Trend is an odd word. It wasn’t long ago that it would conjure up images of flared trousers and wide-collared psychedelic shirts, or maybe Levi 501s and a mullet.
However, these days it seems to be inextricably linked to technology, with marketing analysts getting themselves in a knot over what is trending on Twitter or other social networks. I suppose then that we shouldn’t be surprised that the aspect of our schools most subject to trends is also that of technology.
Not long ago, the hottest topic was computing, but now influence of technology is spreading far beyond what goes on in the ICT suite. Today more and more schools are using, or planning to use, devices in the classroom.
As we all become dependent on technology in our everyday lives, many teachers and students want to use mobile devices in the classroom. However, what fascinates me about this subject is the diversity of the ways in which schools have chosen to tackle this common problem.
While some schools have provided a device per-pupil, others have gone for class sets using products like LearnPad. Many others, like mine (Ballard School in Hampshire) have opted for a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) approach, while some have chosen a combination of all of the above. However, regardless of which option is chosen, there are a number of factors which need to be considered long before the device and method of provision are chosen.
There are many cautionary tales of devices being bought into the school and then never used, so it is vital that schools get the process right from the offset. Having been through this process myself not too long ago, here is my advice on how you can make a BYOD policy work for you.
Whatever approach you decide upon, planning is absolutely essential. Having an infrastructure that can support BYOD is crucial to its success, as any sudden rise in people logging on to the wi-fi with multiple devices will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect across the IT network.
You need to have an idea of how many devices are likely to be used and in what part of the school, and then design your infrastructure around it. There are three crucial elements to this: the wireless network, the wired network, and the internet connection.
The wireless network
It would be insane to attempt a major device roll-out without first having a managed wireless network in place. There are a plethora of choices available, but the option you go for will vary depending on how your IT team wants to manage the devices. Because I was going for a relatively “hands off” implementation with BYOD, I chose a simple commercial system that was cost-effective.
Three years on and that system is still performing well, although I have the feeling that in another two years’ time the technology will have moved on sufficiently, so it is likely we will want to upgrade.
You may hear talk of different standards within wireless networking, in particular 801.11n and 801.11ac, often shortened in conversation to “N” and “AC”. Don’t let these worry you, you only need to know that N is the more common while AC, the latest standard, is capable of higher wireless connection speeds. It may sound like AC is the way to go, but all that high speed information has to go somewhere and it goes to the wired network.
The wired network
It is very easy to overlook the wired network when it comes to thinking about mobile devices. Unfortunately, having all of our desktop computers and servers running very happily on high performance physical networks for years has lulled many an ICT manager into a bit of a false sense of security. As a result, we can easily be taken by surprise with the demand that a plethora of wireless devices can put on the system.
Essentially, this stems from the fact that multiple devices will share a single wireless access point, which then connects to the wired network at the same speed as a single desktop computer. One solution for this is to have lots of access points (which we refer to as “density”) to spread the load.
However, I believe it is also better to have a really good management handle on the network. For that reason, at Ballard School I have ensured that all of my wired and wireless network devices are made by the same manufacturer.
The internet connection
The final part of the infrastructure is the internet connection. There is a simple approach to take here: do your research and find the fastest possible connection (or combination of multiple connections) that you can find, buy it and then start looking again.
It is a never-ending race to the top as you will never have enough. It is worth noting that increasing your bandwidth (speed) does not necessarily make things go faster. Many people assume it will, but in the middle of the holidays when no-one else is around you who can barely tell the difference between a 10 megabit per second and a 100 megabit per second connection.
Instead, an increase bandwidth is about ensuring you are able to cope when demand is at its peak. For example, by putting more lanes on the motorway, we are able to get more traffic through in the busy times without everything grinding to a halt. It is useful to define those bandwidth expectations in advance of any big internet spend, otherwise you end up with some uncomfortable conversations. Mobile devices live and die on the internet and so you can’t afford to skimp here.
Deciding the method
Once you have got your infrastructure in place, it is time to choose your device and method of provision. Many schools go for iPads, however this can soon get expensive.
As mentioned previously, we decided to go for a BYOD policy. The reason for this was simple: ownership. While a major draw of BYOD was the fact that we incurred no direct hardware and maintenance costs, for me it was also important that schools and learners could work with the tools they need and prefer.
It is well recognised that if the student owns their device then they are much more careful with it. Furthermore, I think they are more likely to be creative with their own familiar, cared-for tablet or laptop.
In an environment where you are encouraging innovation and creativity this is vital, so for this reason I am quite passionate about this benefit of BYOD. You would not expect to prescribe which brush an artist uses to paint or which instrument a musician uses to compose, so why not allow students to learn on a device of their choice?
Finessing the final details
In order to accommodate BYOD at Ballard, we have done four things. First, we wrote a policy, not based on devices, but on functions – such as camera, phone, music player, etc.
Second, we chose to identify and authenticate devices on to the network using their hardware (MAC) addresses so we know who’s who. Third, we went out and bought individual laptop/tablet lockers, each of which has a 13 amp mains plug at the back.
Finally, we chose Microsoft Office 365 as a common shared platform, so that the work is stored online and can be accessed from any device the student logs on to. It also creates a simple sharing mechanism for the teachers and students to use.
So, has it worked? Well, in short, yes. We chose to roll it out gradually over a number of months. This has allowed both students and teachers to familiarise themselves with the idea.
We have also bought extra devices to keep in the staffroom for those inevitable forgotten/flat battery/broken device moments. It is probably too early to really fully measure the benefits, but my teachers are very positive, and for now that is good enough for me.\
David Horton is ICT manager at Ballard School in Hampshire which works with wireless and storage provider NETGEAR.