My work has taken me into a number of schools over the past few weeks where a common thread of the conversation in each has revolved around the issue of laptops for students and student access to the online environment. Having taken almost a decade to achieve the goal of seeing all of our teachers provided with a laptop as a per of their basic toolkit for doing their job, it seems schools are now facing up to the fact that we need to be doing the same for students. In the past few weeks our news media has been riddled with stories about schools that are making bold moves in this direction, some involving allowing students to bring their own devices to school, and other involving large scale purchase and deployment:
- Burnside High School in Christchurch is encouraging its senior pupils to bring their own computers to school, but has no plans to make the devices compulsory.Burnside High School is encouraging its senior pupils to bring their own computers to school, but has no plans to make the devices compulsory.
- Point England School in Auckland has embarked on a student netbook programme combined with a roll-out of wireless access to homes.
- At Kaitao Intermediate School in Rotorua they've also announced a programme to provide tablets to every student at minimal cost to parents.
- Brand new school, Albany Senior High School, started the way they planned to go on, with a "high trust" approach to technology use in the school, with all students able to bring their own device.
- Orewa College hit the headlines with its plan to require students to purchase a 1-1 computing device for their work at school, with a recommendation that it be an iPad2
- Perhaps the most ambitious is NZ's largest secondary school, Rangitoto College, which will welcome student devices into the school from next year, providing free access to the internet.
The examples above can be matched by others, I'm sure, that haven't made the headlines in this way. The big question is WHY? What is driving these decisions to be made? Some of the reasons become apparent in an examination of the stories:
- Equity – providing students with devices is a way of countering the perceived gaps between the 'haves' and 'have nots' (digital divide)
- Cost – BYOD programmes minimise cost (and risk) for schools, who can then divert money into building a robust network to support them
- Competition – a fear of 'being lft behind', or of facing competition from other schools
- Curriculum – enabling 21st century learning to take place, recognising that digital literacy and competence will be required across the board
- Choice – a response to the increasing diversity of devices available, and to students wanting to use the device of their choosing
Earlier this year the ReadWriteWeb reflected on the findings of the Speak Up 2010 survey in an article titled "What do kids say is the biggest obstacle to technology at school?" RWW commented that the results of the survey are pretty fascinating, as they show great adoption of technology among even very young students, but lingering resistance on the part of school administrators to sanction some of those tools into the classroom.
The two major obstacles that students say they face at school:
- filters that stop them from accessing the websites they need for homework, and
- bans on using their own mobile devices at school.
In other words, what students say they want at school is the ability to bring their own device, and to have unfiltered access to the internet – and they believe that their learning is being impeded without that.
In the midst of all of this we've seen a call for laptops for NZ students coming from the New Zealand Institute, who warn that the ultra fast broadband (UFB) rollout will be pointless for schools if there is no Government strategy to make it available to students. This is something we're seeing 'across the ditch' in Australia for instance, where every senior NSW public school student will get to keep a mini laptop funded by the government. In a television interview, the NZ Institute's Rick Boven argues "you can't really leave it to the schools, e-learning is quite complicated", and that funding for hardware in schools is necessary in order not to leave the poor behind.
Rick Boven is quite right – e-learning is quite complicated, but not, perhaps, in the way he imagines. His perception (at least based on the solution he's advocating) is that the compexity is to do with the technology (not the learning) – and in that respect I fully concur, we can't leave it to schools to sort out because it is very complex and requires experience at the 'enterprise' level which extends well beyond the locus of control of the local school.
From a learning perspective, it's very much the domain of the school, and shouldn't be dictated to by those pushing a particular technological solution.
From the experience from the 1-1 programmes in the US, for example, we know that putting a mobile computing device in the hands of every student and teacher isn’t just a matter of buying the machines. Such initiatives need to be driven by a well thought through vision. Leaders need to be prepared for the long-haul, and not give at the sight of any small problem or setback – building and sustaining a successful 1-1 programme does not happen overnight. – and includes attention to detail including the provision of support and policies & procedures.
It's great to see the direction so many schools are beginning to take in NZ, and I hope there does emerge a high level of strategic direction and support from our national leaders to enable this to continue. But amid all the hype and publicity, let's be sure that it is the thinking of educators that is ultimately driving the decisions, with arguments based on the potential of personally-owned devices to improve access to online curricula, collaboration on school projects, and communication between teachers and students – and to ultimately change the way in which learning occurs, and the nature of the role of teachers etc.