I have written this article to share my thoughts on technology staffing within a school environment. It is based on my own personal experiences working with 100+ schools over 20 years in 8 countries. I hope that it will be helpful to schools who are reviewing their staffing provision.
We rely on technology more every day in all aspects of life, in schools this is highlighted more so as not only do we use technology for functional admin efficiency and transformation of learning experience but also to prepare our students for careers in the 21st century. As schools invest more and more in software and hardware to satisfy their thirst for technology the human element required to manage and support this technology is often overlooked. Every successful innovation using technology I have seen over the years has had the appropriate governance and support in place, often those that failed were due to being frugal with human resources.
There is a general assumption that more technology equals less people and of course technology at its core is a multiplier, making processes far quicker and more efficient requiring less manual human work, an example you may see in schools is where you may reduce numbers in a functional support team by automating tasks through use of technology. However, there needs to be an initial core investment of staff to harness technology properly and support it.
This is where I often see schools making mistakes, they expand functional teams due to capacity issues and/or implement a technology solution which isn’t suitable or well supported and it either fails to solve the issue or just moves the capacity requirement from the functional team to the technology team. A smart approach would be to expand the technology team before they are at capacity, so they can spend their time researching, implementing and enhancing other functions with quality solutions. It’s a simple proactive vs reactive approach – its efficient and saves money in the long term as the function no longer requires an additional team member and the technology team can move on to helping solve other issues.
Analysis of Issues
There are 3 distinct areas of technology management within a school.
Infrastructure & Operations (IO)
Traditionally the IT technician role, dealing with internet connectivity, networking, devices, account management, user support, digital security and anti-virus, hardware procurement etc
Information Services (IS)
Management of school data systems (MIS), business analytics, internal reporting and reporting to parents, communications, streamlining of functional process etc.
Educational Technology (ET)
Integration of digital learning into the curriculum, professional development training for teachers, innovating use of classroom technology, digital skills coach to staff and students etc.
There are many issues with the traditional model which hold schools back from achieving their digital potential but the 2 key problems I have identified are:
Key Issue – Coherence & Focus
The traditional approach to technology in schools is to have an IT technician, members of the admin department managing the school MIS and tech-savvy teachers working with educational technology as well as a reasonably full teaching load. Usually each area operates completely independently of the other (different budgets, line management, physical locations) which results in a disjointed approach to development as each department has their own priorities. It is up to the Principal to have a holistic view and try to prioritise investment and support, which is a difficult task. As our use of technology has increased exponentially many schools try to cope with the demand for support by adding additional human resources into these segregated departments, if budget allows. However the structure remains unchanged there may not be a clear vision for the use of technology, therefore the investment may not be in the optimum area.
Key Issue – Capacity for Innovation
Another issue when assessing requirements for technology staffing is to factor in capacity for innovation to deal with the speed of change. The amount of time it takes to research, design, test, master, implement and share a new innovation should not be underestimated, couple this solution development cycle with evolving requirements and emerging technologies and you come to understand that the “experts” need to build in considerable capacity to be able to “innovate” and stay ahead of the general users. I would recommend that the technology team requires at least 1 day a week to research and innovate, however most schools do not factor this in and only base their model on tangible support requirements and tasks, leading to a lack of innovation.
The solution is to have a dedicated specialist member of staff in each of the 3 areas to ensure the appropriate skillset and capacity and bring them together into a single coherent technology department led by a senior Digital Leader.
What is a Digital Leader?
Sometimes known by another title, such as Director of Technology, a digital leader sits as a member of the schools senior leadership team, their primary role is to provide a strategic mindset and promote a set of behaviours that leverage resources to create a meaningful, transparent, and engaging school culture. They are the driving force to embed digital transformation into the schools development plan to deliver a 21st century smart school. I will refer to a Digital Leader as just DL for the remainder of this article.
