Laptops for students

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:

  1. Equity – providing students with devices is a way of countering the perceived gaps between the 'haves' and 'have nots' (digital divide)
  2. Cost – BYOD programmes minimise cost (and risk) for schools, who can then divert money into building a robust network to support them
  3. Competition – a fear of 'being lft behind', or of facing competition from other schools
  4. Curriculum – enabling 21st century learning to take place, recognising that digital literacy and competence will be required across the board
  5. 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:

  1. filters that stop them from accessing the websites they need for homework, and
  2. 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.

13 thoughts on “Laptops for students

  1. Reading this and following what it happening, I am thinking more around teachers and there ability to use these devices in the classroom. As schools are thinking about tablets for students, should we not be thinking about tablets for teachers as well. Is the TELA scheme an outdated model with outdated devices?

  2. The issue of tablets vs laptops (vs netbooks) is yet another issue I feel, Gerard. I imagine (hope?) that the decision re tablets in some of these schools is made for reasons associated with the pedagogical use and advantages of them, not jus their current 'sex' appeal. Don't get me wrong – as a tablet owner and user I see lots of usefulness in these devices, but it's all horses for courses. If we expect teachers to be able to use their devices for productivity purposes, and for entering data into school SMS systems etc, then we need ot be sure that the device we're purchasing has the functionality and capacity to meet those requirements. Until we have access to a range of fully web-based services that may not be the case with tablets.

  3. Over here in Scotland the national schools internet walled garden project looks on the rocks after funding for Glow Futures was pulled by the Minister, according to the TESS 9/9/11. So I am not sure it is "the thinking of educators that is ultimately driving the decisions"; in these times there really is only one (growing smaller all the time) pot of gold.

  4. thanks for your comment, Paul – it's sad to see the great work that was going on in Scotland being curtailed. However, I believe this illustrates the point I made in the post – there needs to be a joint effort here. Governments hold the purse-strings and the 'enterprise' capability to commit to the spend required to put the technology in place, however my point about the educators being the ones responsible for how that technology is used still stands. Governments can try to influence the way in which teaching and learning takes place by putting in place policy and professional development, but at the end of the day it will be the expertise and will of the educators that must make the biggest impact on what actually occurs in classrooms. Thus, technology provided to schools and teachers who squander the opportunity it provides is a waste of money, while the lack of technology frustrates and limits the effectiveness of teachers and schools that are keen to make use of it.

  5. Hi Derek
    It is great to see these schools taking the initiative when it comes to BYOD, but as you have commented before, it also requires a shift in teaching practice. When I look at my own practice, I have to say that I am still teacher centred, in spite of a desire to shift my practice to one which makes better use of the technology and is more student centred. I am improving, but I think that this will be a huge challenge for teachers. I think that there is still a long way to go because we will simply use the devices within a 19th century educational paradigm.

  6. Hi Derek

    Interesting read and thank you for introducing some sort of sanity into this debate ie it’s wasted technology if it isn’t used and educators have to have input (especially at local level). There are several things that concern me about the current 1:1 computing model:
    Firstly, this should be about 1:1 access to devices when needed not 1:1 computing IMO. Many schools may not have the expertise to manage BYODs so must really aim to manage access better.
    Secondly, involvement at enterprise/national level can mean that we are in danger of losing personal choice (part of personalization) as large ‘buys’ simply cannot accommodate every different type of device. The choice in English schools via Becta was always one step behind new devices as there needs to be stringent specifications but unfortunately these can become restrictive.
    Thirdly, and perhaps most important of all is the absence in many arguments as to what exactly schools are trying to achieve in terms of learning outcomes from 1:1. It would appear obvious to some but there is a danger that some schools will simply continue to bash out more of the non personalized digital stuff that some do now.

    BYOD is a great idea especially if we consider that students are likely to bring a device that has been chosen by them and thus fit their individual needs (within their own financial constraints ) . BUT, and this is a big ‘but’, schools have to be ready to accept the use of smaller personal devices (as you point out) and have learning objects that can be accessed in a suitable manner by those devices. This is something we at Hagley are doing our best to achieve ie anytime/anywhere access from multiple devices and cross platform. It’s going to be a challenge and we are not the first to try to achieve but it’s going to be a lot of fun trying!!

    Great reading though Sir!

  7. A couple of schools in my region are buying iPads as assistive devices and issuing them on a semi-permanent basis to individual children to support their learning. We are forging ahead and trying to make things work as we go.
    I am keen to know more about the paperwork that surrounds such a venture. No one else seems to have any so we are trying to write our own.

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