Three Mantras from the First Two Years

It's been a busy first couple of terms at Cedars, doing things that are not all directly related to our iPad deployment. One big development this year has been our "Middle School" project - our approach to delivering the early-secondary part of Curriculum for Excellence. I have, however, been doing a lot of work on other schools' iPad deployments. I've been speaking to and working with schools in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland (Wales is "coming soon"!).

It was two years ago this week - December 2009 - when we first met to discuss the problem of how to get more computing resources into the hands of teachers and pupils at Cedars. Back then, we had 12 MacBooks and 12 iMacs for a school of around 85 pupils - a ratio of 3.5 pupils per computer; about the Scottish national average.

Teachers were frustrated that they either had to lug the laptops around the school (difficult) or book the lab (nearly impossible). What we all wanted wanted, mostly, was access to the web and a word processor. It's amusing, now, to think of the limited ambitions we had for the project but that was the impetus for the project: the web. I often say to people that, if the only apps the iPad ran were Safari and Pages, we would still have deployed it.

I won't lie to you and pretend that we had everything worked out for day one. I genuinely thought that this would be a simple deployment of computers and that the school would carry on as usual. I could not have been more wrong.

As we have gone through the last six terms, we've learned a lot about teaching with modern technology at a 1:1 ratio in school.

I've done a lot of speaking on this topic in 2011 and there are several points that keep coming up that I want to share.

I express these principles as the "three mantras" that guide the way I think about technology in school. There are more but, for most teachers, parents and school leaders, these are the three core ideas.

Technology as Accessible as Paper

The early tabloid assumption was that we were "throwing out" pen and paper in favour of the iPad. That was never a specific aim of the project but I'm more interested in thinking about books. The trials and tribulations of deploying eBooks in the face of, frankly, obnoxious greed on the part of publishers, deserves its own post sometime. Here, though, I want to think about our attitude to children, paper and technology.

Only the most retrograde automaton of a teacher would prevent a pupil from following their curiosity into the pages of a book. We would - or should - never accept a world in which a pupil wishing to learn something was told "wait until Thursday, when we get our turn at using the book cart".

A teacher who simply refused to allow books into their classroom would - well, should - be sacked.

This, sadly, is exactly the situation we accept with computers. I have written before about the high ratio of pupils to computers in our schools: on average 3.2 pupils per computer in Scotland; 25% of pupils sharing one computer between five pupils.

We make no attempt to force technology use ahead of paper. Each have their strengths and we recognise and make use of both. We simply try to achieve equal access to the digital and the paper. Digital tools should not be locked away for special times - they are as fundamental as paper-based resources.

A Computing Platform for Everyone

In a previous life, my job was to coordinate computing cluster deployments for the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Durham in support of the analysis of data coming from the Large Hadron Collider. It was a heck of a first job and the learning curve approached the vertical at times. A steep learning curve is great because it means you learn a lot in a short time.

You might not think that deploying parts of a virtual supercomputer is a great preparation for running IT in a small school but you'd be wrong. I learned so much about systems administration, system deployment, taking advantage of commoditisation, trying not to over-allocate resources too early, anticipating the leading edges of both Moore's and Kryder's laws (as well as, at times, Sturgeon's law) and, ultimately, trying to skate to where the puck is going.

As I visit schools, I'm often struck by the heterogeneity of their technology. Some PCs here, some netbooks here, some Nintendo DS over there, a Wii, some AlphaSmarts and always, always, the hateful Interactive Whiteboard.

To my mind, this is a house of horrors. The cost of managing such a diverse range of hardware must be so high, assuming that having everything working and available is a high priority.

One of the most pleasing aspects of our iPad deployment is that it works for everyone in the school. It works for five-year-olds in Primary 1, it works for 16-year-olds sitting exams and it works for teachers and school managers. One computing platform for everyone.

It's not just that the management costs are lower, although they are. It leads to educational benefits too: any teacher can cover any class and feel familiar with the computing infrastructure in that classroom. We have explored peer-tutoring both within classes and across various age ranges to substantial benefit. Not just benefit to the pupils' skills at whatever task they're working on but benefit to the social cohesion of the entire school: older and younger pupils who have worked and learned together are not strangers to one another.

We have one computing platform. We speak one technological language. Everyone understands it and everyone gets a voice.

Technology for Subjects Not Traditionally Well-Served by Technology

As a Computing teacher, it's never been hard to get access to computers for my pupils. That's a subject that's well-served by technology. Other subjects and other stages of the school are not always so fortunate. In many ways, the interactive whiteboard is a workaround for the fact that you don't have enough computers in your classroom: it scales up the display and interaction surface such that four or five pupils can have the illusion of using a computer at once. It is only an illusion, though, since most IWBs are not multi-touch devices.

I use the iPad in Computing but I gain most satisfaction from seeing how easy access to technology is changing classes that used to have to fight for access. In Art, English, Modern Studies, Science, History and French as well as across the Primary department. All of these subjects and curricular areas are being transformed by access to a toolkit of apps and a wealth of information.

If a 1:1 iPad program was just in pursuit of traditional ICT goals, it wouldn't be worthwhile. If this was merely the conceit of the Computing teacher, it wouldn't fly. Curriculum for Excellence repeatedly uses phraseology like "throughout my learning" and "across the curriculum" when talking about the experience of ICT that pupils are entitled to. To my mind, that explicitly rejects the traditional model of teaching ICT in isolation and demands that technology is made available in every area of the curriculum.

I do not claim that technology alone can make the difference. In my talks I often end with an equation, and I'll do the same here: technology + pedagogy + curriculum = change.

Neither modern technology, updated pedagogy or a relevant curriculum are, by themselves, sufficient conditions to produce the kind of change we want. I do believe that they are each necessary.