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?


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. 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!

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.

The emerging role of student as contributor

Find more videos like this on NL Connect

One of the key benefits from the use of the web in schools is its ability to turn artificial, “pretend” learning activities into authentic, relevant experiences. For example, writing for a real, potentially world-wide audience is more engaging than writing in a jotter for an audience of one or two people.

This video, from Alan November, takes this idea further than I’ve seen before. He starts from the gradual erosion of the contribution historically made by young people to their community, and then shows how this property of the web can be exploited to enable learners in classrooms to now become contributors by taking on jobs such as global communicator, global researcher, tool builder and internal collaborator. These, of course, are exactly the sorts of skills now being identified world-wide as important to 21st century societies, such as the “four capacities” of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence.

Via Frank Crawford

Initial teacher education: pedagogy vs technology

If technology has a key role to play in the future of school learning, how big a part should it play in Initial Teacher Education?

Today in East Lothian this year’s probationers, as part of their induction, attended a short session where they were introduced to some of the on-line tools they might encounter in our schools, and that they’d be able to use to support their teaching. During the session, of 75 minutes, we mainly covered Glow and the blogs, with a brief mention of edubuzz Google Apps at the end. (The day also included a session on internet safety from Ollie Bray.)

Those of us involved in presenting the sessions couldn’t help but be struck by the low level of awareness amongst the groups of some of the opportunities now presented by these technologies. Many of the new teachers were clearly surprised that it was as easy to publish to a blog as to send an email, for example. Very few had any idea what Glow offered. In most groups, none were aware of Google Documents and its collaboration possibilities. This wasn’t due to lack of interest or enthusiasm; they just simply hadn’t encountered these tools before, and many soon had great ideas for using them to support their teaching.

If, though, we now know that technology has huge potential to improve learning through, for example, improved personalisation and engagement, it becomes important that new teachers know how to integrate technology in their teaching.

This diagram (source shows a current framework which is gaining ground as a way to think about the kinds of skills teachers need to have.  In 1987, Shulman¹ developed the idea that teachers needed not just content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge, but specific knowledge (pedagogical content knowledge) of teaching approaches suited to the content.

Now that idea has been developed by Mishra and Koehler into the TPACK model shown.  That model, though, suggests that technological knowledge – in particular, in the context of content and pedagogy – is now a key part of the skills mix.

If that’s the case, perhaps courses offered to new teachers could be improved by including not more technology for its own sake, but as a context for learning how it might best be used to support particular pedagogical approaches to teaching particular content?


1. Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-22.

How will schools educate for Science2.0?

Looks like Web2.0 is now impacting science in radical ways. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about recording those experiments on-line, and not just in private jotters? Via Slashdot:

Scientific American is running a major article on Science 2.0, or the use of Web 2.0 applications and techniques by scientists to collaborate and publish in new ways. “Under [the] radically transparent ‘open notebook’ approach, everything goes online: experimental protocols, successful outcomes, failed attempts, even discussions of papers being prepared for publication… The time stamps on every entry not only establish priority but allow anyone to track the contributions of every person, even in a large collaboration.” One project profiled is MIT’s OpenWetWare, launched in 2005. The wiki-based project now encompasses more than 6,100 Web pages edited by 3,000 registered users. Last year the NSF awarded OpenWetWare a 5-year grant to “transform the platform into a self-sustaining community independent of its current base at MIT… the grant will also support creation of a generic version of OpenWetWare that other research communities can use.” The article also gives air time to Science 2.0 skeptics. “It’s so antithetical to the way scientists are trained,” one Duke University geneticist said, though he eventually became a convert.

New OECD tests on adult workforce will focus on ICT skills

OECD, the people who run the PISA tests of international student attainment, are now planning to test the skills of adults in today’s work environment. And look what’s a core objective:

One of PIAAC’s core objectives will be to assess how well participants use ICT to access, manage, integrate and evaluate information, construct new knowledge, and communicate with other people.

Not so long ago, the emphasis would have been on the technology, and whether or not people could drive them. Nerds would have done well. Schools could have concentrated on how to use applications.

Now, we’ve moved up the value chain, and the time of the social geek micro-trend documented by Mark Penn. The recent decision in East Lothian to provide every student with their own on-line learning space looks even more like the right move.

