoming even bigger problems down the line and when it comes to technology integration, this is often the case. Planning ahead and negotiating change effectively is the heart of digital preparedness and governance. Now is the time to address these matters, now is the time to make decisions that affect learning in the next month but also inform the shape of digital learning for the rest of the academic year and beyond.