This position should be a full time role on a leadership pay scale without a dedicated teaching timetable. A DL in a school is not “Academic” or “Support Staff” they have a foot squarely in both camps and act as a bridge between the two. Ideally they will have academic teaching experience but also an understanding of the functional areas of schools, along with reasonable technical expertise. This is a difficult combination of experience to find and so some compromise may need to be made, leadership skills should be valued over deep technical knowledge, the DL will often need to work with technical staff to develop a solution rather than hands on development themselves.
Here are some of the key skills and responsibilities a DL in a school will have:
- Digital Learning – To work with the academic teams to embed 21st century skills and the use of technology throughout the school and promote a digital citizenship ethos..
- Digital Governance – To lead a technology steering committee to guide decision-making within the school, and to develop policy and process to support these decisions.
- Project Management – Being able to work in a structured systematic way to implement new solutions within the school that will affect multiple departments.
- Business Analysis – Be able to work with the functional teams (Admission, HR, Finance etc.) to streamline and enhance their processes through use of technology.
- People Management – The technology team should report directly to the DL, in some schools the DL will also line manage all the support function (as with the roll of a traditional bursar)
- Business Intelligence – To work with the school Head of Information Services to ensure quality, timely information reaches the right people to direct decision making.
- Digital Protection – To ensure digital safeguarding for students, internet security for staff and act as school Data Protection Officer (unless dedicated position already exists)
- Innovation Analysis – To be actively informed regarding innovation and emerging technologies in education and to evaluate adoption based on value to the students and the business.
- Progression Planning – To allocate appropriate investment into planned progression and evaluate the success of initiatives.
- Sustainability Planning – Becoming paperless and using smart technology to reduce carbon footprints and ensure a green school.
What are the Key Benefits of having a Digital Leader?
A DL will ensure that the school is a competitive 21st century education provider, they will advise, support and improve all areas of the school through use of technology and ensure that the technology support staff are a high functioning team. Below are 3 key areas where the DL will add value.
Optimal Resource Management
A DL brings together the technology team (Infrastructure, Data, Ed Tech) as a single unit, schools often have a divide between academic and support functions – bringing them together with joint accountability for a single development plan and budget under the direction of an experienced DL will ensure optimisation of investment and resources. The DL will take an holistic view of the school and be able to prioritise investment into the right areas, many principals will openly admit that technology may not be their strong point and so will value this being managed by confident experienced hands.
Embedded Digital Strategy
As a member of the senior leadership team, all school decisions will have exposure to a business analysis mindset. The DL will be able to contribute to school improvement by offering technology based solutions at the highest level so that issues are addressed more efficiently. They will be able to lead a culture change where technology is considered and embedded in all areas of the school strategy rather than being its own separate strategy as is often the case, this will result in a deeper more effective influence on student learning.
Having a key decision maker with the time to visit other schools, participate in conferences, speak to vendors and conduct research will ensure that they are able to recommend innovative new solutions and as a result optimise the schools development plan to ensure the success of students and the competitiveness of the business.
How to Pay for a Digital Leader?
How does a school ensure the right staff are in place? You might agree this is the right thing to do but are struggling to fund an additional leadership position, here are some ideas for how you might pay for a DL.
Pay for Themselves
This role pays for itself, having an innovative individual who will be able to review and improve all functional and academic departments by integrating the use of technology will be the most wide reaching impactful change to a school you can make other than a change of principal. With sound measuring structures in place even after just 12 months you should be able to show a positive return on investment, which will only grow with time.
Replace the Bursar
Many schools have a Bursar as part of the senior leadership team, managing and representing the functional support side of the school, as Bursars move on it gives us the opportunity to review this model in line with our 21st century requirements. A digital leader will share many of the management skills required and potentially offer enhancements to the project management, business analysis, data use and innovation areas. Ask yourselves with a strong finance manager in place at the school might a digital leader bring more to the table than a traditional Bursar?