Every child will have an on-line space in which they can keep a record of their experiences and achievements that will track through with them from the age of 3 – 18, – Perhaps even from birth where they reflect upon their learning, their experiences and achievements.

DEMOS identifies teacher need for more professional dialogue and reflection

A new 28-page DEMOS report, DIY Professionalism, looks at the future of teaching and identifies a need for more space for professional dialogue and reflection. Perhaps what we’re seeing with educational blogging is that latent demand finding an outlet, enabled by the emergence of easy-to-use blogging tools?
DEMOS don’t consider the role technology might play, preferring instead to make analogies with water-cooler conversations.

The water-cooler has become a powerful metaphor as a central junction box in the hidden wiring of workplace conversations. It’s where events’ real significance is worked out. To support the skills and confidence DIY professionalism demands of staff and to connect up their experiments with professional roles and protocols,teaching needs more of these kinds of conversations.Conversations around the water-cooler require three things; a place to meet and talk (the cooler), shared experiences and rituals to talk about (an un-missable television programme, the Christmas party) and a sense of connection and recognition. As we have seen, teachers today lack something of all three. The focus of school reform on the ‘what and how’ of delivery has limited spaces for professional dialogue and reflection. (DIY Professionalism, John Craig and Catherine Fieschi, May 2007 Page 25, link )

Educational blogging can clearly enable these conversations in a way that meets some of the DEMOS requirements:

  1. a place to meet and talk
  2. shared experiences and rituals
  3. a sense of connection and recognition

The report includes many useful proposals that could help with development of our on-line community in East Lothian.

In class, I have to power down

David Puttnam, in today’s Guardian Education asks why it is, despite children having been quick to grasp the joys of new technology, schools are lagging so far behind.

At a recent digital education conference in San Francisco, one of the more memorable remarks quoted came from a child: “Whenever I go into class, I have to power down.” That roughly translates as: “What I do with digital technology outside school – at home, in my own free time – is on a completely different level to what I’m able to do at school. Outside school, I’m using much more advanced skills, doing many more interesting things, operating in a far more sophisticated way. School takes little notice of this and seems not to care.”

He refers to a recent Demos report, Their Space (81 pages, pdf). This report, supported by the National College for School Leadership, includes a whole range of ideas that could help inform eduBuzz developments, for example this from Chapter 4 , “Start with People not PCs, How schools can shift investment”:

This chapter has laid out a set of changes that when taken together add up to a shift in values: a shift in terms of the kind of investment that is needed to reach the potential for change in the system, and a shift in terms of the kinds of skills, experiences and relationships that schools value. Shifting schools’ value systems in this way will create more meaningful learning experiences for young people, and also more active and engaged learners. It will also enable schools to reconnect the currently disparate parts of young peoples’ lives – in school and out of school – and enable them to transfer knowledge and skills across a whole range of experiences. But finally it is important because by building on young peoples’ interests and enthusiasms, and doing it in ways that are going with the grain of their lives, schools will succeed in effectively providing all young people with a set of tools that they can use far beyond their formal learning experience.

Carronvale eduBuzzers win Silver at Falkirk ICT Fair

8 Carronvale Primary students who attended Falkirk Council’s Education ICT Fair this week have won a Silver award for their P7 class blogs. Of course, they’ve blogged it: you can read the details in posts from Danni, Nicola, Lisa and Rebecca; there are some photos on their class blog too.

Their individual blogs are hosted on eduBuzz as part of our efforts to share what we’re learning with other authorities. It’s working the other way, too, as these blogs are providing us with great practical examples of how individual blogs can be used effectively with P7 students.

The ICT Fair Press Release includes this quote from Julia Swan, Falkirk’s Education Director:

We are seeing the growing use of ICT in the classroom and pupils are responding very positively to developments. Feedback from teachers shows that pupils are generally more eager to participate as they use the ICT equipment to engage with learning.

Many staff have reported that they have found attainment rises the more pupils are involved in using ICT in the learning process and suggests that this is an area in which we will be prioritising our resources.

This anecdotal evidence is consistent with HMI’s recent ICT in Learning and Teaching report, which reported that: “In primary schools, progress in particular aspects of learning was linked to effective use of ICT”. It’s interesting to see this now reaching the stage where it’s leading to the prioritising of resources, despite the apparent absence of systematic studies. If such increased resourcing of ICT is to be sustained, it’s going to be important to improve our knowledge of where exactly the potential benefits lie.