Support for tablets in schools: can we learn from the early days of PCs?

Schools are getting quite excited about how the latest computers might help improve education. But could this excitement blind us to lessons from the past?

The devices have suddenly become much more intuitive and fun to use, which is attracting people who have never used them before.  They’re getting cheaper, so schools can afford to buy them from their own budgets, without relying on corporate IT funding. They offer new forms of interaction which are much more intuitive than those we’ve had up till now. Their displays, too, are much more attractive and capable of showing us the world in new, more engaging, ways. We don’t need technicians to make them do what we want; adding new functionality is something almost anyone can do.

The scenario I’m describing, though it describes what’s happening now with tablet computers, is from about 20 years ago. It describes what happened when the first personal computers, with their text-based monochrome displays, gave way to the first Windows PCs. Their intuitive new interface used windows, icons, menus and pointers to reach new levels of usability; today tablets offer touch user interfaces and haptic feedback.

But tablets are completely new, innovative technology; how can experience from 20 years ago be relevant?

The reason it’s relevant is that the same patterns of organisational behaviour are emerging. And if we notice that, we can identify a  significant risk and start to think about how we might manage it.

What are these patterns? Here are some examples:

  • The user enthusiasm is partly driven by the ability to customise the device, just as with early versions of Windows which permitted end-users to install programs. (PCs at this stage were generative devices.)
  • There is a sense of tension developing between end-users and IT departments.  Hard-pressed IT departments don’t have the resources to start managing thousands of devices that were built for consumer use. Yet they worry they’ll be held to account for the licensing of the software installed on them, and know that end-users don’t read licence terms. Similarly, they worry that once the devices start to age and need repairs and software upgrades, they’ll be expected to get involved – but can’t see any likelihood of having the resources to do so.
  • The staff deploying the devices are responding to end-user demand and simply hoping that the long term support issues will sort themselves out. End-user departments don’t have the desire, technical skills, or resources to get involved.
In each case, the pattern is identical to the early days of PCs. So how did this play out? Some examples include:
  • Organisations had to engage more staff to support PCs, and costs started to rise.
  • The PCs became essential, and organisations became less tolerant of failures.
  • The job of managing them was given to IT departments, who asserted control of purchases.
  • IT departments bought PCs in bulk, leading to avoidance of premium consumer models.
  • Software vendors responded to that change by marketing to IT departments, adding more and more refined lock-down capabilities to make their lives easier.
  • IT departments learned that they could minimise support costs by locking down the PCs to the maximum extent. IT departments used software licensing and software conflict risks to justify preventing users installing software.
  • Over time, remote management systems were developed which enabled central management of thousands of PCs; but these  took a long time to mature and required highly skilled IT staff to manage.
  • Eventually, end-users became frustrated and bored by their locked-down PCs.
What is the risk we face now?
 If large numbers of tablets are deployed into schools, and become important to learning, it is no more likely that the support issues will sort themselves out than they did with PCs. Given the similarity of the situation, it seems quite possible that organisations will seek to throw the support and management task over the wall into the domain of the IT department. By this stage the issue is likely to be big enough for IT departments to justify additional staff, just as they did with PCs.
We can already see software for managing large numbers of tablets developing rapidly, so centralised management is starting to become possible. But what choices will an IT department in this situation make?
It is very likely that the same strategy will be adopted as with PCs:
  • User installation of apps is likely to be prevented for support and licensing reasons.
  • A standard build will be preferred to simplify licensing and enable swap-out support.
  • Updates of operating system software will be centrally managed, and will often lag behind current versions.
  • The devices will be used for as long as economically practicable before refresh.
Unfortunately, though, the devices, if this happens, are now much less attractive to users. Given the rate of progress in the market, the locked-down, ageing school tablets could start to look very out of date by comparison with user-owned devices. In the meantime, these have become more and more powerful, and cheaper.
In that situation, perhaps what will matter most is a good-quality network for “Bring Your Own Device” use?

 

Hat tip to East Lothian teachers!

How does it feel to be unusual? If you’re one of the students, teachers or parents who’s been using eduBuzz this week, you might be interested to see that your activities – and your levels of media literacy – are now unusual enough to be something of a news story this week in the world of education.

The comments below are from Ewan McIntosh, a former East Lothian teacher, who contributed to edubuzz while with Learning and Teaching Scotland as future technologies adviser and now has wide, international consulting experience. (The bolding is mine.)

Congratulations, and thanks, to all involved.

In a small Local Authority in Scotland, thousands of students, parents and teachers have been getting together to learn and share their snow-day experiences on an open source blogging  platform. 25,000 visits a day1827 posts and 2477 comments were left throughout the three or four days of closed school this week on eduBuzz.org in East Lothian, Scotland.

