Hello and welcome to this blog. We have been developing use of handheld technologies in our area for several years, using several devices. This blog is designed to capture what we are doing here and now, with occasional posts and pages to discuss things that have worked or failed in the past.
This page is the boring but, hopefully, very useful one. Below I will give a potted history of what we have done, why we did it and what we have learned. This should give context to the updates I will sporadically add.
I took the time this morning to read this overview and realise that it is nearly two years old yet talks about where we are now. What struck me most though was how up to date it pretty much was. The reasons for using the devices have been clear from day one and our use has simply created more and more dynamic ways to use them that directly impact on learning. Since writing the overview I also undertook my Masters Degree in Education. Inevitably I focussed my research thesis on examine pupil perceptions of how they learn with a mobile device and then analysing where their ideas gave strong indications of effective approaches for learning (constructivist approach, communities of practice etc). That research and the subsequent work has become more and more central to the way that I support schools and larger districts with large scale roll out of iOS devices. The key is not the technology, that has to work and work well of course, but it is the pedagogical shift, or at least focus, that makes the change happen. And the handful of schools I mention at the end? That has grown exponentially and I now support projects and districts all across the world. Back to my words from two years ago which I leave untarnished!……
Before any of that though, have a look at where we are at now:
When we rolled out Interactive Whiteboards into schools about 10 years ago one of the key messages I tried to get across to teachers was to appreciate “what the children are actually doing.” So I may have a fabulous Smart Notebook file which explains to the nth detail how Henry V marched across France, but are the children just passive observers or are they actively engaged in doing something, driving the lesson forward. Whiteboards are often criticised for fostering dull powerpoint led teaching, but that is always down to teacher choice. A well used whiteboard allows the teacher to take feedback, play around with ideas and organise a group’s thinking, often helping to structure it. That is great but the trick is how you engage all learners in that process. Standing out the front for ages telling and showing them stuff doesn’t work. For example, if we take a lesson where the class deconstructs a text. The natural instinct is to have it displayed on the whiteboard, read through it together then deconstruct it together. It is very easy in such a session for children to sit back and drop out of what is going on. In an effective learning environment you want the children to engage with the text, discuss it, manipulate it. I would rarely start any text based lesson without a copy of the text (one between two children to promote collaboration) on the desks. This gives the children time to read the text, following it with their fingers if need be, pencilling on key comments and so on. Giving the children a task to complete once they have read it through also means you can ensure all children in the room have had time to at least get to the end of reading it, ready for the next part of the lesson where maybe the teacher introduces the main task. The faster readers will also have had plenty to do while everyone at least came to that point.
What has this got to do with mobile devices?
It had always struck me that if I was in the child’s position I would want the text in front of me and I would want the ability to edit it digitally. Ideally I would also want the ability to change text size and colour of background (vey important for some struggling readers). If I could send the children the text, or a picture or short video clip to work on, rather than having to create copies on paper or whatever, it would open up so many more opportunities to engage with the material. I remember when I was doing an interactive whteboard session at one of the NCSL SLICT training events that a Headteacher put his hand up about halfway through and said, “but aren’t you just describing effective teaching?” Well that is the point, the tech must always be the slave to what the teachers and learners need, not the other way around.
This led me to be constantly watching out for ways in which existing technology could support the learners in this personalised way.
14 years ago the device choices were beginning to appear. A computer each? I mooted the possibility to my Headteacher of computers built into desks, not like a suite but like the games machines that I used on holiday in Majorca! They were just glass topped tables with controls sticking out of the front of them. I could see that format working in a classroom if it could cope with living in a busy bar. But they didn’t exist as “normal” computers so that was a no go. Laptops began to become more prevalent in schools around 10 years ago, not just as a teacher tool but as small class sets. I embraced them as the answer to what we needed but frequent use taught me several things. Firstly they needed a very good wireless infrastructure behind them. Such systems seemed rare until recently. Secondly they took a while to log on and the batteries worked well for a few months but gradually deteriorated to the point of being useless. Third, and this is what sent me in the mobile direction as much as anything else, they were too cumbersome. Your classroom immediately became an IT suite, dominating the desks. And on the screen they had many menus and updates popping up all the time…not a quick and easy environment to use. Lessons often spent a lot of time explaining the software, even if the focus was poetry.
This led me down the route of looking for a device that the children could take home as well. I figured that if they played with them at home, they would know the software when they came to school and we could focus on the lessons. It turns out that in most children’s cases this is not the case. For example, one school seized on the affordable and convenient option of minibooks not long after they came out. We created a simple image on them based on software that would support schoolwork. Several months into the project it became abundantly clear that most children were only using them in school. Many had their own computer at home which they used for games and internet sites, this extra one was great but was not part of their home life.
It was around this time that I met Dave Whyley who leads the Wolverhampton Learning2Go work (it is more than just a project!). He was advocating use of Windows mobile devices, little PDAs. They could be conveniently carried, had awesome battery life and could run lots of apps that helped the children with their learning (and reading). Several Headteachers locally also became interested and as a group purchased the new Fujitsu Siemens EDA. Without going into all the history of that product…they didn’t work very well (and our wireless systems were not good enough either). Many schools dropped out at this stage as they had parents contributing to projects and didn’t want to risk parents’ money on a different product if that didn’t work either.
From the handful of schools that forged on we found a little device called the HTC Tytn 2 was just the job. We could run lots of learning apps on them, use GPS and even use the 3G enabled internet to ensure all learners could access work out of school. This worked alongside the learning platform where children uploaded work, accessed information, responded to blogs (a quick way to get children to hand in written work in one place). Being small, the device fitted into the children’s lives much better than a laptop or minibook.
There was a problem though. The devices were a bit techie to run (didn’t bother the Y5s much who were using them – they even completed a module from Roehampton university designed to test undergraduates skills with mobile technologies!) and were really expensive.
As ever, the school mainly pushing forward with this asked the children what were the killer features of the device that should be used by the upcoming year group. In fact we ask the question every year and the answers are the same: portable (in pocket or hand round neck on lanyard), good battery, lots of good learning apps, camera
We had been eyeing up the Apple device (ipod touch) for a while as we knew it was robust, portable and lots of apps to run from it but it had no camera at first. This was seen as a definite no-no for the device of choice (see section on pedagogy). That was until a few years ago when Apple did in fact release a version with a camera. At that moment another school was ready to move into this way of working too. Our first school to launch with ipods did so in January 2011.
We now have over half the Local Authority primary schools either using 1:1 devices or experimenting with shared class sets. Some of the secondaries are also beginning to experiment with how best to deploy devices following some training we delivered across all secondaries back in February.
The enthusiasm and change in this direction has been rapid on the face of it but actually stands on a lot of hard won experiences over many years, mainly with a handful of schools.