Author: Matt Harris, Ed.D.

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Put the Learning Before the Technology

Put the learning before the technology

“We’re getting tablets for the students!” Such a wonderful statement isn’t it? Think about the possibilities for the students. They’ll have access to personalized devices for use throughout the school day. Each device will be connected to the Internet which will provide access to a wealth of knowledge and information. And each device will be loaded with apps that students will use to communicate, collaborate, and explore.

For those of us who’ve spent a large amount of time in the EdTech game, this actually is a worrying statement for us, not an encouraging one. You’ll notice that nowhere in the preceding practice does the word “learning” show up. It’s all about access, usage, and tools not learning, individualization, or educational.

This is a dangerous approach we find in schools around the world. The enticement of devices or digital tools or the influx of funds that have to spent on technology can obscure schools from focusing on students’ needs. I’ve seen this done in schools (and entire countries) around the world where technology was bought before the learning was planned for and the tools created more problems than benefits.

In schools that are most successful with digital tools used for learning, they live the ethos, “no technology without purpose.” These schools have developed the experience and policies to identify the learning needs that will be filled with devices, online tools, or even Internet access. Frequently, they will tie these decisions to an Educational Technology Roadmap where evaluation procedures for technology tools and the intended learning outcomes for students are clearly defined and available for everyone in the school community to access.

How do schools follow this model of “learning before technology”?

First, schools need to define what their student learning outcomes should be with technology. Are they looking for 21st skills development, deepening and broadening of content knowledge, or even improved performance on summative assessments? Once this question is answered, schools need to articulate the learning outcomes they expect from their students when using technology.

I have seen this done in a number of ways. One school created a scaffolded set of technology and non-academic skills they expected from students and outlined them against grade levels. I worked with another school that mapped the areas of the existing curriculum they felt could be enhanced by digital tools and identified outcomes that they would expect when technology was infused. Other schools use the ISTE standards or the P21 Framework to help map and identify those outcomes.

Second, schools need to approach the teaching elements of technology for learning. Do their teachers have the capacity to implement such technologies? How will they offer ongoing professional learning in the functional aspects of technology and the pedagogic uses of it in the classroom? How will evaluate the efficacy of technology usage by teachers in the classroom?

The best schools I have seen will have a clear training and support system in place to help prepare teachers for the use of technology in the classroom. They will do this through evaluation of existing skills and attitudes and then provide continuous access to professional learning resources on the technical skills and pedagogical uses of technology. I’ve seen this in the form of EdTech coaches, connections to external training organizations, or internal time reserved for collaborative planning.

Last, schools need to recognize and plan for the “knock-on effect” of introducing digital tools for learning. A school is an ecosystem, with any change having impact on other areas of the organization. If new technology comes into the school, will it replace another tool? How will time be reserved to use it in the classroom? What other resources are needed to support that technology? Strong schools will investigate these implications before they purchase any digital tools because they know a significant disruption to the learning environment could result in teachers disengaging with the tool or the tool being misused.

Once these planning elements are in place, a school can confidently say they have put the learning before the technology. At this point, excitement about the students getting tablets should be encouraged around the school because those tablets will be used in ways that will enhance learning by teachers who are supported to use them well.

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Cybersecurity is Actually About People

Cybersecurity is About People

We used to believe that schools were immune to the cyberattacks that plagued the rest of the world because our missions was honorable and our resources were seen as less valuable. I think we can all agree those days are behind us. Schools worldwide are equally as vulnerable to online attacks and being targeted just as much as other industries.

In my work, cybersecurity has become one of the largest areas of concern and risk for schools worldwide. Schools are reliant on technology for academics and operations yet tend to be under prepared for cybersecurity. This often manifests in under informed staffs, insufficient funding, inadequate security, and lack of imperative amongst school leadership.

That is until an incident occurs. Once a school experiences a cyberattack they are often quick to action. Security is tightened, time is freed up for IT staff to address the crisis, consultants are hired, equipment is purchased, reports are written, and training is given. The money, time, and stress allocated is often far more than if the school had a more robust plan in place.

