I’m writing this on the way home from Dubai, where I was invited to give a speech at the GITEX 2015 “Education Vertical” conference. No recording or video was made of the speech so I’m posting my script here. This is the speech that I wrote, but I have not modified it to exactly match the delivery. I hope it is useful to you regardless. - FS
Good morning. My name is Fraser Speirs. I’m the Head of Computing and IT at Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock, Scotland.
In 2010, Cedars was the first school in the world to deploy a whole-school 1:1 iPad programme. We have been doing this now for half a decade.
My role at the school is a dual role. I teach Computer Science up to pre-university levels, I designed and wrote the Computing curriculum and I’m also responsible for the school’s networking, infrastructure and iPad deployment.
We decided to deploy iPad because we had been looking for about five years for the next generation school computer.
We actually started by looking at the iPod photo in 2004, wondering what we could do with that, but we rejected it.
We then looked at games consoles. Game based learning was a popular trend in Scotland at the time but we rejected that.
Next came netbooks - small, cheap laptops. We even had a couple in school for evaluation but they were just not good enough for what we wanted to do.
Then there was iPod touch. We came close to doing something with that device but just as we were thinking about it, the iPad was introduced.
So you see that we had spent years looking for the ideal 1:1 device and only found it when the iPad came along.
People said that iPad was just a big iPod touch. That was wrong but it definitely helped adoption in that the idea of iPad was congruent with our teachers’ experience of iPhones.
But the iPad wasn’t just a big iPod touch. It was, in fact, a lightweight portable Mac. If you look at many of the great iPad apps today, most of them came from the Mac: Keynote, Pages, iMovie, GarageBand, Microsoft Office.
Today, my task is to respond to two key questions: Can tablets live up to the hype? And to discuss the benefits of iPads and other tablets for students and teachers
So can tablets live up to the hype?
Firstly, is there any hype? Yes, there is definitely hype.
Where does it come from? It comes from the device manufacturers, yes, and the media.
However, the enthusiasm for tablet devices came originally from teachers themselves.
This is one of the first situations we have been in where educators are out ahead of IT.
Educators’ enthusiasm for a compact, lightweight, affordable, secure, reliable, adaptable and easy to use computer has been distorted into “hype”.
The tablet computer is unique in one respect: it can become almost anything. A smart watch or a smartphone are constrained by their form factors; the tablet is liberated by its form factor.
In the course of one day in my school, a pupil’s iPad will be a musical instrument, a word processor, a sketchbook, a game, a data analysis workstation, a programming tool, a video editing suite and, yes, even a book.
As a result of this adaptability, the tablet has become a Rorschach test. People project onto it their own views and biases about computer use.
This is nowhere more true than in the United States, where their unique problem of the $200 textbook leads many schools to focus on iPad as a replacement for digital textbooks.
So are tablets “the answer” for schools?
Let’s assume for the moment that they are. You take out your lab of PCs running Windows and put in their place the exact same number of tablets configured as closely as possible to your old PCs. What have you gained?
You haven’t gained much. You’re still dealing with a constrained resource that must be coordinated around. You’re still dealing with a restricted platform. You’re likely still dealing with a constrained and possibly broken network.
Now let’s imagine a different world. You take out that PC lab and turn the room into an art classroom. This is exactly what we did at Cedars.
Instead of a “set” of tablets you give an iPad to every pupil. You put them in control of most of its configuration and you bring in a more progressive - even liberal - IT policy.
Further, you move ahead with changing the pedagogy in your school from didactic teaching and occasional computer use to a progressive, constructivist approach that assumes the presence and active use of computers at any time they are required to further the goals of teaching and learning.
NOW you are starting to approach an “answer” for schools.
This is unfortunate. Wouldn’t it be great if tablets were the answer?
It’s much easier to buy a specific device than spend the decades required to embed a progressive teaching culture in the institution.
At the same time, though, it is also untrue that the device makes no difference. It is important for the scalability of a deployment to have some level of commonality.
When you bring your own device, you have to create commonality at a layer above the device. Typically that is some cloud service.
So the difference between a managed deployment and a BYOD is really only the level at which you eventually enforce that commonality.
NOTHING EVER LIVES UP TO HYPE. THAT’S WHY IT IS HYPE.
What about the Benefits of iPads for Students and Teachers?