For smaller schools combining roles is an option. I would suggest that either the Data Manager or Ed Tech Coach role is better suited to being handled by the digital leader than an infrastructure manager, mainly due to capacity as in the small school role an IT manager is often the sole technician, both supporting users and managing the infrastructure, while data and academic tasks can be supported by other admin and teaching staff where necessary.
Switch to BYOD
In my opinion schools that heavily invest in devices for students without having the appropriate staffing resources to support have their investment priorities the wrong way around. If you can afford both then great, but if it comes to a choice between implementing an innovative team of professionals to support and drive the schools use of technology or buying lots of devices, I would choose the staff every time – you only have to look at the classic interactive whiteboard failures where school invest £100,000 on smart hardware for them to be used only as a much cheaper projector because there isn’t anyone dedicated to the promotion and support of their use resulting in a massive waste of investment. Save a lot of money by asking children to bring their own devices and invest it in staff instead.
Recommended Staffing for Technology Team
I am advocate that a school should have a minimum of 4 dedicated members of staff to form a technology team including a DL. The model is also scalable to large schools, an increase in students brings an increase in number of staff and devices requiring support, therefore you should budget for an increase in staff for every 500 students:
Key Leads (1-500 Students)
- Digital Leader – Accountable for all technology within the school, leads the technology team and is part of senior leadership team
- Head of Infrastructure & Operations – Managing Infrastructure, Devices, Internet Connectivity etc.
- Head of Information Services – Managing and supporting the schools MIS and other platforms, data processing and reporting.
- Head of Educational Technology – Staff technology PD delivery, driving use of technology in learning, promoting digital citizenship etc.
Additional Support Staff (for every additional 500 students)
- Infrastructure & Operations Officer
- Information Service Officer
- Educational Technology Coach
Exactly when you onboard these additional support staff depends on what works for you but once student roll is over 500 you should have these additional staff in place before it hits 1000, and another set of additional staff before it hits 1500 etc.
My main advice for anyone opening a new greenfield school is to build the cost of a quality dedicated technology team into your business plan from the outset, the mentality of “well we will have one IT Technician and perhaps add a Data Manger or an Ed Tech Coach as the school grows” usually leads to an amazing brand new school being void of technology innovation and efficiency, due to this person being a one stop shop for everything and having no capacity, no matter how talented the individual is they can’t create a brilliant digital dashboard of useful information to aid key decisions or teach new teachers how to use Microsoft OneNote or effectively enhancing the students learning experience because they are in the server room trying to fix the internet connection. By investing minimally in staff you are setting yourself up to fail.
The DL is part of the senior leadership team and has decision making authority, all technology related budget and resources allocation must be approved by the DL.
- School Technology Team to Meet weekly
- Digital Leader
- Head of Infrastructure & Operations + Support Officers
- Head of Information Services + Support Officers
- Head of Educational Technology + Support Coaches
- The school should form a technology steering group, meeting quarterly to review school improvement plan and project updates, the group should be senior figures in the school for example:
- Heads of Schools
- Director of Learning
- Digital Leader
- Head of Infrastructure & Operations
- Head of Information Services
- Head of Educational Technology
- Finance Manager
- Admission Manager
- HR Manager
- Facilities Manager
- Safeguarding Lead
This staffing and governance model is scalable for those schools who are part of a group.
Saving money on technology team staffing to invest in hardware or digital platforms is false economy, other than the school leadership team there is no team of people that will have the most significant impact on other staff to improve the school. Having dedicated people with the experience, skills and capacity to redefine processes in all departments and to influence learning to ensure the school is able to thrive in the 21st century will quickly give you a positive return on investment.
The most significant change a leadership team can do right now to move towards becoming a 21st century smart school is to appoint a Digital Leader to integrate technology into the school strategy and to guide future investments. They will setup the appropriate governance and create a robust development plan with scalable support to ensure you are at the cutting edge of digital learning and functional efficiency. The sooner you make this happen the sooner you will see significant change in your school so what are you waiting for – do it now!
If you have any questions or feedback please do get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org I am always happy to collaborate and hear contrasting views.