Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Student owned mobile devices

A draft chapter from my upcoming book 'The New Technologies Handbook for School' from Optimus to coincide with my interview in the TES

Student owned mobile devices

The future for students’ use of ICT has to be based around them carrying and owning a mobile device, if not two. From a sustainability point of view schools just can’t afford to buy and continually replace enough equipment to reach the goal of one computer device for every student. In a perfect world a student needs a computer at home and one with them at school.

Why do students need computers with them at school all day?

ICT is used often in school but students don’t use it all the time, and nor should they, but they should be dipping in and out of ICT technologies as a resource for learning throughout the day just as they dip in and out of books, listening to teachers, watching videos and working in groups. ICT learning activities would range from an hour working on a spreadsheet to a couple of minutes watching a video clip to introduce a concept with activities like writing, playing educational games and using web sites making up other activities.

Many schools are accessing activities like this without the students all carrying a mobile device. Bookable ICT suites and lap top trolleys are the main ways to give students ICT access but these have drawbacks. Bookable ICT rooms will often be booked on the days a teacher needs them meaning they can’t get in, perhaps because a whole year group are working on a topic that suits ICT but these rooms could be empty and unused at other times. When a teacher does take a class into the ICT suite they lose access to their normal text books, wall displays and other resources in their normal classroom and the ICT may have to be ‘spun out’ to fill the lesson.

The best learning integrates ICT in a ‘blended learning’ approach where the ICT adds to the lesson rather than takes over from it. Best practice allows students to choose when to use ICT and how to use it, alongside traditional textbooks and other resources. This idea has resulted in the popularity of lap top trolleys but many teachers feel they end up being a technician; fetching the heavy trolley, plugging it in, handing out the machines, helping student get them connected to the network and managing the return. Their lesson may be scuppered by a previous teacher not plugging the trolley back into the power supply so the lap top batteries fail and as the lap tops age their batteries perform worse and worse and as a result some teacher stop using the lap top trolley.

If the students carried their own light weight and compact lap top they could get it from their bags as and when it is needed to enhance their learning. This not only brings convenience and allows ICT to impact on learning more appropriately the machine will be well used in evenings and weekends. School owned ICT equipment is hardly ever used in the evening, at weekends and rarely in holidays and after three years it has become virtually obsolete. Student owned machines will need replacing through heavy use, which means the investment has been well used. When the students own the machine they then also get other benefits, they can check school emails and electronic notice board announcements, they can use an electronic diary to note down homework and use the machine to enhance their participation in the wider life of the school such as for extracurricular work or to express their ‘student voice’ through things like a web based student council.

They should also be allowed and encouraged to use the machine for their personal social use as this increases their personal ICT expertise and enthusiasm for seeing applications for new technologies.

How to fund a mobile device for every child

No school can afford to buy every student such a device, let alone maintain it and if they could the benefits that come with student ownership would be lost- don’t under estimate what allowing the student to choose their own model and put stickers on it means to the impact the machine will have and how well they will look after it; just see how they cherish their personal mobile phones.

Parental contribution is the only way to realise this potential. School based and government backed home access schemes should help those with financial hardship but a contribution of £3 a week spread over 3 years would finance an excellent machine, whether this is handled in house or through a 3rd party leasing company. there another way that is the wood we can’t see for the trees?

There is an alternative that is not ideal but could represent an interim measure until mobile computer devices become so low priced all schools can buy them (consider the scientific calculator that cost less the £5 today that was once an investment for a maths teacher but out of the reach of the students) and could be an additional approach to also providing machines in school in a perfect world.

A survey of a secondary school will find, depending on the socio-economic mix of the children, a surprising number of students own a personal wi-fi enabled lap top. Some schools have set up their wireless network so such ‘guest machines’ can safely access the network via the network firewall and the users can access the school’s monitored and filtered internet feed. Whilst some might say a policy like this will cause all manner of problems and will emphasise the inequality between students others will recognise that with well written policies this is just a sensible way to let the children work in the same way in school as they would at home and schools should not stand in their way.

Often today students are working in class on paper and are reluctant to make progress knowing that when they get home and can use their computer they will start from scratch. John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said, in SecEd on September 24th 2009

“Today’s students have grown up with technology, especially the internet in a way that makes it almost as natural as breathing. We know this affects how they learn and its means the curriculum will need to be centred on more actively engaging students. This will be a challenge to some teachers, but it is the world in which these students live and work”

Just by letting the students bring their own device into school we can let them work in a way that engages them and makes the most of their time. In addition to lap tops there are a plethora of mobile devices that can access the internet. Games console, e-book readers, tablets, mobile phones and netbooks are commonplace and with clear guidance and good classroom management all could enhance learning when used appropriately. To extend John Dunford’s analogy schools that prevent student working with new technology as a first impulse rather than an occasional added extra are suffocating their learning.

To see how to manage an initiative like this policies and guidelines from a school doing this are included in an appendix.

Managing the machines

Regardless of who owns the machine there is a tricky issue of the software on the machine. Installing the basic operating system and word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation tool and web browser wouldn’t present a problem but the myriad of subject specific curriculum software would be a major challenge as students all have a different timetable depending on their age, options taken and level of ability. Then, as a subject department start to use new software all the machines would have to come back in to school to be updated; a logistical task beyond a school’s capacity. It would not be possible to put all the possible software titles on every machine, it would slow the machines down to a snail’s pace, use up disk space and be wasteful even if the software licenses could be paid for.

Then the school need to protect its network that malware such as trojans, worms and viruses don’t get picked up from the students home internet connection and transferred to the school system- a degree of ‘lock down’ stopping the students from install any software any protect the school system but stop the students using the machine for anything like its full potential.

There is a solution to all these problems- web access. The most forward thinking school would invests its time, energy and money into its technical infrastructure and ‘virtual web based school’ so that the students access ‘my school’ through the internet needing only a web browser on the machine. They can now access office applications, curriculum software, all their teachers’ lesson resources, their email, their personal files and works stored elsewhere via the internet and then they can see exactly the same ‘work space’ when they log in from a computer in a library, a relative’s house or on a family computer. When a computer breaks down they can simply drop it off at the technician’s room and pick up a replacement machine.

A menu of machines from the most compact netbooks to wide screen lap tops and even including tablets that can use a pen-on-screen input method or Apple machines that really support creative digital media work well can be offered, meaning students can be guided to make a choice that suits their age (younger students carrying very small machines) or their curriculum choice- those studying creative digital subject might need a computer that can cope with high powered graphics and large digital video files.