Effective implementation of a strategy

We’ve explored the possible purposes that can drive an education technology strategy in your school. In this article, Dominic Norrish, Group Director of Technology at United Learning, explores the design factors that affect the effective implementation of a strategy.

Many of the different outcomes seen in schools’ use of Edtech can be explained through the ‘implementation effect’ – the concept that the way in which a technology is implemented has a far greater influence on its impact than the quality or functionality of the product.

It’s not that the product doesn’t need to be good too, just that it takes a truly great implementation to make anything have an impact. The very best tool poorly implemented will always fail and that’s what we’ve been repeatedly experiencing in past 30 years of schools using technology. The relatively few schools that stand out as reliably using technology well haven’t somehow chosen the ‘best’ products, they are practiced at implementing well and sustaining their use. So what makes for a high-quality implementation?

Choose wisely, and then focus:

If you’re expecting colleagues to work hard to get something new off the ground, it needs to address a genuine priority or challenge that the school faces. Schools must choose to only implement products that they are certain will make a difference to something important. Begin with the question ‘What are we trying to change?’, look at what is working in similar contexts and trust the testimony of your peers who’ve done it.

Quite often it is the only thing a school is doing with technology. This allows staff to focus on a single (significant, high-effort) change, rather than throwing a number of plausible solutions at a problem creating workload and confusion.

High quality operational management, from a leader with skin in the game:

No change sticks in schools without the sponsorship of someone who can remove barriers and create space for staff to develop, and that person needs to be senior enough to influence others and make decisions. This must be a details person who isn’t teaching all day, because they have to design and oversee a complex programme of change. Change doesn’t happen accidentally, it happens because it’s been carefully planned. They will have trialled things themselves and ironed out problems with their own classes. They will have set up structures to both support and to create accountability. They will be resilient against the inevitable resistance and set-backs, displaying positive leadership. You’ll probably recognise a few Assistant/ Deputy Heads you’ve known who have those qualities and seem to ‘just make things work’.

You rarely see leadership with this commitment unless the person feels highly accountable and that they’ve got something to at stake if it fails or succeeds. When they hear about something going wrong, not working as it should, or someone simply not doing what was agreed, they feel worried and take action. That might be additional support for a colleague, a technical work-around, or a difficult conversation. This is why externally imposed solutions almost always fail miserably – if there’s no one in school who truly sees this as ‘their problem’, passive resisters aren’t challenged, the unsure aren’t supported… and eventual failure is highly likely.

Reduce friction

With something as fragile as a new use of technology by teachers, it is easy for small problems to derail things and for staff to withdraw trust. Successful implementations succeed in the details: barriers to use by teachers and pupils should be anticipated in the planning stage and mitigated through technical changes or training. A good example of this might be a web-based resource that requires staff to log in with a unique password. Usually this results in a proportion of people forgetting their credentials and giving up on using the resource. A high-quality implementation would have seen this becoming a potential problem and worked out how to leverage an existing identity (e.g. Office 365). A product’s reliability (whether it’s going to stop working in a lesson) is the other common deal-breaker. Far too often these problems persist due to the pace of work in schools – no one has the time nor the expertise to come up with a solution and teachers eventually give up.

Create structures of support and accountability

This point is about making adults and children feel that they have a stake in what you are doing. For example, a recent implementation of the Hegarty Maths(HM) product across a group of schools has had to rely on being well-structured, as the person leading it works across many schools. She has gathered together a list of techniques, so that those rolling HM out can build their own strategy on the work of others. She has also introduced ‘Hegarty books’ for pupils, which are used formally alongside this online resource to create a record of the pupils’ work and thinking. Schools usually structure use of the product on a weekly cycle, with a ‘Hegarty Day’ being the point at which these books are reviewed and pupils’ progress shared. The use of pupil ‘league tables’ (most activities completed, etc) has proved motivational and is mirrored at a school level so that staff can see how their efforts compare to colleagues elsewhere, and that activity is tracked, noted and matters. Through these steps, the lead has helped schools to formalise the use of what could have just been another ‘maths homework site’ in the eyes of pupils and staff.

Pupil power

This final point is about creating momentum to sustain the change through getting children excited about it. In one school implementing the Pobble writing product recently, every class has two ‘Pobble champions’, ‘Published Author’ badges and regular Pobble celebration assemblies where the best pieces of writing are read and their authors can bask in the glory. The champions have many jobs (such as commenting on published pieces and to notice/ congratulate children from any year group who are wearing the published author badges). This is a facet of the ‘create structures’ point above, and it helps establish and maintain a culture where this important intervention is talked about and becomes part of the school’s narrative.

None of this will have surprised you, so why is effective implementation the exception rather than the rule? It is because above all else: schools have finite energy and patience for new initiatives, so unless the education technologies project is absolutely accepted by all involved as adding educational value beyond what would otherwise be possible, few of the other things required for impact are likely to happen. Once it is, the rest could be argued to be simply strong leadership and basic project management.

Once you’ve reflected on the points raised with other course participants, click the ‘Mark as complete’ button below and then select ‘Delivering a strategy’ to explore a case study from Emma Darcy, Director of Technology for Learning at Chiltern Learning Trust.

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This article is from the free online course:

Leadership of Education Technology in Schools

Chartered College of Teaching