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?


“One Netbook Per Child” Project Now Started

Now that netbooks offer low cost, portable computing – and will only get better – how can schools best exploit them?

That’s the question behind a new East Lothian project starting this term.  There’s been a lot of discussion of the potential of these technologies over the last year or so and we now aim to make a start on learning about the real-world possibilities. We’re deliberately trying to push this as far as we can beyond what we already do to improve the chances of identifying new benefits – and force ourselves to learn our way past any barriers that emerge. That’s why the project willinclude, for example:

  • a focus on web-based collaborative working, using services such as Glow and edubuzz
  • issuing netbooks on a one-to-one basis to every child (92) in the Primary 5 cohort
  • giving children ownership of the devices, and allowing them to take them home
  • encouraging connection to home or other wi-fi networks, such as in libraries, where possible
  • encouraging multimedia use through provision of a few Flip video cameras in each class

We have been fortunate to have full support from our IT department for the project. The arrangement is that they will enable wireless network access for the netbooks in the school, but cannot offer software support – if any configuration problems arise, the devices will simply be restored to factory settings by the teacher.

Today Elizabeth Cowan and I met with the Primary 5 teachers at Kings Meadow Primary who will be involved to make a start on planning.  The day included an intro to Glow from Ian Hoffman of the Glow team which included useful examples of work going on elsewhere.

New Teachers Ask For Email Training

Feedback from an introductory training session on ICT for this year’s East Lothian NQTs apparently included the request that we should have covered how to use the school email system, in place of introducing Glow.

Maybe this is a sign of the times, as increasing numbers of younger people make less use of email, preferring instead the immediacy of MSN? If so, these people are going to be out of their comfort zone if they find they can’t keep in touch – with colleagues as well as friends – via MSN while in school.

Taking things a step further, we may be seeing a new generation bringing new expectations of what communication tools should be on a school PC desktop. Glow Chat may just have arrived in time.

eduBuzz service news

An order is now being processed for an upgrade to the edubuzz server. This will mainly provide :

  • more disk space, mainly needed for storage of uploaded files such as images, audio and video
  • more memory capacity, to handle increasing numbers of users

Disk space on the current server is being used up at an ever-increasing rate.

There’s an ongoing education job to be done in reminding people not to upload huge, high-resolution image files just to illustrate blog posts. This is all part of the process of learning about using the web in the classroom, though, and perhaps to be expected at this stage.

It’s not unusual to find image files of 2MB embedded in blog posts, even though these will take over 5 minutes to load on a typical dial-up connection. This is something we maybe should have spent time on in training sessions, where we’ve tried to concentrate on using the tools, and have probably tended to avoid discussion of file size issues. We’re not alone, though: it’s clear from discussion forums that other WordPress sites have the same problem.

If you’re reading this and wondering how to avoid the problem, our advice is to avoid creating a big image in the first place. You can do this by setting your camera to take a low-resolution image. For class web use, a JPEG (.jpg)  image file will usually be around 20KB to 50KB, depending on what it contains.  About 400 to 500 pixels wide is adequate.

If you’ve already taken a large image, web sites like offer a free,  easy-to-use resizing service. You just browse to the image on your computer, upload it, choose the size you want, and download the resized file.

Use of eduBuzz service is becoming embedded

There was a short interruption to the eduBuzz service around lunchtime today, which turned out to be again due to DNS problems at the datacentre where the site’s hosted.

The problem was quickly resolved. Again, as on the previous occasion, there was very little delay – less than 30 minutes – until reports of the problem started to arrive. It was quickly missed.

This provides evidence that use of the eduBuzz service, particularly the WordPress blogs, is now becoming embedded in teaching and learning practice across the local authority.

Of course that in turn has implications for how reliable such services may need to become in future.

BT failing to meet WAN commitments?

Very disappointed to hear that BT may not meet the committed dates for the East Lothian schools WAN upgrade given here, and may even be asking for more money despite the whole project having been subject to competitive tender.

This would be extremely disappointing if true. I had a number of attempts at using the internet in Science and Maths classes over the last year or so, and ended up concluding that it simply wasn’t viable.

We have large secondary schools with less WAN bandwidth than many people now have to their home PC. Not only that, this bandwidth is shared with internal applications like web-based email. Email, of course, is so slow that many people don’t have time to use it. Most emails I get from teachers come from their home email addresses, and are sent in the evenings.

The bottom line is that if it’s impossible to get the WAN motorway in on time, we need to build a temporary bypass to get those packets flowing faster before we get gridlocked.

Even a single domestic ADSL link, running at up to 8Mbps, could be used. Maybe BT could bundle a couple of these, and we could connect schools using VPNs over the internet instead? Ideas, please!

WebsiteBaker Preston Lodge pilot starts

WebsiteBaker (boxed)Today – at last – a pilot of WebsiteBaker was installed for Preston Lodge High School. This was promised for Monday, but I fell ill. Sorry Linda! Experience from Pete Gray at East Lothian’s Museums Service indicates it’s a product that people familiar with a modern word processor find easy to use. This is true: it’s realistic to consider S1 students as potential authors.

The bones of the site are here – but there’s nothing much to see yet. Curiosity led me to try a Wrapper Page, which was a surprise – have a look at this.

Current thinking is to use it as a Content Management System to enable multiple users within the school to easily update the “notice board” type content that people expect to find on a school web site.

Experience has shown that if this isn’t easy enough, the site will soon become stale. Also, it’s important not to be over-reliant on a single editor. We’re keen to build a network of contributors within – and perhaps beyond – each school, and avoid funnelling every change through a single person.

WebsiteBaker is already in use at Dunbar Grammar, where Anne’s migrating existing eZpublish content across. Ollie Bray at Musselburgh Grammar is having a look at WebsiteBaker too, as it could solve the same problem there.