More painful thoughts on iPads and notebooks in school

I have to tell you this topic makes my head hurt.

I was talking again last night with people about iPads or notebooks in schools. I wrote about this a few months ago and still think that was a valid analysis. However a few more things have come to light in the meantime.

The first thing is that this isn’t a straight comparison on an iPad vs a notebook – at least not in a public school. We’re talking about comparing an iPad with the specific notebook provided by the Department of Education as part of its mammoth deal with Lenovo. The notebook is heavy, under-powered, and hobbled by administrative restrictions. It can run basic apps fine but isn’t up to taking advantage of some of the more interesting applications it comes bundled with. It’s terribly inflexible and can’t do anything which requires the addition of software or drivers beyond it’s initial build (for example connecting to a home printer that requires additional drivers). And let’s not forget it weighs 2kg. On its face this is a really poor solution if you have any other available. All this, by the way, refers to the new computers – the Year 12s who got their computers three years ago are in a whole other world of pain.

But here’s where my head starts to hurt. How much of this is necessary when you’re running a network and supporting tens of thousands of units? Much of it probably. Certainly the horrible control-freak elements are probably entirely necessary in any huge deployment, let alone one involving schoolkids. And big organisational networks tend towards the lowest common denominator – it has ever been so.

So maybe the issue is not intrinsically about the specific hardware, its more about the overall organisational model. If we’re talking about a high school with 900 students and 100 staff is that not an organisation big enough to deserve and manage a dedicated and flexible IT solution of its own? Certainly that would be the case in the corporate world. Are the benefits of being part of the enormous Department of Education buying network balanced by the restrictions and compromises dictated by that network? I would argue not.

You would think that if a school was lucky enough and well resourced enough it would let the kids bring their own device (BYOD) in on the basis that the families also had to support the device. But that falls in a messy heap because the kids cannot have their own devices connect to the Department network – and without connectivity we’re nowhere. I can’t help thinking that in another five years BYOD will be so commonplace that this will seem like a ridiculous idea, but five years is a long time in IT. BYOD is going to be where we end up. And right now BYOD is only going to work if the Department allows network access.

The real pain in all of this is that I truly believe that if we are to train our kids to survive in the modern world they need to become entirely technically literate in school. Who handwrites anything in the workplace today? Who wouldn’t look at being able to competently use a computer as a basic prerequisite for almost any role? Students need to have easy, ubiquitous and effective access to technology as the rule. Right now if the Department of Education can’t deliver that centrally in a sensible and guaranteed fashion then it needs to let go and facilitate schools doing it themselves if they are able.

Of course all this is against a backdrop of the Building the Education revolution funding coming to an end and a bun-fight about who’s going to fund even maintaining what we already have. I’m off to take something for my headache.

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