By Andrew Howard
There is so much in the educational sphere about how schools need to be moving towards a 1:1 solution in schools, with many, many articles stating that this is the way forward. It is my opinion that this is nowhere near ambitious enough and in fact actually stops the real discussion from taking place which is more about personal use of technology in an educational setting.
Three years ago, I found myself being appointed as the founding principal for a brand new school, in the North West; Sandymoor School was proposed by a group of local parents as an additional Secondary School in the area, with an ambitious aim to be a ‘Fresh Approach to Education’. I quickly found myself having to firm up my thoughts on many different aspects of education and school, and in fact quickly develop opinions about things I had never considered before. However, one of the strong elements of the founders’ original vision hit a very clear set of thoughts and opinions in my mind. In the founding vision, one key factor was the creation of a strong 21st Century approach to education, embracing modern technology.
We quickly had various contractors assigned to us, to help us develop our school – when I was appointed, there hadn’t even at that point been agreement on the exact location of the new school and we needed temporary accommodation, builders to build a brand new school (and architects to design it), but most relevant to this was the IT contractors, assigned to help us develop our vision and bring it to fruition. Civica were our appointed contractors and it was here that I started to hear the message about how we should plan for 1:1 very strongly. And I objected straight away. As I sit here writing this, I have a personal mobile, a work mobile, the Surface Pro I am typing on and a tablet by my side – in total 4 devices all connecting wirelessly to the world wide web and all, with the exception of the work phone, personal products. Although we serve an incredibly disparate community, with incredible affluence to one side of the school and terrible deprivation on the other (we have some of the most deprived housing estates in the UK within a mile of the school), virtually every student has a smartphone and/or a tablet.
The school’s vision has technology embedded at the very heart of everything we do. We have a completely cloud-based environment, with Office 365 as the driving engine through which everything is delivered and access to the ‘cloud’ was always going to be something that was key to the transformation I was determined to lead here.
The school’s IT vision starts with a simple statement: “ICT alone will not transform learning, but learning will not be transformed without it.”
As such, we needed to ensure that the staff and students had access to the technology, with ease, wherever and whenever they needed. This required everyone to have devices connected to the internet.
As with all school leaders, therefore, I am faced with the usual dilemma – I want to drive forward innovation, but cannot afford to push the resources at it I would like. Although I can and am doing so, by having a slight change in mind-set. As virtually every student has a personal, internet-enabled device in their pocket, why not embrace this and use the technology the students already have and are comfortable with? We also run an ‘at cost’ leasing scheme, where for a few quid a month, a child can have an internet enabled device of their own and this, coupled with a small bank of school-day loanable devices, means that we can guarantee that each student has access. Without costing me a fortune.
And the students look after their devices more, as they are theirs, not the schools. With the ability for the student to personalise it, because it is theirs, it means that we are not fighting to get the students to access the material. Also, as they are personal devices, there is minimal costs to us in terms of support and maintenance. I know of a school that has bought an expensive tablet for each student, and then has had to lock them down so much the students can hardly do anything on them. Not surprisingly, teachers are choosing to not use them in lessons because the students complain about the fact they can’t ever do anything with them.
So the devices are truly personal, owned and controlled by the student. So they customise them … so what? I am sure I am not alone when I say that as a child I took pleasure (and pride) in covering my exercise books in paper, stickers and doodles, making them my own. Did it stop me from learning, or the teacher from teaching? No, I don’t think so. And so it is with the technology. The cloud is truly democratic, truly device agnostic and the best systems do not care what platform is used to access the content. Our students are working collaboratively on shared OneNote notebooks, from every type of device, including their mobile phones.
There are more devices in school than people. But that is why we were selected by Microsoft to be one of only six UK schools awarded Global Showcase School status; we are transforming education, with technology, through Office 365 and OneNote in particular, at the very heart of everything we do. But this has been achieved because we have made portable devices personal and multiple. As they were always designed to be.
Limiting devices, by locking them down and keeping ownership of them is old thinking – the 21st century is one of personal technology. Limiting people to access via a single device is the same – access anywhere is the modern world and our students deserve to access their learning this way, with their personal technology.
Andrew Howard is Principal of Sandymoor School, a free school that opened in September 2012 in the North West of England. At their first Ofsted Inspection (January 2014), the school was graded ‘Good’ overall, with ‘Outstanding’ Leadership.