DER funding to Australian schools is coming to an end. So what is next? I was asked to review the options of a school at the start of this year and this is what I found. I thought I would put it here, to share my thoughts with others facing the same issues. This is not what the school got, just some of the evidence and ideas with some of my own opinions.
Until 2009, Australian schools provided a basic model of ICT to students. This model consisted of classrooms converted to computer rooms with some specialist programs, like multi-media, when needed. These rooms were a shared resource. Demand for these rooms varied at times, but usually, they were well used. This model was originally developed when computers were first introduced to schools in the early 1990s, nearly twenty years before. Few people, if anyone to my knowledge, seriously examined its educational or cost effectiveness. It does not matter anymore, four years ago, it was made redundant.
In 2009, the first round of Digital Education Revolution funding changed the game forever. First, it introduced many schools to newer, wireless technologies. Second, it forced changes in the perceptions and uses of ICT in the classroom. Year 9s were targeted as being the first group to have laptops, and would continue to be targeted for the next four years. Obviously this has proven unsustainable. Unfortunately most of us were so tied up in the excitement of the possibilities we did not see or even think to consider, let alone understand, the potential pitfalls.
Different schools developed different, often complex, models on what they would purchase and how they would use the equipment. Many schools went to a “trolley” system, that is, have a series of trolleys around the place that are be used like a mobile computing room. This is the pre-DER model extended to a more modern setting – but it hasn’t really changed anything.
Other schools went to a “daily use” scheme. Students pay a fee to have their laptops with them all the time, or they pick up a laptop, the same laptop, every day from an ICT room that stores and charges the laptops for students. Those students are obliged to return the laptops at the end of the school day or forfeit use of the laptop for the next day or week in some cases. Other schools have a variation of this model which relies on an honour system.
None of these schemes are particularly effective. Every one of them had different governance issues at the heart of them that meant there were loopholes, opportunities for abuse, or misunderstandings that allowed vandalism to occur. In one case, the results lie in what has to be repaired, resulting in a serious drain on that school’s expenditures – not counting the repair work that was done under warranty. Having said that, we should not be consumed by the negatives; rather let’s look at the positives.
The positives from the DER scheme was that technology was introduced at an unprecedented level. Students, at best, were able to access technology with an ease we had not encountered before. Students were able to demonstrate research skills and understanding of the use of technology better than a lot of staff expected. Obviously, the end results have been mixed, and always will be, due to individual work ethics and other factors. One of those factors is that many teachers are struggling to develop coherent, effective, strategies in using ICT in their classroom.
[NOTE: The computer is similar to the motor car in this, we are still trying to come to grips with that technology as well. To be fair to teachers, the rules of using ICT are still developing. How ICT is being used is also changing rapidly. Even the most adaptable of people are struggling to keep up with the pace of change.]
In the main, the access to information has certainly expanded the scope of the student’s world. What they do with that though is entirely up to them; all teachers can do is introduce it to them. Rapidly developing technology is extending that ability, beyond anything most of us thought possible. Schools have to go along for the ride, in some sense, but in others, they can utilise the opportunities offered. They can improve both learning outcomes and the range of skills students develop. In the social learning sense, they can pick up a lot more.
The pre-DER model has some major shortcomings. It was based on ideas developed in the first flush of accessible computers; on concepts of technology that are now considered antiquated. It did not take into account the access to the Internet, for starters. School networks changed in response to Internet access becoming readily available; it was not a planned progression. It certainly did not take into account the ideas of mobile computing, a concept barely in the minds of even the inventors of mobile computing in the early 1990s. It is also based in the ideas of “expensive” and “specialist” equipment.
An alternative for schools to consider is a “Zero-client” distributed model of providing technology. This is a more powerful and really advanced variation on the “dumb terminal” concept. That is, there are a series of servers that power and impel classrooms full of terminals. This is a scalable system that can be extended to every classroom if required. This is also a variation of the pre-DER models, with some of the shortcomings, e.g. its not mobile. It is also an expensive option because of that scalability. There is questionable benefit in it – the cost is high if schools want to wire the whole school and if most classrooms had these terminals. There are great savings in capital expenditure, once you have the backbone in place. Unfortunately, building the backbone is more expensive than a traditional client-server infrastructure. On a smaller scale there is just not enough advantage to make it a serious option. This kind of option needs to be planned from the start and allowed to grow, not a viable option for established schools with long-standing network infrastructure and often very limited budgets.
The complexities of these equations demand that they become simpler. (The more complex an equation like this, the greater likelihood of error.) That is the real question, how to make things simpler. Consider what can be taken out of that equation and still provide a viable service. Obviously it comes down to the User devices themselves. No other part of the system can be removed and still have it working. Added to that is that User technologies are constantly changing – sometimes dramatically. Generational change in technology is occurring within months sometimes, not years, not decades and schools cannot keep up with it now.
