Local Authorities as Drivers of Digital Transformation in Schools

The much-criticized digitization of schools is gathering momentum: The DigitalPakt Schule has now grown to 6.5 billion euros in funding from the federal government and 500 million from the states. According to the federal and state governments, 1.363 billion euros of this will have been spent or approved by the end of 2020. Whether the digital transformation at schools succeeds with the funding now depends increasingly on the school authorities.

This article appeared in issue 3/21 of the magazine "der gemeinderat" (www.treffpunkt-kommune.de).

The school boards are responsible for equipping the schools and thus for drawing down the funding and using it wisely at their schools. In public debates, the focus is mostly on the schools themselves. However, school boards represent an important link between schools and the society surrounding them in shaping the digital transformation, whether through their own administration or through cooperation with the respective federal state. At the same time, they often do not have the human resources and the necessary expertise to plan IT equipment in a way that is appropriate for schools, to clarify legal aspects such as data protection, or to ensure reliable IT operation and support. Smaller and medium-sized municipalities in particular, which have less budget and specialist staff available compared with districts and larger cities, sometimes find it difficult to cope with the associated tasks.

It is important that a strategic overall concept is developed at the beginning as a roadmap for the digitization of schools. The "Primacy of Pedagogy" applies here, according to which pedagogical goals, concepts and methods determine the use of digital technology and not vice versa. Network and server, presentation technology, end devices and platforms must be planned in a future-proof and coordinated manner and underpinned with further training for teachers and professional IT support. Time and again, isolated digital solutions, some with questionable data protection and not integrated, are used side by side, the IT equipment is not fully utilized due to a lack of training, or the network components procured cannot be centrally managed because they come from different manufacturers. In addition, the financing of replacement purchases and further developments must be planned for the next few years.

The following three points can be undertaken now by municipalities as school boards to address the challenges of digital transformation:

1.     Strengthen communication with schools: The first priority is to communicate with the schools in order to understand the concrete needs and problems of the school administrators and teachers in everyday school life. Here, it is advisable to establish a permanent contact person in the administration for the schools, who keeps track of the current situation at the schools and plans and bundles necessary conceptual work, new acquisitions and activities for the schools in the long term. One very positive effect of this: a more uniform IT infrastructure at the schools facilitates overarching IT support and reduces costs.

Many schools have teachers who have acquired expertise in school digitization and are highly motivated. It is important to identify them and involve them in the planning process. This also creates a cooperative basis for the necessary differentiation in the operation, service and support of school IT, because: Where previously perhaps 80 or 100 end devices had to be looked after at a school, the number easily rises to 200 or more as a result of the support programs and increasingly requires professional support. In addition, the exchange with the schools is important in order to reduce reservations about the digital transformation among school administrators and teachers. A negative attitude is often based on fear of change, excessive demands in view of the complexity of the overall topic, and a lack of knowledge in the use of digital technology. School administrators can ensure transparency at a partnership level, develop a vision together with school administrators and staff, and take them along on the path to the digital age.

2.     Exchange information with other school authorities: Smaller communities can obtain information and look at concepts and approaches from districts and cities that are already more advanced in implementing the DigitalPakt. Another obvious idea is for individual municipalities to exchange and coordinate ideas, for example, for the creation of a media development plan at the district level or together with the district, or even to work together with the stakeholders to ensure a holistic solution, including professional IT operation and support and the application of "Best Practices". The tendency or compulsion toward solutions planned completely individually for each school, which was evident in some places at the beginning of the DigitalPakt, is no longer appropriate today and also delays digitization.

Supporting the IT infrastructure in a municipality's schools should not be underestimated and can increasingly be compared with that of a medium-sized company. A rough order of magnitude of around 800 to 1000 terminals plus presentation technology, etc. in a community of 20,000 inhabitants will soon no longer be unusual. While it is common in companies for software to be distributed automatically and for a technician to connect to the laptop in the event of problems, in schools teachers often take care of IT for a few relief hours. With the increasing number of IT devices and ever more complex IT infrastructures, this is no longer affordable. For reasons of cost and efficiency, IT operations in schools should be organized at least at the level of the school board, but actually in larger local or regional associations.

3.     Obtain external expertise: Even though the pressure from the public has become great, a quickly created media development plan should not only serve as a means to an end in order to receive funding from the DigitalPakt Schule. Rather, an implementation-oriented overall concept should be created as a framework for action for concrete acquisitions, training measures, budget planning, and future-proof IT operation and support. School boards often feel overwhelmed in view of the diversity and complexity of the offerings. It therefore makes sense, and is often economically advisable, to involve product-neutral external expertise for the design and implementation, which can draw on experience and familiarize schools with new technical options.

School boards play a key role in shaping the digital transformation. They should seek exchanges with schools, other school authorities and external partners in order to play a coordinating role in paving the way for schools to enter the digital age.


Harald Melcher, Managing Partner of m2more, is co-author of this article.

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