So, why don’t school focus on preventative cybersecurity? This is because schools view cybersecurity like flossing. A daily flossing routine will ensure healthy teeth and gums, which sound very important from a logical perspective, but doesn’t offer much observable impact in the near term. Many people take healthy teeth for granted and don’t want to be bothered maintaining them without an immediate benefit or consequence. However, when that first cavity springs up, those same people feel quite strongly that they should have been flossing the whole time.

woman smile with tooth floss; Shutterstock ID 646610392; Purchase Order: GSK02122019

And just like flossing, cybersecurity can be tedious. A good cybersecurity program will include penetration testing of the physical and logical security of the network, backup and recovery systems, data protection procedures, policies for access and security, regularly informed leadership, and, most importantly, training for all users. Since the benefits to teaching and learning of cybersecurity are so indirect, it can become quite difficult to maintain interest and compliance in cybersecurity from users at the school.

Non-compliance from users is actually the largest issue in the cybersecurity challenge for schools. Research has shown that users, typically employees or students with network access, provide the largest security hole for schools. This comes in the form of unsafe devices, weak passwords, and lack of knowledge about what should and should not be clicked. Cybersecurity experts will tell you that their best efforts are only as good as a mobile phone in the hands of their most dangerous employee.

As an example, I worked with a school that had two significant cybersecurity issues in the span of one week. The first came when a teacher left his computer open in a classroom. The teacher had not changed his password from the default password given him and a student accessed an exams repository. The second came when an office employee with access to vital parts of the network clicked on a link that downloaded ransomware that locked out the entire file system.

These incidents are illustrations that people are at the heart of cybersecurity.

Of course, we can view this from deficit approach by saying that people are not taking up their flossing responsibilities to follow strong cybersecurity practices. That is true and should be viewed as the primary area of focus for cybersecurity enhancement. Teachers, staff, students, and parents should learn about best practices for protecting their devices and their data. They should be taught how to spot phishing, use strong passwords, and how to avoid viruses and malware. They should know what can happen when a breech occurs.

And it is this last piece where we can flip the script from a lack of interest or negativity to one of affective impact and personal responsibility. Again, we must focus on the people aspect of cybersecurity.


To begin, let’s think about what happens when a cyberattack occurs. Hackers and crackers gain access to a school’s network, devices, and data. They can cause damage or steal information for their own purposes. On the surface this sounds bad, but not catastrophic. Yet it can be catastrophic for people in the school.

Let’s reframe this to impact on a student. What happens if her device and the school network are damaged at a time when she need access to learning materials to study for an IB exam? What happens if a student needs to contact a counsellor about a bullying issue, but the communications system has been hacked? What happens if a student’s data, including personally identifiable information and medical history, are used by crackers for extortion purposes?

Cyberattacks don’t simply affect systems; they affect the most important people in our school communities. By framing our cybersecurity in the light of protecting children the way we would from child abuse or other maleficence, users will take on their responsibilities more seriously. They will view changing passwords and closing computers the same way parents look at putting away knifes in the kitchen.

The best approach to closing “the people gap” and improving best practices is to begin with the people that will be protected and then moving on to the hows, whens, and wheres of cybersafety. This will develop a culture of cybersecurity amongst all stakeholders that goes beyond compliance to stewardship and responsibility for others.

Now, getting them also to floss, well that’s a different challenge.

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Craig Kemp – Global Conversations – Building EdTech Capacity

In this episode of the Global Conversations series, we talk with Craig Kemp from Ignite EdTech. Craig is an international EdTech consultant who focuses on the learning side of technology in schools. In this interview, we talk about ways to engage teachers in building their EdTech capacity both in tools and teaching approaches.

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Technology is the Circulatory System of the School

Technology is the Circulatory System of a School

People often ask Tech Directors, “What exactly do you do?” The answer is of course incredibly complex, but in essence they keep the blood flowing to all the parts of the school.

Let’s think of a school as a living organism (which in many ways it is). This organism is a community of people working towards a common mission of student learning. They work together an interconnected set of systems, workflows, and dependencies much like the human body.

In the human body, each system serves a purpose towards the greater goal of keeping the body alive. Some of these systems are quite visible to use (the consumption of food, our ability to move, our senses, etc.) while others work in the background (the nervous system, the respiratory system, the circulatory system, etc.).

