Are there real learning gains to be had from equipping every learner with a tablet or other device? Some school leaders clearly think so, spending heavily to achieve the magic ratio known as “one-to-one”.
Many, though, want to see more evidence of how teachers can use always-available technology to achieve new and better ways of learning. One way to explore this while keeping costs under control is through BYOD – bring your own device.
The case for a cautious, cost-limited step into one-to-one is well made by Paul Hynes, the vice-principal of George Spencer Academy in Nottinghamshire and formerly the ICT strategy leader at the SSAT. In a presentation about the George Spencer approach to BYOD he states: “Where are the improved learning outcomes? Answer -- they are not there yet – although there are some interesting isolated stories.”
And he concludes: “We have no spare cash to spend on unproven technology.”
In practice, the apparently straightforward BYOD label covers a range of practice across schools. Where some will accommodate virtually any kind of device, others will want students to use specified products, probably supported by a leasing or purchasing scheme.
The George Spencer Academy policy uses the most basic, “bring anything”, approach. Students turn up with any device, and connect to a separate free, filtered wireless network.
So what do they actually bring? I asked Mr Hynes: “SmartPhones, tablets, mini-tablets, e-book readers, netbooks, laptops. We’re not fussed. The record is held by a 6th former with four devices, all connected.”
There are, he says, advantages in having a range of resources across a class. Mr Hynes puts forward just one example: “In paired or group activities they can choose the most appropriate device – one may be able to record HD video for example. They’ll manage that among themselves.”
And there is no uniform approach: “There are lots of ideas. Some teachers exploit the devices to the maximum. Others may simply ask students to take a photograph of the homework instructions.”
Sharing classroom experience, to identify and preserve what works best is at the heart of this, as is the inclusion of students as digital leaders. For monitoring the level at which teachers are working with technology, the school uses two similar tools or models – “SAMR” (substitution, augmentation, modification, redefinition) and the “E-Words” model (exchange, enhance empower enrich, extend) first devised by Martin Blows at the National College.
Meanwhile, each of the other three schools I looked at operate some version of “guided choice”. So at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, assistant head Steve Gillott explains that staff did an extensive comparison of various devices, before deciding to offer parents a leasing scheme for iPads.
“But we know our families well enough to realise that some would not want to be locked into Apple, so we opened up the network to all devices.”
He describes their own step-by-step, learning-driven approach: “We looked at the Sutton Trust’s (Pupil Premium Toolkit) work on what factors have the biggest impact on classroom learning – things like effective feedback, meta-cognition, becoming independent learners, peer-assisted learning.”
In all of those, he believes, technology has always had a clear role, enabling quick feedback, sharing and presenting work for open discussion and peer-assessment. And yet, he says, it is equally clear that the traditional computer suite is no longer up to the job.
“They’re becoming outdated, expensive resources not just in terms of the hardware but because rooms are tied up for fixed periods, when lessons require students to dip in and out of the technology.”
Teachers at Royal Wootton Bassett were introduced to mobile learning through departmental “champions”, who fed back their experiences in twilight CPD sessions.
“We start to see students using video, taking photographs, interviewing – a rapid increase in that kind of thing which is valuable especially for students who may find it difficult to express their ideas in other ways,” Mr Gillott added.
That same step-by-step process is currently under way into two schools in Oxfordshire – St Birinus in Didcot and King Alfred’s Academy in Wantage.
The preferred model at King Alfred’s is to ask parents to provide their children with an iPad Mini, chosen after a careful trial involving some 30 different devices, and helped by advice from the Tablet Academy consultancy.
Before asking parents to provide them, however, the school has first, during the current school year, used its own resources to give every year 7 child an iPad Mini. This will form a trial designed to gather evidence of the impact of one-to-one on learning. If the results justify it, parents will then be asked to buy in.
Over at St Birinus, parents can already choose from a number of differently priced tablets and laptops through a leasing scheme. By this January, devices were starting to come into school, the pace driven by Christmas purchases.
“Teachers are responding well,” said ICT leader Tom Mannion. “We’re really overwhelmed by the number and the range of staff that have been trying new things.”
He explained that much of the pressure comes from the students: “I teach IT in the computer room, and a number of students have started to use their devices as a second screen. They have been as innovative as anyone here.”
At both King Alfred’s and St Birinus there is a determined effort, with the use of teacher blogs, teacher champions, student digital leaders and twilight sessions to gather, share and evaluate classroom practice. King Alfred’s director for digital technology James Pitts is also keen for more formal scrutiny.
He explained: “We’ve now asked Oxford University to undertake some research on our scheme.”
What this quite random selection of four BYOD projects shows, is that a rich volume of experience is being generated that should be captured for analysis and evaluation. As Mr Pitts added: “Teachers have not always been good at sharing good practice, so the people in school with feet on the ground aren’t always involved in new developments. We need to share what we’re learning, all around, for all schools.”
Most important, after all that, is to realise that any trial implies the possibility of disappointment over time. Mr Hynes reinforces his own caution by pointing to increasing doubts about the benefits and cost-effectiveness of digital whiteboards and virtual learning environments. Could the drive for one-to-one devices eventually be seen in the same light?
“It could end up being an unproven waste of money, the latest on that list,” he said. If so, schools which explore one-to-one by using some form of BYOD, rather than by heavy outlay on school-owned devices, may have made the wiser choice.
Pointers from the pioneers
The issue is whether teaching and learning can benefit from one-to-one. BYOD is one way of exploring that.
There isn’t just one BYOD. Each school arrives at its own best solution.
Ensuring that the wireless infrastructure is fit-for-purpose is step one for all one-to-one projects.
Start with enthusiasts encouraging them to push boundaries without fear of failure.
Share experiences continuously – blogs are frequently mentioned.
Use students. Digital leaders are valuable and students will help spread the use of technology from one subject or teacher to others.
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship.