Learning from a visit to a school using technology: Some questions to consider

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how should I frame this?
how should I frame this?

Over the past two decades, I've had the good fortune to visit hundreds and hundreds of schools across all six continents to learn about how they are using new technologies -- and hope to use them in the future. (Maybe some day I'll visit the Antarctic school that was connected to the Internet by Chile's pioneering Enlaces program and I'll be able to claim I've done this on *all* continents!)

From Korea to Costa Rica, Sri Lanka to Syria, Lesotho to Laos, Papua New Guinea to Puerto Rico: School visits in over 50 countries have run the gamut, from observing the shared use of quite old graphing calculators and lectures at the blackboard describing how to navigate Microsoft Windows (even though there was a nary a PC to be found in the building) to marvelling at technology-rich classrooms filled students and teachers doing things with hardware and software that I couldn't have dreamed of doing when I was a student myself, many years ago.

I have visited schools in prosperous countries in peacetime and in very poor countries emerging from conflict (and in some cases, still technically at war). I learned firsthand about technology use in schools in Iceland when that country was labelled the world's 'most developed' and in schools in Haiti, the poorest country in the western Hemisphere, after that country suffered its devastating earthquake.

In pretty much all cases and contexts, investments in 'technology' were meant to be deliberately forward-looking (if not always necessarily that 'strategic' or well-planned), to some extent symbols (often explicit ones) of progress and optimism about the future, no matter the education system, from the most 'high performing' to the most dysfunctional.

Because I've had lots of comparative experiences visiting schools in 'other places' around the world, I am sometimes asked to provide an 'international perspective' on what is happening within a set of schools in a given country, part of a larger effort to benchmark what is being done and planned against norms in other countries. It can be a pretty cool gig at times (although the travel can be rather punishing). I am always learning, and the dynamism and determination of students, teachers, principals and education officials whom I observe and chat with quite often leaves me inspired and (re-)energized.

Since I have been doing this for so long, I sometimes help 'train' people (at ministries of education, at NGOs) who are assuming leadership positions in educational technology initiatives on how to develop their own "carpenter's eye" -- the ability to make quick assessments and judgments about what they are seeing in ways those less experienced in the field may struggle to do.

What's a 'carpenter's eye'?
A carpenter can often quickly judge whether an angle is truly 90 degrees, or that a wrong tool was used for a particular job, or make educated guesses about why one material was employed instead of another, or that something is destined to break. Such judgments may not always be accurate, and may be informed by various biases, but they are often qualitatively different than those of people less skilled and experienced with woodworking, who may not notice such things -- and who in fact may not care about them, nor understand why they might be important.

In my personal experience working with new technologies in the education sector, many of these folks have come from 'technical backgrounds' and typically direct their gaze toward, and ask the majority of their questions about, the technology itself. Often times the end goal of such investigations is meant to build an accurate inventory the equipment that is available in a school, rather to trying to learn about how the equipment itself is being used (and not used), why this might be the case, and how people feel about this. Fair enough: We all have different bosses, different ideas about what is important, and different incentives for doing whatever it is we may do. I don't mean to deny the importance of surveying what technologies are currently available in schools. But in my experience, visiting a school to learn about the technology it has and only focusing on that technology (what processor a device has, which operating system it runs, how much memory is available) represents a real lost opportunity to learn about and gain insight into many more things at the same time.

In case it might be of use to anyone else, I have assembled a quick list of some of the things that I often ask about and consider, usually automatically and unconsciously, when I visit a school to learn about how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are being used (and not used) for a variety of purposes. It's by no means comprehensive, and of course every context is different, but I find that these are often the types of things that I ask about and look for (in addition, of course, to the more general educational and demographic stuff that would be common areas of inquiry related to most school visits, and the hyper-specific stuff that might be the reason I am visiting one school in particular).

I have cobbled this list together from a much larger, slightly unruly 'master' list of questions that I maintain, which draws on notes and emails I have shared with people over almost two decades of school visits, working with hundreds of people, many of whom had little prior experience in visiting schools to assess what was happening with technology. Sometimes -- if not often -- sharing these sorts of questions is meant as much to spark discussion and debate within a team about what might be important (and what isn't so important), and how to go about finding this out, as it is to suggest actual questions that should be posed. Every context is different.


