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IT – the laptop issue

Orewa College has told its school community that all Year 9 pupils from 2012 will need to have their own portable computer and have recommended the purchase of a Apple ipad.  Not unpredictably, there has been significant adverse comment.  And quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to be a teacher of Year 9 at Orewa College in 2012 and especially not the poor person in charge of IT there next year!

The issue of laptops in schools has three components: redundancy, access and teaching style.

Redundancy – the useful life of a computer is about three years.  After that, its operating speed and memory capacity mean that it is increasingly compromised in terms upload/download/display of multimedia files and the level of software that can be used.  The capital cost to a school of continually upgrading its computer stock in a three-year cycle is enormous and very often beyond the capacity of a state school.  There is little if any specific funding for this; most of such funds are locally raised.

Access – how does a school provide sufficient electronic access to the teaching resources and the internet such that all pupils who need it have it available when they need it?  Particularly in secondary schools, the computer laboratory is the current answer; most secondary schools have several.  In primary schools most have no computer lab, just a number of computers in groups scattered throughout the classrooms.  Neither of these solutions provides the right level of access for most classes.

If your secondary school subject is timetabled for the computer lab for every period, you are sweet, but if you have to book the lab, your programme delivery is subject to the vagaries of the booking system and the demands on the resource.  Where computers are distributed around classrooms you have the best and the worst situation; continuously available resource, but insufficient of it to use in any really meaningfully constructive manner.

The advent of the laptop has caused some school to create mobile labs of laptops which can be booked and used in any space or even outside.  That removes the need to dedicate a space for a computer lab (a huge cost in itself) but the issues of booking and availability are just the same as having a computer lab; and add to this there is damage cost factor in continually moving them about the school.

Teaching style – a computer in front of each pupil alters the spectrum of teaching styles that are available to the teacher.  Now, truly interactive learning is possible…but only possible.  The presence of the computer is just the first step.  Even teaching the pupil how to use the computer will not change the teaching mode.  What is required is for the teacher to alter the entire mode of interaction with the pupil, and with available electronic resources, to unlease the power of the computer to make the learning interactive. In this regard, there is a conundrum.  Before you can expect the teacher to significantly change teaching mode, to retrain, and to convert resources from a paper-base to an electronic base, the infalliable and personalised use of a computer by each pupil is required. Not timetabled or booked, but continuously and personally available including outside the teaching time.

Enter the affordable laptop/notebook/ipad.

If each pupil provides their own, the issues of redundancy and access are largely removed – note, largely!  The elephant in the room is the presumption that the school has the infrastructure and technical-support resource to ensure that every laptop brought into the school can connect to the school’s network, can do so without compromising the school’s network security, and can be fixed when something goes wrong (especially at the software level).  This elephant is enormous!

But if you can minimise this elephant with clever software and sufficient technical-support resource, another elephant springs into sight!  Do all the laptops have all the software loaded that the teaching programme requires, which operating system platform(s) (Apple/Windows/Linux) will be supported, and who owns the licences to this software; the pupil or the school?  The rising availability of web-based applications and cloud computing are reducing this elephant but it still requires a very significant thinking-through and solution-finding by the school of the issues involved.  Theoretically, it should not matter if you use a Windows-based computer or and iPad as both will generally save files in a format that can be read by the other.  But watching my wife endeavour to work collaboratively with others in an electronic distance-learning environment makes me realise that there is a great deal of IT-savvy required for this to be a reality in practice.

But if you have solved the infrastructure, network security, platform, technical-support and software issues, there is still the issue of changing teacher behaviour.  And this is by far the hardest to overcome.

Teaching is actually a very personal thing; as research continually demonstrates, it is the quality of the personal interaction at an emotional level that brings about the condition for optimal learning; it is not the teaching method that creates learning, but the engagement of the teacher with the learner.  Therefore, the teacher has to be so in-sync with the technology that is being used that the technology augments the emotional interaction rather than supplants it.  Just using technology in a lesson does not guaranatee anything except, perhaps, an increased level of engagement by some pupils at some level.

So, having killed all the elephants that technology brings to the party, the issue of teacher training and assistance remains; it is not a short-term issue.  Not all teachers are tech-savvy, indeed many are the opposite – what drove them into teaching is what may reduce their desire to uptake technology!  So expect that a school whose pupils all have laptops at school will face much of their teaching day where use of that laptop does not justify the personal expense of its purchase. That will be small comfort to the parents of Orewa College Year 9 students in 2012!

What is our position in this regard given that we have faced the same issues? Where are we on this journey?

For three years now, the Cathedral Grammar School has provided each of its Year 6 pupils with a brand new, entry level notebook.  It is the pupil’s personal notebook for the next three years, to be kept at school in the pupil’s desk or locker, and used by the pupil exclusively while at school.  Each pupil is charged about $50 per term for the use of the computer.  The school owns the notebooks, insures them and retains the licences for the software on them.  At any particular class level, all pupils have identical notebooks.  The notebooks are connected to a schoolwide, thin-client, wireless network so that all files are retained on a server and not on the notebook; these files are also available to the pupils at home through any web-enabled computer.  Use of a thin-client model also means that network traffic is reduced and only the servers need to be grunty, not the notebooks! On departure from the school in Year 8, pupils have the option of purchasing their notebook for $150.

Years 4 & 5 have access to a 25 seat computer lab; Pre-School to Year 3 pupils have access to a small number of computers in their classrooms.

Our attitude to IT is that it is there to support teaching at this level, not to supplant it.  We believe that at primary school, learning is paramount, learning about IT is secondary (and best kept in proportion, increasing towards Year 6), and its use needs to advance and evolve at a speed with leaves teachers feeling comfortable and supported; the teacher is the most important part of the equation.  Our teachers are the best – not in implementing IT but in teaching their subject(s); the IT bit is developing.

For instance, we have probably advanced teacher uptake of IT more by installing interactive whiteboards in each classroom than we did by providing staff with laptops.  The whiteboards being so intuitive and practical, staff have grasped the IT challenges with much greater enthusiasm which has spurred their desire to convert their resources to electronic forms.  And they were certainly motivated to move the use of web-based learning forward by being suddenly required to provide distance learning overnight by the after effects of a few earthquakes; and they suddenly had the time available to put into the professional development required!

Adopting mobile IT into education is a journey on which every school will eventually have to embark.  Whether Orewa College has adopted the right course at the right time remains to be seen by its community, but I am very confident that we are very much further on in our mobile technology journey; and fortunately, through the insightfulness of our IT Manager, Adrian Gray, we have the infra-structure in place to move fexibly in whichever direction the rapidly changing nature of this hardware moves!

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PO Box 2244
Christchurch 8140