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?


#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?


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.

If we block YouTube, do we block inspiring teachers?

How many inspirational teachers do we block if we block YouTube in schools?

My son showed me this video tonight, in which 30-year-old urosbatagelj from Slovenia teaches the use of Autodesk Inventor, a 3D mechanical design package he uses in school. It’s bizarre that although the video is clearly inspirational, just like the best classroom teachers, web censorship systems would make it impossible for staff, let alone students, to view it in many schools wordwide.

In East Lothian schools YouTube access was enabled for all staff and students last year, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Many students were allowed to have their own Youtube channels where they could get cheapest views and find the right audience. There are overwhelming amount of videos which one can enjoy one youTube have getting the right regulations can be crucial sometimes. Videos like this one show why.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Helping students survive recession: an enabler of school change?

What might schools do to help students find employment during a recession?

Charlie Hoehn‘s e-Book “The Recession-Proof Graduate” has been getting a lot of readers since it caught the attention of Seth Godin.

He includes this frank perspective on the value of being able to use typical productivity applications in today’s job market.

If your skill set on your resume consists of “Proficient in Microsoft Office”, then you have no marketable skills. Knowing how to create a document, format a PowerPoint, or organise a spreadsheet are not things you can brag about — those are things every employer expects, like knowing how to pronounce your own name, or remaining continent during office hours.

So, if those skills are taken for granted, what does Charlie think does matter? His examples include:

  • using Google Reader as a learning resource
  • learning to craft good blog posts
  • learning to work remotely (i.e. working virtually, without supervision)
  • learning skills that are in high demand, and slightly difficult to learn (e.g. from free web tutorials)
  • creating a blog, so that prospective employers “Have something positive to look at when they Google your name”

Schools could help with developing these skills, but we’re certainly not there yet. How do you teach a student to create their personal blog, or craft blog posts, for example, if blogs sites are banned by your school’s web filters?

Maybe, though, starting to flesh out a set of “recession survival” skills and finding ways to integrate them into learning activities through Curriculum for Excellence outcomes and experiences,  could be a worthwhile direction to take?  Who knows, the urgency of helping students get through the recession might just enable us to dismantle some of the current barriers.

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.

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.

Eee PC to get special Windows build

 Not that Microsoft are worried, of course not.

KrispyChips via Slashdot

“In what could be a first Microsoft is working to create a special build of Windows, just because Windows doesn’t run very well on a certain computer. ASUS’ runaway success Eee PC is now ‘officially’ available with Windows XP, but (according to APC magazine) is not exactly a great experience. There are none of the nice pre-loaded apps that come with the Linux version, for example. And XP has some real problems coping with the screen size and limited system specs of the unit. As a result, ASUS says it is going back to Microsoft and working on a special XP build that will be lightweight and more suited to UMPCs.”

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.

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.