….

the hat tip has to go to the teachers throughout East Lothian who, over the past five years, have come to believe in the benefit of sharing what goes on in their classroom day in, day out. That one principle is the hardest thing for people to ‘get’, and in East Lothian a significant and increasing numbers of teachers, the gatekeepers of a successful online learning community for schools, have certainly got it loud and clear. Nationally, there needs to be more of a campaign to help educators get to grips with the questions around sharing, issues that stretch beyond education and schools, and issues that too many have not yet understood. As well as being a tools issue, it’s a media literacy one above all.

If you’d like to read more, you’ll find Ewan’s full post here: What makes an online community explode during snow days?

More on the record-breaking week…

Over last 7 days, with no schools open, the http://www.edubuzz.org blogs have had a total of 1827 posts and 2477 comments added.

All schools closed – but their blogs are busier than ever!

This week, along with many local councils, East Lothian reluctantly took the decision to close all its schools in the face of unprecedented severe weather.

It wasn’t long, though, before staff started to use their eduBuzz school blogs to post updates for their classes. And it’s been interesting to see how that has developed over the four days the schools have now been closed.

eduBuzz.org has been going since 2005, and there are now over 1000 blog sites and over 2000 registered users. Perhaps more significantly, the use of simple web publishing has become normalised across the 40-school district, and a good staff and student skill base has been built up in almost every school. Usage has been rising steadily, and before the school closures there were about 700 posts in a typical school week, and around 1200 comments.

With schools closed, you might have expected usage to drop; but the opposite has happened. It started with small numbers of staff posting learning activities for their classes. That trickle quickly became a flood as the closures were extended, and staff realised the potential of the blogs to keep some learning going.  By midday today, a running counter of “posts in the last 24 hours” showed over 700 posts had been added since yesterday lunchtime, a record level of activity. Education managers quickly realised what was happening, and arranged for school closure updates on the East Lothian council web site to point parents and students to the school blogs for learning updates.

Visitor statistics showed they weren’t publishing into a vacuum either. Visits per day have been higher than ever, at over 25,000 visits per day. Some of these will be due to people checking for closure announcement information, especially mid afternoon in the earlier days, but the levels of activity have been high at all times.

Some other statistics from this closure period:

  • 32 staff have registered new accounts
  • 14 new blog sites have been created

It has been heartening to see the efforts being made by staff to “keep the show on the road”. Many staff  have asked for help to enable them to do things they’ve never done before, whether it’s putting up a simple post with a learning activity, or recording themselves reading stories to their class, and publishing the recording on the school site.

And some, of course, has just been good fun – such as finding out what two feet of snow look like!

Embedding WordPress across a school district: some eduBuzz.org stats

What might take-up of WordPress across a 40-school local authority look like?

Monthly Visits Dec 2009 to Oct 2010

October 2010 web server summary stats for East Lothian‘s eduBuzz.org system (visitors and page views) show that the current levels of use this year, a traditionally quieter time, are already similar to the last school year’s peak period of May/June.

Monthly Page Views Dec 2009 to Oct 2010

The pattern each year has been similar, with usage at this time of year approximately doubling by May/June.  Together with steady recent increases, this is a year-on-year growth rate of well over 100%.

The eduBuzz.org WordPress site now has 1,161 sub-sites (blogs) and 2,336 registered user accounts.

#ediff: Exploring a Scottish Government Technologies for Learning Strategy

Last week Jackie Brock, from the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate, held a seminar to:

form part of the initial exploration work contributing to the potential development of a Scottish Government Technologies for Learning Strategy.

Just another conference?

Anyone working in this area will know that, recession or not, the business of modernising the education system has spawned an entire industry. It stages exhibitions, seminars, conferences and workshops which seem to be popular, judging by the endless stream of corresponding hashtags on Twitter. For many of us, though, it’s difficult to see how much of that frenetic activity might be leading to improved learning in classrooms. There’s often a sense, articulated by one participant at Friday’s meeting, that these events are attended by “suits”. Perhaps that’s why the first test this event had to pass was one of credibility.

