Who's responsible for education innovation: teachers or suppliers?

Nicole Ponsford

Nicole Ponsford is founder of TechnoTeachers and co-authored TechnoTeaching (published by Harvard). She is a mum of three (including twins) and works as a freelance educational coach and writer in her 'spare' time. She is currently an achievement coach and Digital Education Specialist for educational charity Achievement for All. Previously an award-winning secondary school teacher and AST (new technologies) who worked in four secondary schools, in September 2017 Nicole was awarded the title of Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE).

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After Rory Gallagher’s recent piece on the meaning of education-innovation, Nicole Ponsford looks at the current state of affairs between schools and suppliers, and how both parties can work together for exciting progress.

With a background in marketing preceding my time in schools, I find this question of great interest. Schools and business are in the marketing game – schools to illustrate and celebrate the hard work and success of students and teachers alike, businesses to illustrate how innovative they also are, and to make a profit. As a former multimedia teacher, I have always been keen to provide my secondary school students with ‘industry-standard’ software and hardware. I want to prepare them for the world of business. However, working with technological giants like Apple, Sony and Vodafone, I have learnt a little about who is leading this innovation in terms of produce use – teachers or suppliers? Who is making the first move, and is this more about products or partnership?

Each relationship I have had with a supplier has been different, although the starting place has been the same; I have approached the business. It tends to be interactive whiteboard companies and book suppliers that spend more time leafleting schools, rather than the companies that the students have heard from. I think this is part of the issue. Those ‘TechnoTeachers’ out there use the same products with their students (largely) as they do at home. But is this educational innovation? If we use the edtech in the same way that we do to escape at home, is this really being creative?

I think the real innovation is taking products that are already out there, and integrating into lesson planning. What do I mean? Well, considering how edtech can impact on learning, rather than just engaging. By using technology to inspire, and inspiring technology suppliers to change what they are doing for the classroom is true educational innovation – innovation lead by education – rather than the other way around.

‘So, how have you gone about it?’ I hear you thinking. Leading multimedia in schools that certainly do not have industry standard tech and that do not have enough for my whole class has led to some ‘creative’ thinking, let me tell you, dear reader! Initially it has been more about ‘finding’ a contact within the industry and going from there. Someone I can pester really. I have considered what my students could gain from this, in the first instance, and then questioned what else the partnership could lead to. From working out new work experience links (because the career lady has no idea about the world of digital media), the chance for my class to see the ‘real world’ (to show a new A Level group, that I took on in the January term, I do know what I am talking about) to just to checking out the latest tech (meaning I learn too), looking for opportunities in the industry has been key for my classes. Otherwise it has been a fellow teacher in the staff room who knows someone “who wants to do something with a school” – normally for PR purposes – and they have asked me if I can help. Seeing an opportunity for my students and the school, I have always said yes, as you never know what opportunities are out there until you do.

So, who starts this partnership / who leads this innovation? Well, the person who instigates and establishes a relationship with suppliers is normally the teacher. In my second school, I wanted a huge amount of multimedia equipment to establish the department in a new build school, so I contacted the suppliers and negotiated a discount (there was so much kit, that the manager sent it over in taxis. I kid you not). I would have loved suppliers to contact me, but it seemed that they either did not know what we were doing or were interested. With another supplier, they felt (and you can work out whom I mean from this) that they did not need the PR. There were discounts and loan schemes that schools could use, but they had their PR for education covered – thank you very much. I could however make use of their free workshops, which surprisingly few schools take advantage of. It was me who asked if I could take a class down to the store before they opened to the public. They had not done this before, but there was no reason why they could not…

The suppliers who have offered more, those who have asked what else they could do, are those who want to gain from the relationship and learn from their market demographic – rather than just merely work with a school. In this, for example, one supplier wanted to illustrate how mobile phones were not just used by teenagers for ‘Happy Slapping’ (you can work out how long ago this was!) and therefore thought a little project with a school would provide them with the sound bites they needed.

Nonetheless, this project worked out for both sides. My students were given a mobile phone (30 for the class) with SIMs (no call coverage, before you ask) and could text images they took for a school project. This phone use now is commonplace in schools who lack equipment, but at the time the use of mobile phones in a school was pretty radical, let me tell you. I got 30 free cameras (some of the first phones with cameras too), the chance to experiment with technology for my students, and it only cost me some time and some quotes for the press release. No biggy, really. With another, I was keen to make links for a difficult group of disadvantaged, media students in a male-only class. Approaching one company, they not only wanted the students to feedback on their new 3D screens, but also offered ‘Mentors’ for the students. They were getting free ‘focus groups’, but we were gaining so much more for the students. It really was the making of at least two of the boys.

However, working with these companies, the more innovative wanted to hear what schools were saying and wanted feedback to take their businesses forward. We did the project, but the dialogue did not stop there. They wanted to learn from us – from the teacher and student – this is a real partnership. The irony was that some of the companies needed approaching first, which to me, isn’t good business sense. Teachers are up against it when it comes to time, and cannot just make contact with suppliers when they feel for it. Business meetings and phone calls all need to be organized around lessons. This is just based on the products =zero innovation.

The more exasperating factor, for me, is that some suppliers actually employ ‘Educational Executives’ who only seem to peddle their wares, rather than work with schools. Is this because teachers are not interested? Is this because their phone calls do not have a recipient, or because the marketing and merchandise does not make it to our pigeonholes? Or is it because budgets have been slashed?

It is probably a little of all of the above, but I think education-innovation is more about partnerships than the products. Both sides can be responsible for instigating creative outcomes, but by working together that’s when the exciting stuff really happens.

I think my point is this: Suppliers are able to match products and services to ‘grown-up’ businesses. This can apply to students too. However, to lead innovation in a school, across a school or schools, it is up to a teacher and a representative of the business to really make a bespoke model. Could this be you?

EdTech Tips

If you are reading this and want to do more with businesses, I would suggest you just do. You look at what blue chip / suppliers are in your area, and speak to reception. Tell them who you are, and you want to talk to someone about making a partnership with them. You want to show students around a business, you want to see if you can help with anything. They will then give you a name, and I suggest you try to make a meeting with them – at their place of work preferably. Then, have a chat. See what they can do for your students, and how you can help with press releases. I have seen some schools use businesses for new ICT when the office has a refresh (when they replace their computers with the latest versions, resulting in 30+ computers for a class), another got a whole new suite of PCs, they just did an article in the paper and named the room after the company. Oh, and ALWAYS ask what the best price is. Query it. Then ask again.

Alternatively, speak to your headteacher. Do you have a ‘Business’ lead in the school. Do you think you need one? Would a member of the staff who had built in time to speak with business? What would the impact be? (Note: Writing a proposal to support this dialogue can also support your claim to this potential role too.)

Image Credit: Flickr

Have you had experiences similar to those of Nicole Ponsford? How have you worked with suppliers to reach a goal? Let us know in the comments.

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