When I used to work in China, where I usually needed help with translation, after a while one of my main government counterparts began to kick off  many school visits by saying to me, 'if it's OK I'll just ask a bunch of your usual questions quickly in bunches and highlight to you where any of the answers are non-standard. That way we can save time and focus in on what's different.'

In case they might be useful or helpful to anyone else, I offer here a sampling of what some of these 'usual questions' might be. Not all of the 'obvious' ones are listed -- this is just a sample list, after all, and there's little value in telling people about things they already know well. Many of the questions listed below are meant to suggest potential areas of inquiry which might help provide additional insight into specific contexts and issues 'at the edges' of whatever the main line of inquiry may be (for which questions may already be formulated). In other words, this is not a 'checklist of questions to ask', but rather a 'list of some (additional) questions to consider (many of which may lead suggest further lines of profitably inquiry).

I note, for what it's worth, that I often ask a number of questions to which I assume I know the answer, both as a way to build rapport with people into whose lives I have been disruptively parachuted -- ask difficult questions right at the start and people may get flustered, embarrassed or wary -- and because sometimes I find that my assumptions are, well, wrong.

(I also take a lot of pictures -- but only with permission. I find doing so is a great aide-memoire -- and often a great icebreaker too.)


With all of that explanatory background stuff out of the way, here are, in no particular order, grouped into some inexact categories:

A bunch of questions to consider asking yourself, and others,
when visiting a school to observe and learn about
how new technologies are being used (and not used)

1. School
How long has the school 'had computers'? (Note that, in this and all other questions that follow, 'computers' or 'ICTs' is shorthand for any sort of computing device, and so includes laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, etc.) Who uses them, for what purposes, and why? Who supplied and paid for them?? When did the school get connected to the Internet? How fast is this connection, who provides it, and who pays for it? Does the school participate in any 'special' educational technology projects or initiatives? How are mobile phones handled? Is there a school web site (email address, social media account, etc.)? Can I get on, or easily hack into, their wi-fi network? [One needs to be careful with this one, obviously.] Are any computers in evidence outside of classrooms (carried by students or teachers, in the library, etc.)? Is there an acceptable use policy governing technology use by students, teachers and/or administrators? If so, does it take the form of a 'contract' (e.g. signed by students and parents), school rules, or are these just general guidelines? What does the acceptable use policy cover? Has the school ever been 'hacked'?

2. Principal's office
Is there a computer in the office and, if so, who uses it? Are any passwords visibly posted anywhere? Does the computer look like it is used often? Is it standard issue or a personal device? Is there connectivity in the office? Is the office itself neat and tidy and does everything (e.g. the clock) work?

3. Principal
How long has the principal used computers, and to what extent does s/he use them in her personal and professional life? Does she have a computer at home? Has she ever looked at her school web site on her phone? Does she contact teachers in the school via email or text message (or other digital means, including via social media) regularly? What examples can the principal cite about how computers are used in her school, both for learning and for administrative purposes? Is a 'dashboard' available for her to quickly look at key metrics related to the use of computers in her school in some way? How does the principal consider the use of computers in her school, and how does this fit in with her larger goals and objectives for the school?

4. Classrooms
Are ICTs available for use in classrooms (i.e. outside of computer labs, libraries, etc.), and if so, what are available? What is the typical modality for the use of ICTs in classrooms? Where and how are ICTs used, and how is this enabled/inhibited by the geography of the classroom? How light/dark and hot/cold is the classroom? Is shared use of individual devices the norm, common, or rare? Is wi-fi available in the classroom? Ethernet connections? For what subjects and purposes are ICTs most commonly used? Do students have their own devices? Who makes the decisions about technology use within classrooms -- is it mandated by government policy (e.g. when you teach concept x, you do it using these digital learning resources), is it at the instigation or discretion of the teacher, or is it at the discretion of the student? How many electrical outlets are there -- and do they work?

5. Teachers
Do teachers have access to computers etc. at home? To what extent do they use them in their daily lives, and to support their teaching? Where, when and under what circumstances do teachers have access to ICTs in school? Is there a government or school-supported device purchase plan? Can teachers bring their own devices -- and do they? How much 'training' have they received related to technology use -- and did they think it was any good? How much ongoing technical and pedagogical support related to their use of ICTs is available? Do they participate in peer networks for learning and support? How old are they, how long have they been using computers in their teaching (and more generally), and how comfortable are they in using technology to support their teaching? Do they create (and share) and content that they create with others? Do they contact students directly using email or social media? Do teachers create digital content themselves, and to what extent do they share it with their peers? How do they learn about the availability and potential usefulness of digital learning content and applications -- and how to they evaluate its relevance, usefulness and accuracy? To what extent are computers used to help with administrative functions (grading, attendance, etc.)?

