Can we continue with the disparity between the way IT is used in schools and the way it’s used in society?
By Fraser Speirs
Across Scotland’s state schools the average pupil to computer ratio is 3.2 to 1. A quarter of our pupils attend schools run by authorities whose pupil to computer ratio hovers around 5 to1.
In the lives of most professionals, the person to computer ratio is easily 1 to 2; a laptop and a smartphone are part of the uniform of business in 2011. Add in a tablet or a desktop computer and it’s more like three computers per person.
One computer between three in schools and yet there are three computers per person in business; something’s wrong with this picture.
I work at Cedars School of Excellence, a small independent school in Greenock. In late 2009 we were faced with a problem: our teachers wanted to use technology in the classroom but we didn’t have enough computers to satisfy the demand. At the time, our pupil-computer ratio was just about 4 to 1, our provision split between desktop computers and laptops.
We met to discuss how we could improve the situation. Our options were clear: buy more laptops or look for an alternative. One option was simply to buy more laptops. Our other option was the iPod touch. Unlike a laptop, the sub-£200 price of that device made it something we could provide for every pupil. Teachers had concerns at the time about the device size and software capabilities.
About a month after we met and agreed to look into a 1 to 1 iPod touch program, Apple announced the iPad. We arranged to have one shipped from the US on launch day and it was obvious to us within the first hour of use that this was the future of school computers. By June, we completed the planning for a 1 to 1 rollout. In July we signed a lease with Apple and in August we became, to our knowledge, the first school in the world to deploy an iPad to every pupil.
The impact has been tremendous. Pupils and parents are wholeheartedly behind the scheme. Inverclyde is not a rich area and few parents send their children to Cedars out of pocket change. They save and sacrifice other luxuries to do the best for their children yet not one parent has complained that our iPad program is a frivolous waste of resources.
School now looks a lot more like the real world of 2011; the internet is constantly available. Information flows through email and the cloud. Digital calendars have replaced homework diaries.
People ask me how many hours a week the pupils use the iPad. That’s impossible to answer. We no longer have a meaningful distinction between “ICT lessons” and “ordinary lessons”. Every lesson is an ICT lesson and every ICT lesson is an ordinary lesson. There is no longer a barrier to using technology during a lesson. There’s no cart to wheel in, no charger to find and no boot-up and log-in. It’s just “slide to unlock” and suddenly it’s a lesson using technology.
The kind of cross-curricular work that Curriculum for Excellence emphasises is now easy to organise. Pupils have their work from every subject with them in every class. The Art department wants to illustrate a poem that was done in English? It’s on the iPad. Maths wants to do some teaching based on data gathered in Science? That data is on the iPad.
So to the question: should everyone do what we have done? I’m not here to sell you an iPad – Apple, it seems, doesn’t need my help – but simply to tell you that it has delivered a rich, stable, predictable, consistent learning platform that teachers can depend on and plan around. That’s something you don’t get when you let pupils bring in any old mobile phone. The iPad is our ‘virtual learning environment’.
I ask you to consider this: my youngest daughter, Beth, started Primary 1 this August. She won’t leave school until the summer of 2025. If universities as we know them still exist by that time, she’ll be job-hunting as a graduate in the year 2029. The last year in which I didn’t have exclusive use of at least one computer was 1995. Can we continue another twenty years with this disparity between the way IT is used in schools and the way it’s used in society? Can we even wait another ten? Can we prepare children for 2030 with the same level of access to IT as I had 35 years ago?
The Scottish Government controls billions of pounds every year. One half of one percent of its annual budget would put an iPad in the hands of every pupil in Scotland, with a generous allowance for software and support. We can afford it. We should afford it. The question is: can we afford not to?
Fraser Speirs is Head of Computing and IT at Cedars School of Excellence. He also works with schools and other organisations to help them understand the potential of new technologies.