Tablets are brilliant for doing things differently. They provide anyone with the ability to make clever, slick end-products which don't feel like 'school work', and yet which capture evidence of very real understanding and the synthesis of information. Students in 1:1 tablet schools also live the rest of their digital life through this device, using it for watching TV, listening to music and organising their social world - and because learning is just something extra that you do with your tablet when you happen to be at school, they're happy to bring it, charge it, look after it, and (in most projects) help pay for it. In short, tablets are the stealth weaponry of the Bloom's brigade. There is absolutely no question in my mind that they are revolutionising what it's like to learn in Year 7-9, but we shouldn't hide from the fact that there's an implicit deal being struck here between the school and the child.
Practically, tablets make sustainability sense too. The reasons lots of previous 1:1 projects have failed are complex (and failure to adequately support teachers through the change is top of the list), but the warning signs are usually that students don't want to keep brining the devices in, and soon enough families question why they are making a contribution to funding them. In the past, these devices have only really been digital versions of text-cum-exercise books, with limited utility for students beyond their school work. This experience of failure partially explains the iPad's success, as its value to students regardless of how slowly progress is being made with its use as a teaching and learning tool means they're unlikely to withdraw their goodwill.
The consequent question for schools to consider is: do your older students need a 'lifestyle' device to help motivate them to learn with it?
As mentioned above, tablets excel at supporting creativity and collaboration. However, following a course which leads to a terminal public examination usually calls for different types of work:
- Tasks can more often require writing at length, as the result of detailed research and note-taking. There’s less need (and little time) for more creative outcomes such as eBooks or screencasts
- Whilst collaboration with others remains a good way to learn at this age, assessment must be of the individual and this is the understandable focus of outcomes
- Some courses require access to specific tools / software either not found on tablets or only in very cut-down versions. Many apps deliberately limit their toolset to maintain accessibility and precision (e.g. with graphics or a spreadsheet) is often difficult
- Preparation for Further or Higher Education is a persistent background issue which requires the development of the ability to deal with large volumes of specialist content, to assess, distil and synthesise new knowledge.
The consequent question for schools to consider is: do your older students need a device which explicitly supports these types of task / skill?
The tool which suggests itself as being best suited for many of those jobs is the laptop, with its physical keyboard, larger screen-estate, easy manipulation of text and applications which allow precise and detailed work. However, historic 1:1 laptop schemes have had a high failure rate, due to the cost of devices, their weight, limited battery life and the much larger number of things that can go wrong with a 'traditional' computer. There are simply many more hurdles.
It’s really only since the release of the iPad that 1:1s have routinely experienced success. Is a tablet the only option then?
Happily, I think there may be a viable middle ground emerging, due to the evolution of two things – firstly, the ability to host all user data and many applications in the cloud, pulling them down to a device when required and secondly, the rise of the Chromebook.
Chromebooks (in non-techie terms, a browser with a screen and keyboard and little else) really are a tremendous opportunity for schools to extend the power of their project to cover the needs of older learners, whilst not compromising too much on the factors which make 1:1 tablet schemes so successful. They share many features of tablets:
- Really portable and much lighter than a laptop
- Efficient to operate, with low power components and hence long battery life
- Reliable – they just work, as the device itself has limited software installed on it, utilising Google’s Apps delivered over the Internet
- Work offline almost as well as online, syncing data once reconnected to wireless
- Can be managed as a fleet, with an MDM tool from Google
- Require almost zero management by the user, or training really – they’re leveraging an already commonly-used toolset in GMail, Google Docs, etc
- They’re amazingly cheap - £200 or thereabouts
A well designed 1:1 programme should be device agnostic; it’s the behaviours, processes and ways of working that it is most important to get right, not the tin that delivers them. It should be perfectly possible to switch device choice whenever the timing is right, for students entering a different phase of their education or if the landscape dramatically shifts and something better comes along.
And, logically, it should be equally possible to navigate a sensible path between the extremes of a BYOD free-for-all and a mandated ‘Everyone must use this one single tool, regardless of variance in circumstances’.
So, what might a mixed-estate 1:1 project look like? It needs three elements, in my opinion:
- A cloud-based storage and collaboration platform designed to simplify access to and sharing of content with and between students and teachers [Current frontrunner, for my money: a combination of Google Apps for Education and one of the free VLE-style tools like Edmodo, Schoology or Showbie.]
- A desirable, high-quality, really functional tablet with a thriving ecosystem for students below Year 10 - although this age-threshold will vary based on context [Current frontrunner, for my money: the iPad Air]
- A light, reliable, quality but affordable and very well-integrated laptop for students in Year 10 and above [Current frontrunner, for my money: one of the more recent Chromebooks]
I’ll end by freely admitting that none of this is novel thinking – I’m certain that there are schools implementing just such a strategy in the UK and, most likely, in the US (where Google Apps for Education and the Chromebook are deeply embedded) – but I’ve worked with enough schools who were unaware of the increasingly effective option to 'mix and match’ that it’s worth exploring these questions in some depth.