I have recently rolled out one-to-one tablet computers in my school. It was a tiring, logistically challenging but immensely rewarding experience. Now, having been through the process, I can share my experience for the benefit of others. Here’s how to know if you’re ready for one-to-one iPads and what to do if you are.
The main question any school considering whether to implement a one-to-one strategy for tablet computers should ask is “Why?” If the answer is anything other than to support teaching and learning, then your strategy is likely to be self-defeating and will probably flounder.
It is also worth bearing in mind that one-to-one deployments in schools have so far shown, rather predictably, that tablets aren’t magic bullets and that spending a few hundred thousand pounds to give every pupil a shiny slab of aluminium and glass does not, in itself, raise attainment.
Does this mean that learning with tablets holds no educational value? Of course not. Attempting to measure the impact of tablets on educational outcomes without considering the other factors that make up the complex school context is like trying to find your keys at night under a bright streetlight even though you know you dropped them further down the alley.
So it is essential to take context into account before deciding that you are ready for such an initiative. Below are some questions to help you gauge if your school is ready.
Is improving the quality of teaching and learning a priority?
If so, how many of your lessons “require improvement”? Bear in mind that tablets will not make mediocre teaching great, nor will they suddenly turn the average child into an exemplary pupil. Tablets have been shown to have a great impact on raising attainment but only when they are part of a wider strategy focused on maintaining high-quality teaching and learning.
Have you considered the pupils?
Is the atmosphere in your school supportive and collegiate or is there rampant bullying? Is poor behaviour a big issue in your school? If the answer to the above two questions is yes, then the introduction of tablets will not magically erase these problems. If anything, it will probably exacerbate them.
Schools that have successfully adopted tablets understand that if a child uses a tablet inappropriately, it is probably a symptom of an existing problem rather than a problem caused by the tablet.
But in the right school environment, children will use their tablets at school and at home to communicate and offer each other help and support with, for example, homework tasks. At my school, cases of tablet-enabled bullying are fortunately few and far between.
Have you considered the teachers?
Will you be able to provide them with the time and resources required to undertake technology-related professional development? Are the teachers on board with the concept, or do they think it’s someone’s vanity project?
Where tablets have been adopted successfully, there is seldom a uniform level of adoption. At my school, teachers are allowed to engage with the project at their own pace and using tablets in lessons is not a requirement. This encourages the development of a culture that values experimentation and risk-taking above one of box-ticking and blame.
Are parents and governors supportive of the initiative?
Do they understand how tablets will be used for academic purposes, or will they think that the school is giving in to “edutainment” and abandoning all that makes for a good, old-fashioned education?
Whether you think their fears are groundless is unimportant: what matters is that the school addresses and allays any concerns (real or imagined). You need to communicate your vision to parents frequently and consistently to ensure that you paint over the graffiti of YouTube, video games and social media with a masterpiece of learning and academic achievement.
Communicate this vision to parents relentlessly and, instead of them contacting you about their concerns regarding tablet use, they will start asking why Sophie needs to carry so many textbooks now that she has a tablet, or how quickly her broken iPad can be repaired so that she is not disadvantaged in her learning.
Have you considered the cost implications?
Have you thought about insuring the tablets? Or getting cases to protect them? Will you buy outright or lease? You will need lots of tablets. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. And they don’t come cheap.
In addition, tablets require a reliable and robust network. Your school will probably have to update the existing network and it is likely you will need more wireless access points to cope with all those devices trying to hook up to the internet. Your IT support team will probably need training to operate beyond the comfortable and familiar Microsoft Windows paradigm. And in larger deployments, a mobile device management system will be required. It’s a long list. And it goes on.
Once you have the finances covered, you can start thinking not only about the cost but also about the opportunities that tablets will bring to teaching, learning and general pupil development. You may even reach the conclusion, as we did, that you can’t afford not to do this.
It is very likely that ploughing ahead with a tablet deployment without being able to provide satisfactory answers to questions covered above will not have a favourable outcome. Above all, you need to get the educational basics right first.
So, having been through that process, do you still think your school is ready to take it on? If so, excellent. The next step is to appoint a person in charge of overseeing the project. They needn’t be a computer geek or an ICT specialist. In fact, most of the successful one-to-one projects in the UK (and the number is growing) are led by specialists in English, modern foreign languages, physics, PE or history rather than ICT or computing.
These folk typically have middle leadership management roles, are expert practitioners and have shown through their own practice how technology can support and impact positively on teaching and learning. In terms of clout, this person needs to sit above heads of department or curriculum leaders, preferably within senior leadership.
Set up a core group of trained teachers
Start with a small group of teachers who will represent a cross-section of the school. Order each of them a tablet and train them extensively in the use of that device for teaching. After a term or two, you will be in a position where you can roll out tablets to the remainder of staff, safe in the knowledge that you have a skilled group of teachers who can assist you in providing frequent opportunities for training and development.
In my experience, a termly compulsory Inset session and twice-weekly voluntary walk-in sessions covering tablet basics offer teachers the right balance of support and autonomy. Don’t force anyone to use tablets.
Pilot with pupils
Pick one or two year groups, depending on the size of your school, for an initial roll-out. Call this a pilot if you like, but it is really a systems test. This will allow you to identify and iron out any technical deficiencies — is your wi-fi robust enough? Do you need more bandwidth? During this initial period, staff training opportunities need to remain frequent and their focus needs to move from using tablets to using tablets with pupils.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that children will naturally know how to use tablets for academic purposes. In my experience, they are generally clueless about how to use tablets beyond YouTube, Minecraft, FaceTime or Agar.io. Assemblies, form time and even PSHE sessions will need to be devoted to making sure pupils are able to perform the most basic of functions, from hooking up to wi-fi to sending emails, from word-processing to saving their work to the cloud.
Full school roll-out
Two years on from those initial pilots with staff and students, you can start the full roll-out. At this point, some of the teachers will be confident, most will be comfortable and the remaining few will at least be tolerant of tablets.
You will also have a hundred or so students using tablets as if they’d always been there, and you will have been able to demonstrate to parents and governors that tablets do not, in fact, turn children into mindless zombies but instead can be a valuable tool for learning.
This piece was originally published in the TES on 15 January 2016