In schools, technology serves as the circulatory system.

In the human body, the circulatory is vital system that branches to every part of the body exchanging blood to ensure continued life. It contains a collection of mechanisms and parts that ensure the blood continues to be oxygenated and distributed, while prepared for emergencies should there be a problem.

The same is true of technology in a school. Technology’s purpose in a school is to distribute the life blood of the organization: information. Whether it’s network cable and wifi serving as the arteries and veins or maintaining access to the most updated information as the oxygenation of blood, technology helps ensure that every part of the school that needs it. Technology has backups and protective measures to handle issues and emergencies similar to the circulatory system. And just like the circulatory system, technology works about 97% of the time and people rarely notice it unless there is a major problem.

Of course, we have to address a key thought you might be having: with this analogy, does he think technology is the heart of the school? Well, yes…and no. From a functional standpoint, yes, technology runs the heart of the school. The servers and systems that pump information everywhere its needed acts as the four-chamber heart of the school. It needs to be well maintained, protected, and free of clogging. A breakdown of this system is akin to a heart attack with the same potential severity. From a metaphoric standpoint, no, technology is not the emotional heart and purpose that drives a school. It is not the reason the school operates or the school’s driving force. Nor should it ever be…though I think we all know tech people who might disagree.

Technology as the functional heart and circulatory system, but not the emotional heart of a school is key concept for all stakeholders as it sets clear expectations and culture.

If leaders, teachers, parents, students, and technology personnel understand the critical role technology holds in all academic and operational areas of the school then expectations can be appropriately set. Uptime requirements and communications from the tech department will be more in line with the reliance all others place on their work. The need for institutional support and appropriate funding will help ensure system health. The need for clear protective measures and operational procedures will be understood by all stakeholders. And realistic expectations around technology capacity, functionality, and reliability will be held by all. Further, when everyone in a school understands the circulatory system role of technology a culture of better communication and efficient technology usage tends to arise.

This begs the question: how do leaders, teachers, and parents better engage the technology department to build this understanding?

First, a technology roadmap for the school should be co-created to outline the current state of technology across the organization. This will outline the veins, arteries, and (functional) heart of the system. Such a roadmap will allow for greater clarity of decision making and serve as a backup of institutional knowledge.

Next, the process and data flows should be mapped by the tech team. This outline of the blood will allow the school to better understand what data it has, how it is used, and how teams work together to ensure consistent flow.

Last, an exercise program and healthy eating program should be put in place. The goal of better data flow, protected technology, and systemic improvement should be treated the same way we aim to exercise and eat well. The school should do this through strategic planning, cybersecurity auditing, and data flow and protection procedures.

By understanding that technology is the circulatory system of the school and treating it as such, the functional aspect of the organization can be maintained and improved in a healthy manner. This will allow everyone to focus on the true heart of the institution.

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Tara Linney – Global Conversations – Girls in Coding

In this episode of the Global Conversations series, we talk with Tara Linney about her book Code Equity: Keying Girls Into Coding. Code Equity is an EdTech book talking about Girls in Coding. We talk about empower girls in coding and computer science, from clubs to support to activities to encouragement. An inspiring discussion for helping girls become more involved in EdTech.

Buy the book here:

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YOLO – You’re Only in Lockdown Once, SO HAVE FUN!!!

During COVID19, most of the rules and social norms are out the window. So, now is a time to experiment, goof off, try new things, dress up, tell stories, make videos…do things you couldn’t normally do in school.

In short, YOLO – You’re Only in Lockdown Once…SO HAVE FUN!!!

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Go for Creativity, Not Complexity

As teachers are thrust into using technology for learning, they tend to slip back into a common pitfall of more, more, more. We see more tasks to do, more questions to answer, and more complexity in our tasks. However, more isn’t always best…in this COVID19 time, I suggest we give more control to students and ask them to be creative in their work. Have them show their learning through their creative ideas. This will take up time, increase engagement, and make learning more meaningful.

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Digital Hygiene during COVID19

Cyberattacks, data breaches, and privacy issues have been all over the news during our stint of force remote learning. In this video, I talk about Digital Hygiene for cybersafety and cybersecurity. We should take the same approach as we do with Physical Hygiene during COVID19 – Social Distancing, Wearing Face Masks, and Quarantines.