6. Library (and other potential sites for technology use, e.g. science labs)
Is there a school library, and if so, is any technology available there for student or teacher use? How and under what circumstances is the technology typically used? Who oversees and monitors this use? Are ICTs available for use in school science labs, and if so, how are they used, and by whom? Where else are computers to be found in the school?

7. Computer lab
Is there a computer lab (more than one?)? Who has the key to the computer lab? Who uses the computer lab, when, how much, and for what purposes? Who oversees and schedules the use of the computer lab -- subject teachers, specialized 'computer teachers', vendors, etc.? What's posted on the wall? How is the equipment configured -- both physically in the room, and in the software?

side note: Asking questions about computer use in a school can sometimes be as much about exposing people in that school to activities, approaches and perspectives in *other* places that might be worth their consideration. When you ask a question and get an answer: That's great. Sometimes it's even better if the response includes a question as well: Why do you ask?

8. Computer teacher
Is there a dedicated 'computer teacher', and if so, what does s/he do? How old is s/he and what sort of training has she received? Is there a formal job description describing his/her role? No matter what this job description might say, what else is s/he expected to do? Is s/he considered officially a 'teacher'?

9. Students
How are students using computers in school? Are they using their own devices? How does student use of computers in school differ from use outside of school? What advice would students have about how better to utilize computers in their school? Are there observable differences in how boys and girls use computers -- and in how administrators, teachers and parents consider this use? Are there any students identified as having 'special needs', and to what extent (and how) are they or their teachers using technology? Do students take exams (high or low stakes) on computers and if so, what type? Does the school serve as a testing centre for other schools? How and to what extent do teachers utilize data about student aptitudes, knowledge and interests, and how is this helped or hindered by the use of technology? Do students have their own individual log-in accounts on the school network? What are they allowed to access -- and what do they access? How 'secure' do students consider the school network and data?

10. Web sites & social media
Does the school have a web site and/or a social media presence? How up to date is it, and what functionality does it have? Does the school provide email addresses to teachers, administrators and students? Do they use their own email addresses? To what extent and how is Internet access filtered? Does the school subscribe or utilize in significant ways web services and tools hosted outside the school? What are the most common digital resources utilized by teachers and students? Is there a naitonal education portal? Is there a school Intranet, and what does it contain? Are students and teachers able to store files on local servers or in the cloud? Are assignments distributed by email or via the web, and can students submit work via such channels? Can teachers, students, parents and administrators access school resources from home, and if so, what for? To what extent are students active on social media, and to what extent is the school aware of this activity? Are students and teachers in touch with each other via social media? Is 'cyber-bullying' an issue?

11. Mobile phones
Are students allowed to bring mobile phones to school? Do they have their own mobile phones? Do teachers use their phones as part of their teaching/professional activities? Do administrators? What types of phones are in use, where, and what sorts of things are they used for (both related to teaching and learning, and more generally)?

12. Hardware
What is available for use, and by whom? Is the equipment in good condition? Where is it located? How standard or heterogeneous is it? Does it appear to be used? How many printers are there, and how do they handle printing? In addition to computers, tablets, projectors, interactive whiteboards, PCs, etc. what other digital equipment and peripherals available (e.g. cameras, speakers, microscopes, sensors, probeware, TVs, radios/speakers, calculators, e-readers, etc.). Do students or teachers use USB drives in school? Does the school keep a consolidated, easy-to-access inventory of all of its computer-related equipment?

13. Government officials
How knowledgeable are any of the government officials on the school visit about what they are seeing? What do they seem to think is important?

14. Parents, families and communities
Does the school open up its computer facilities and/or network to the local community after hours? Are there regular technology-enabled extracurricular activities (e.g. a computer club, science competitions) at the school? Where are the typical points of access for students and their families to the Internet and computing facilities outside of school? Do parents receive information from the school via digital means (email, SMS, web, social media), what sort of information is shared, and how important are these communication channels?

side note: Even when visiting a 'showcase' school, where one's visit has often been highly choreographed and people are obviously putting their best face forward, I find that it is still possible to walk away with some useful insights. You can always learn -- sometimes you just have to work a little harder at it. One understandable inclination is to dismiss a visit to such a school as largely irrelevant to what is happening (or not happening) in 'normal' schools, but such visits needn't be a waste of time. Indeed, sometimes you are subject to theater, and the act of observing almost always changes what is being observed in some way, but it's nevertheless still possible to learn something in most cases. Visiting a 'showcase' school' can, at a minimum, help you refine your carpenter's eye -- if you are focused on doing so.