Schools cannot afford to continue with a 1-2-1 program. One class of 30 students with a mid-range PC laptop is going to cost $15-20-,000, with a Mac Laptop make that $39,000. What public school can afford that? And therein lies the dividing line.
(Public schools can’t. Private schools don’t have to worry, they can build that cost into their fees. Private schools also have access to Federal funds that State Schools do not. So much for the level playing field. Believe it or not, I saw one private school promote the line “We provide a laptop to every student…” but did not say their fees went up $1000 two years before. How cheeky is that?)
It is not really expected that State Schools will cope well without Federal Funding. I expect a lot of educators are going to just put their collective heads in the sand without thinking about BYOD. They will meekly return to pre-DER models and take their lumps from the media for being dunces. If they suggest BYOD their Techies will say no, it won’t work, we cannot protect our network. The answer is simple, use another network. Provide internet access, provide an intranet web server for products such as Moodle, Wikimedia, Mahara, WordPress, WebWork and a lot of other web-based tools. Offer OpenOffice, or LibreOffice, (which has a better equation editor than any other Office suite). Open source tools are readily available, use them. What network does the school need to protect then? Networks come in two types, infrastructure, and software. It is the software that needs change, nothing else would be affected. Create a V-Lan on an internal web server that has a gateway to the Net. It is not simple but it is slick and eminently workable.
Staff will say no, it can’t work, we are opening ourselves to too many classroom management problems. In what way? BYOD will not work much differently than DER laptops did. If you didn’t have problems then, why would you expect that to change with BYOD? In fact, anecdotal evidence from the US, Canada and other parts of the world suggest that students are more mindful of their own devices and less likely to be causing problems. BYOD will not wipe out all the problems, but students will be a lot more conscious of the fact that their laptops are in the room, so tend to behave a little better.
Then there is the social equity argument, “How many of our students cannot afford BYOD?”
Well, simple, they cannot afford to be without their own device.
The Australian Federal Government gives $820.00 to families for every student in secondary school. This is paid in two lots, January and July, of $410 each. The price of laptops have come down recently (and will come down more); the majority of families can afford another $100 for a laptop. The social equity argument is not really a valid one, not any more.
[Since this was written, there has been a change of government. This policy will be discontinued as soon as possible, which means the student payments will not be made. The current Federal Minister has made it clear that he does not intend to support public education.]
Lets talk about family values. In some cases, that money will go to a split of champagne, or a snort of cocaine or similar. Many families also question the value of education, so they do not encourage their children. (This is a popular strategy in the Right, discouraging the kids from attending school – saves money.) However, most families want to see their children do better, so are encouraging. They will do the right thing by their children and invest in a device for their child. Some never will. Schools will always need to provide some students with uniform, with equipment, with basic social skills, so what makes us think it will be any different with laptops? I would argue that that number will decline over time, though.
Most arguments presented against going to BYOD are of the same type. They are rationalisations for not doing something, rather than validations in opposition to a not so clever move. Essentially, they have been in a semi-BYOD for the last four years. The only differences are the source of purchase, families buy it not the schools, and control.
At last we get to the real source of opposition to BYOD, a loss of control by schools. At what point do schools have control? At what point do they need control? Answer those questions and you will never worry about BYOD again.
I suggest that all the control schools really need is Internet accessibility, nothing else. What is the majority use for our computers? Emailing, social media, research, downloading images, all Internet-based. We also use it for writing essays, a calculator, sometimes, putting together presentations, editing images and what else? I would suggest we spend more time on the former than the latter. So if all a school needs is to be an ISP-like internet provider, then what need for controls they have traditionally had? Any tools students need to complete assignments they can download from the web or buy them. The student needs to learn how to use that tool and that is how things work in the real world. YouTube will usually provide all the tutorials a student needs for a new tool, teachers don’t need to do anything there. In short, stand back and let the student learn.
If your school offers seriously specialist courses like high-end desktop publishing or 3D graphics, then you will never have moved away from the computer room anyway. Good on you, Adobe InDesign is a delight to use, and I always wanted to do 3D Studio Max, but never made the time. I suspect not a lot else will matter in a web environment, the students will accept it or not, and I bet they will.
There is a fly in this ointment, printing. iPads do not print, so I have been told. Androids will print, but there is currently no appropriate method of managing the printing from an Android. Schools are reluctant to allow unlimited printing, so it may be that printing will not be an option, or it will be an expensive optional extra, for BYOD. Up to the schools. I can see emails and teacher printing skyrocketing.
These are the things I found, and things I have considered. I suggest public schools have little realistic option. BYOD is being used all over the world and for many schools, it was their first and only choice – they never had a DER option like Australian schools. So we are really just catching up to them.
The EduTec conference in June has a panel discussion of “How to plan and execute a BYOD strategy” being moderated by Lenovo. I am going to be in that audience and will look forward to what I hope is a very interesting discussion.