It didn’t take long for participants to decide that it wasn’t “just another conference”, and other commitments were soon being hastily rearranged. Why was that? What differentiated it? Some possible reasons may have been:

  • The agenda consisted only of questions. There were three inter-related themes: experience, pedagogy and capability, and two or three “big” questions for each.
  • The time-scale being considered was a period of 20 years . Most such events concern themselves with quickly identifying and “fixing” current problems with short term actions. Unusually, this one set out to “review these themes in the context of the recent past (back to 2000) and the near future (forward to 2020).
  • The aim was not to reach definitive conclusions. It was instead to ” identify significant tensions, risks and opportunities to be taken into account in designing a new strategy and ideally developing a set of criteria or principles for how to make sound decisions in what is a rapidly shifting environment”.
  • The participants were not invited as representatives. Prospective participants included a good range of people with in-depth experience of the realities of using technologies, from Guitar Hero to Glow, as tools for learning in Scotland. Although from a variety of organisations, they seemed to have been invited as a sample of individuals who could inform the discussion, regardless of their role.

How successful was the event?

Neil Winton has already posted a detailed description of the activities on the day. As Neil explains, he created the Twitter hashtag of #ediff, which can be used to find tweets from the event.

What has been striking, in the interval since, is that it has quickly started an ongoing conversation on Twitter and blogs, which soon extended beyond the initial group.

At the time of writing, I’m aware of other posts from:

I liked the way IFF’s Graham Leicester approached the situation: trying to tease out underlying assumptions that have guided past decisions, for example, and that might continue to do so (“What would be the predictable strategy?”).

Of course,  it’s too early to judge its final impact. Early signs, though, are promising.

The Scottish elephant

The day started with a “Where would you spend your money?” exercise. Each of use completed an A4 form, so there was more detail gathered than shown on the summary flipchart. It proved a surprisingly useful exercise, in that it quickly enabled us to see what a wide range of views there were.

I felt an initial sense of frustration at being asked to choose between a range of predefined options at such an early stage. This felt like the sort of activity that might have been expected towards the end of a workshop session, where the group had analysed a problem situation, decided the answer was to investment in technology and/or learning, identified possible options and was choosing between them in a democratic way.

By starting off, though, talking in terms of technology and learning investments, there was a risk that the options presented set something of an agenda and framed later discussions in that context.

The purpose of the day, though, was:

… not to reach definitive conclusions, but to identify significant tensions, risks and opportunities to be taken into account, in designing a new strategy, and ideally developing a set of criteria or principles for how to make sound decisions in what is a rapidly shifting environment.

Thinking back on it now, I’m not sure we did that justice. I worry that we gave too much attention to things we thought we should do, and didn’t give sufficient attention to a peculiarly Scottish “elephant in the room“.

That issue is the governance arrangements around the use of technology in Scotland’s schools. This is territory that we don’t tend to talk much about, other than in connection with local issues, yet is critical. When we’re thinking about improving learning, we base our decisions on research evidence. If we adopt a corresponding research-based approach to managing our technology, it will lead us in this direction.

We are trying to make a start on developing a national technologies for learning strategy. If any such strategy is to be successful, we will need carefully designed national arrangements to ensure that decisions made align with it.

“To be effective, IT Governance must be actively designed, not the result of isolated mechanisms (e.g. steering committee, office of IT architecture, service level agreements) implemented at different times to address the challenge of the moment.” (Ref. 1)

From this viewpoint, our current arrangements are wrong. And we know that’s a problem, but we haven’t found a solution. It’s such a challenge that it may even be that Glow was, in part, conceived to try to iron out inconsistencies in access to online tools and help provide a baseline, equitable online experience for children – and staff – in Scotland’s schools.

There are still many areas, though, where inequities in access to hardware, software and, especially, online resources are as wide as ever, and may even be increasing.

What do you think? Is this something you would see as being within the scope of a national technologies for learning strategy? How important do you think it is?

Reference:

1. Weill, P. and Ross, J. W., (2004) IT Governance on One Page

21st Century Education: A Canadian Perspective

As pressure rises on education budgets, some powerful voices are starting to question the costs and value of ICT in schools.

In Scotland, teachers are often finding that the more they understand Curriculum for Excellence, the more important technology seems to become. ICT is key, for example, to personalisation and choice; providing engaging, relevant learning experiences; collaborating with others, in and beyond the school, and creating authentic learning tasks.

Sometimes, though, it can be hard to bridge the gap between the two world views. In New Brunswick, Canada, the Department of Education has produced a 5 minute video to help.

This video was produced by the New Brunswick Department of Education to stimulate discussion among educators and other stakeholders in public education in the province of New Brunswick. The 21st Century presents unique challenges for education worldwide. In order to keep pace with global change we must focus on 21st Century Skills and public education must adapt to keep students engaged. Rigor and relevance are key,

The parallels with our own Curriculum for Excellence are striking.

Via caross on the Glow Futures Forum.

links for 2010-10-11

links for 2010-10-11

links for 2010-10-11