I am in the uncomfortable position of having to make a very difficult choice in the next few days, without all the facts at my disposal that I’d like, and it’s a choice which will have repercussions at my schools for several years.
We’re convinced that in order to deliver our vision for ICT, a 1:1 student to device ratio has to be achieved. We want to empower students with control over outcomes and a joy for learning – giving them access to technology that lets them explore and create with simplicity and freedom is a big part of the answer. We know for this to succeed many financial, cultural, educational and logistical pieces have to be in place and have made considerable progress towards this already. But as for the choice of device itself…
It has to be a tablet, in our minds; the simplicity of the interface, the collaborative nature of a tilted surface, its weight and portability, lack of a power pack, etc – all these factors and many more indicate that if 1:1 is to succeed for us, it will be with tablet devices. I’ve seen many similar schemes fail in the past and the reason has always been the same; the limitations of the device have rendered it, in reality, a flash in the pan.
We have done much more research than band-wagon-jumping; I’ve visited other 1:1 schools, attended various conferences such as Learning Without Frontiers, read countless blogs, talked to manufacturers, held strategy days with input from ICT consultants and wireless specialists… In short, we did our homework and thought we’d arrived at a solution. Then Microsoft went and announced this.image: microsoft.com
This makes me more than a bit angry, and not because I’m wedded to the iPad, which is at best a compromise for any PC-based enterprise environment. It makes me angry because Microsoft are presently being so vague about something which could be a true game changer for schools. There’s not even a release date for pity’s sake, let alone prices, an educational community around the Surface, or clear details of what it will be capable of. At the moment, for us, it’s an unhelpfully distant mirage, a lingering flicker of doubt too far off to do more than cause uncertainty and uncharitable heckling from the back.
We go live in January 2013 on one site, the second coming online the following May. This timeline implies much immediate work and expense;
- This very Tuesday I meet the 30-odd eLearning Champions from both Academies to distribute their devices and talk about their role (which is to provide internal, colleague-led expertise for teaching with iPads)
- In November, every member of staff will get a device and quite a bit of training, in preparation for the tsunami of tech that will engulf Academy 1 less than three months later
- All Autumn I will be stood in front of parental audiences of various sizes at Y6 open days, progress review evenings and Saturday events to sell the leasing scheme and speak with unwavering certainty about the tablet of choice…
So let’s take a dispassionate look at the factors influencing the decision, to see if that helps;
1. Student engagement is a crucial driver in our context
The iPad is unquestionably successful at this. In our deployment of iPads to date, we’ve seen that students enjoy using them immensely and this doesn’t seem to be fading. Why? I think it’s a mix of the feeling of status conferred by such a high-end device, the immediacy of what they can do with the converged functions (camera, Internet, software) and the range of fun, visually stimulating applications. For this scheme to work in our context, we need a device which our students covet and love, which they live their digital life through and – as the quid pro quo – are willing to let the Academies make learning use of for 6 hours a day.
The Surface will similarly benefit from a ‘high status’ feel, won’t it? MS go to some lengths to debunk the ‘cool’ factor of Apple’s device, which to me seems to miss the point. Why can’t the Surface be just as cool? Possibly because it will be running an OS which stubbornly hangs on to the familiar features (such as the Start button) of students’ dullest IT experiences. Who knows? Maybe Windows 8 will break the mold. I wish I could find out more about it.
2. The price is make or break for usimage: public-domain-image.com
Our financial modeling has been aimed at creating a scheme that will be affordable for our families, many of whom live in challenging circumstances. With the RRP of an iPad2 at £329 and the latest iteration at £399, we can plan with clarity. They use the same OS and have an almost identical feature set. We also need to factor in the 200+ iPads we already own, which give us some interesting options around loaning devices to Y11’s who won’t want to participate in a 2 or 3 year lease.
There’s no pricing for the Surface but various reports put its two flavours at around £380 and £640 (!), even if you just convert the leaked dollar amounts, without adding the seemingly inevitable UK mark up. The Pro version is out of reach, clearly. The RT version is not as fully featured – for example, it won’t be capable of installing desktop applications such as Outlook. That’s a pretty big difference in feature set for a tablet device.
3. Integration with existing infrastructure and skillsimage: microsoft.com
The Surface offers things here that the iPad never will, and which Apple just shrug about when I’ve asked. Active Directory will let us close down so many of the security and productivity concerns we have about the iPad. Teachers would be able to run SIMs. Critical software like Word, PowerPoint, Excel etc would be licensed under our EES agreement and would give staff and students fewer new tricks to learn. No one would ever have to email files to themselves! Basically, the Surface would slot nicely into the Academies’ networks with the minimum of fuss. MS do a good job of pointing all this out in the blog I link to above.
iPads in an otherwise heterogeneous Windows environment? A solution fraught with difficulties, from getting files off them to managing what students do with them. Talk to enough people doing similar things and read enough of their blogs and there are quasi-solutions to most of these, but again, I think this misses the point. One of the major strengths of choosing the iPad is, for us, its very otherness;
- We don’t want to manage them and our students don’t want us to either. They want it to be ‘theirs’ – personalized, unshackled and not an extension of their school’s estate. For their families to buy into this (and I speak literally as much as figuratively), our experience is that they need to feel cultural and well as legal ownership of them. If it’s ‘a school thing’, enough of them won’t want it to make the whole scheme unviable. Yes, this gives us technical headaches to solve and teachers will need to be in full control of their classrooms to avoid off-task bird-flinging, but, erm, I think they should be anyway
- I’m really not convinced that providing more of the same, just in tablet form, is the way to transform teaching and learning. Our staff and students have had access to most things that will run on a computer for many years, but I have yet to see widespread moves away from traditional transmission models of education. Yes, the iPad has its PowerPoint equivalent and I’m sure their introduction will see many examples of purely presentational use of Keynote, but more crucially will the Surface have Garage Band, Socrative, eClicker, Explain Everything, iMovie, Paper and their like? It is this rich ecosystem of apps which is causing our leading-edge staff to totally change the way they do things, and to rethink their expectations for student outcomes. Spreading this culture is a change management and training challenge, but I think the payoff is worth it.
Has that helped me to clarify my thinking? A little;
- We’re a long way down the Apple road as described above, and as a Regional Training Centre we have some amazing practitioners and a growing reputation
- We don’t want more of the same. That hasn’t really worked so far
- We do want our students’ experience of school and of technology to change their outlook on learning; our experience, and growing evidence from elsewhere, is that iPad seems to do this. Who knows with Surface?
- Hindsight is a perfect science, but everything else is just an educated guess based on the information you have available, so here goes nothing…