15. Technical support
Who provides technical support? Are teachers expected to do this? Is there specialized technical support available (in school, by phone, etc.)? Are students involved in providing technical support? What happens when something doesn't work (or breaks)?

16. Gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status & age
For every question considered or activity observed, are there noticeable differences related to gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status or age, and what might these differences suggest? What are the prevailing attitudes toward ICT use related to gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and age? Are there any specific related programs or activities targeting groups in any of these areas (e.g. coding for girls, extra technical support for older teachers, etc.)?

17. Language
Are students and teachers accessing Internet content in languages that they don't speak at home? Are translation tools in widespread use? Where multiple languages are heard in a classroom (e.g. a spoken vernacular and a written 'official' language), how does this relate to technology use?

18. Connectivity, electricity & security
How fast is the school Internet connection? Where is connectivity available in the school (by whom using what devices, for what purposes)? Is connectivity available via wired or wireless connections?  How reliable is the electricity -- and is it sufficient? Does the school employ any special measures in able to power its computing infrastructure? What sort of data does the school store, transmit and have access to about students? What measures are in place (technical, procedural, administrative) related to the access to and use of these data? What computer and information security measures are in place at the school, and within the education system more broadly that impact the school? Does the school store data in 'the cloud' and/or regularly access applications and services 'in the cloud'? What measures are in place to prevent the physical theft of ICT equipment? Is there a firewall, and if so, who manages it? Is there an acceptable use policy that governs the use of ICT facilities within the school and/or related to learning off school premises?

19. Budget, funding, vendors & procurement
How is technology use at a school funded? What procurement processes are utilized -- and how do school officials feel about their relevance and utility? Is there a special 'computer fee' that parents are expected/requested to pay? How visible is the presence of specific vendors in the school? What is the budget for technology use -- and what does this include and exclude? How is this information reported -- and to whom?

20. _____
OK, I have left the last category here blank, as an acknowledgement of the incomplete nature of this list. Feel free to fill in this category yourself -- and to offer related questions (for this category, and any other). Sharing this list is meant, as much as anything, to help instigate various conversations? Are these the 'right' questions to ask? Are they the most important ones? Do we regularly ask questions about which we don't really, as a practical matter, care about their answers?


It might not be possible (nor advisable) to try to investigate answers to all of these sorts of questions, or even many of them -- context and relevance are king, and most visits to schools are inevitably too short. Depending on circumstances, there are many other questions that might be relevant (and which I might therefore ask). Often times I ask a question, or set of questions, in an attempt to figure out where they might be something of interest that is worth investigating further (as well as where asking additional related questions might just be a waste of everyone's time). One general question that I try to ask as often as I can, to as many different people as I can: What one thing would you change?

I share this list here in case it might be useful for anyone else, as an adjunct or complement to the standard lists of questions they might have when they visit a school to learn about how technology is being used, as a catalyst for discussion and reflection on the types of things that potentially fruitful lines of inquiry when visiting a school to learn about how technology is being used -- and in the hope that others may tell me what I am missing (or getting wrong).

Investigations related to the use of technology in schools should of course be grounded within larger discussions around education and learning. Caring about the number of computers in a school, but not about the quality and relevance of the educational opportunities and practices in that same school, nor about their relation to the culture of the school community or the health and happiness of students and teachers, would seem to be missing the forest for the trees.

Part of the challenge in any endeavor is making sure you are asking the right questions, at levels both profound and systemic, as well as personal and mundane. What the specific answers to these sorts of questions might tell you, or suggest, is of course another story ....

[This is the second post in a two-part series. The first post was Learning from the use of technology in showcase schools.]

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of two ladies developing their own 'carpenter's eye' ("how should I framew this?") comes from the National Library of Wales via Wikimedia Commons. Shot by the photographer Geoff Charles, it was made available as a result of a Creative Commons (CC0 1.0) Universal Public Domain Dedication  .


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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