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You Are Using Your School Website Wrong

You are using your school website wrong

A school website is the first port of entry for anyone looking to learn about a school. This includes existing community members (students, teachers, staff, leaders), potential community members (new students/parents, teachers apply for jobs, potential board members), and those looking for more information about the school (inspectors, donors, media, educational organizations). Schools that try to create websites that are all things to all these people end up creating a diluted or inconsistent experience for all.

The schools that use their web presence successfully understand that needs of each stakeholder group and partition their sites accordingly.

Existing Community Members

Stakeholders in the community don’t have much need for a standard website. Static information about the school’s curriculum or contact info have little value to students and parents that visit the school daily. Instead, they need dynamic content that changes each time they visit. They need portals that are customized to their needs with regularly updated information that informs them and incites action. A teacher needs communications about calendar changes, policy updates, and means to interact with parents and students. Parents need news, pictures, and communication channels directly related to their children rather than schoolwide information. Students need academic and social content that meets their interests and needs while aligning to their uses of social media outside of school.

A school website cannot do this…and nor should it. A school website should only provide access to other systems, such as social media sites, communication systems, a learning management platform, or access to related online tools. A school website should not be developed with existing community members in mind.

Potential Community Members

Incoming parents, potential employees, and students applying to a school will look at the website as their first interaction with the school. They will be looking for a snapshot of school life. Rarely will they delve deep into policies or mission statements, instead looking for highlights of school events or examples of student work. They will want to know about requirements for entry, what to expect when on campus, and a calendar of school events.

This is where a school website should focus. It should provide high level information about the school that answers all the key questions potential community members may have. It should deliver static information about the leadership structure, school history, and curriculum. It should show the school calendar with links to pictures and videos from recent events. It should provide a very clear process for admissions or job applications. It should not be overly dynamic, instead relying on consistency so when school personnel meet these potential community members they know what has already been seen.

A key aspect for potential community member is a visually appealing product. Whereas existing community members will be more impressed with targeted dynamic content, potential community members will be judging the school on its presentation. The website should have consistent branding, colors, fonts, and headings. It should have professional visuals and pictures that showcase the best the school has to offer. The structure of the site should be simple and clear and it should include an easy to use search function. Written language should follow the 3 Cs: concise, cogent, and consistent.

Schools should think of their website as a classroom visit from an outside inspector; it is their time to show their best selves for someone who knows little about them, but who is judging them.

Outsiders Looking to Learn More

While potential community members are the website’s primary audience, there will be outside people and organizations using the site to learn about the school as well. This audience is often looking for two things: clear explanation of process and procedures and a snapshot of the school community.

Inspectors, accrediting agencies, and even the media will evaluate the school based on its adherence to accepted school practices. They will look for a clear mission and vision statement, descriptions of curriculum, and policies such as admissions criteria or privacy protection. It is important for schools to include this information in a standardized format that is easy to find. Further, the site should include an “About Us” or “Message from the Head of School” that encapsulates the key aspects and statistics of the school in a few short paragraphs.

The website should also provide content for potential donors, the surrounding community, and outside organizations just trying to get a feel for the school. There should be content that provides a snapshot of daily life at the school, highlighting key achievements and features of the school. This content should be interspersed throughout the site while being prominent on the landing page. For example, if the school has just held an arts installation pictures from the event should be prominent on the home page and placed as anchor images in random areas throughout the site.

A Window into the School

A school’s website should not be designed for those already in the school. As a window display in a mall is intended to attract people to the store rather than support customers already inside, a website should focus on the external. It should provide rarely changing information, pictures, and videos of the school for those outside of the school community. It should present a realistic view into daily school life in a professional and polished fashion. To cater to the needs of existing community members, the website should only be an entry point to more dynamic and targets systems.

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Try Something New If Not Now, When?

In these unique times, we have a huge opportunity to experiment and try things we have never done before. Whether professionally or personally, the time is now. We don’t know when this will end and the stakes are different. No exams, fewer grades, and students ripe for new experiences. So whether you a teacher or a parent, try something new…maybe even shave your head!

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