The rubric here is “iPads and other tablets” but I don’t really feel other tablets are interesting. The only other game in town for education right now is Chromebook.
Instead of reciting a litany of specific differences between technology and non-technology contexts, I would like to leave you with three principles that guide our use of technology.
Technology as Accessible as Paper
We are not trying to build the paperless classroom. It’s not even clear that that is the correct goal.
What we are trying to do is make computers as easily available as paper.
As teachers, our heart is towards learning. If a student asked us for a book, we would move heaven and earth to get that book for them.
All too often, when a student asks for access to a digital resource, the answer revolves around room scheduling, filtering and acceptable use considerations - rather than the learning.
We are not trying to privilege technology, just to level the playing field.
Computing for Subjects not Traditionally Well-Served by Technology
In many schools, including my own, it is easy to get access to computers if you are studying courses that are technologically based: Computer Science, Engineering, occasionally science and even more occasionally mathematics.
If you are arts-minded, however, there is a realistic prospect that you might go through secondary education without ever touching a computer in a way that is more meaningful than typing up an essay or doing a bit of online research.
We are not trying do do the modern thing of forcing a bit of Computer Science into every course.
What we are trying to do is learn what it means to study English, Art, History, Drama or Science with a computer in your hands.
One example: Art. In Art, one of the hardest things to do - I’m told - is give students the confidence to start. Just start.
We have found some success in treating digital art as a simulation environment for traditional art materials.
That’s not to intentionally privilege traditional materials as “real art” - it’s just that our exam board won’t accept digital work for examination!
When I flew here from Scotland, I flew in a Boeing 777-300. I guarantee you that the captain of that flight, on his first day on the job, did not just step into the cockpit of a $320 million aircraft and take it up for a spin.
No, he learned on a simulator. Just as many other professionals do in the military, medical and other sectors. In many cases, those professionals will only experience the life and death situations in the simulator before they face them for the first time in real life.
We have, with careful teaching, been able to effectively use digital art as a simulation environment that has allowed students to rehearse techniques before applying them in traditional materials.
Apps are Pencils, Not Books
Colleagues of mine were doing some consulting at a school which had recently started a 1:1 iPad pilot.
A teacher rushed in and asked “what’s the best app for volcanoes?”. We looked at her bemused and realised that she was thinking about an app where she used to think about books.
Instead, we treat apps as pencils. Over the course of our deployment, the number of apps we have deployed has gone down. At the same time, the apps we now deploy are far more generic and less content focused.
As a result, the work falls back on us as teachers to design lessons and projects that engage students and challenge them to exercise those higher-order skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
Over the past few years, we have run many such projects but let me tell you about one.
A colleague did a project about “ideal homes”. It was a sustainabilty, design and energy use project built around the home. Pupils had to research real-world architects, select a location and design a house in sympathy with its surroundings. They then had to produce a floor plan, a 3D rendering of two interior rooms and then build a model.
The evaluation of the project took the form of an architecture show. We invited outside judges from design, construction and energy to evaluate the projects. Their rubric looked at each of those three areas.
The key point is: in this entire project there were no marks in the rubric for being “good at the computer”. There were no marks for “made a floor plan using Keynote” but there were marks for “made a floor plan that showed the design and matched the execution of the model” .
There were no marks for computer skills but, without those skills, it was very hard to get a good mark.
That’s what I mean when I talk about “post-digital” education. Not that we leave the tools behind but that we use the tool so frequently and so deeply that we don’t think of it as a special event any more. It’s just how we learn and construct our learning together.
So, can I promise you a 10% bump on your standardised test scores if you adopt a 1:1 iPad program?
No, it’s just not that simple.
Test scores, as we currently conduct them in most countries in the world, simply do not capture the gains that we can see as professionals working with students every day.
Where tests measure those - admittedly important - lower-order skills such as knowledge and comprehension, the gains we see are in those higher-order skills.
Does that come automatically with “tablets”? Of course not.
The computer is a tool. You might well say it is the dominant intellectual instrument of our century.
The way I measure our iPad deployment is by what I see when students join our school.
These are good students that come from what are considered good schools locally. What I am seeing now is that it is taking a full academic year for new students to realign themselves to the kind of higher-order thinking we expect and somewhat assume.
I’ll give you one example: a student joined us from another school. A good student from a good school. I was teaching a lesson about internet routing and censorship and I set the class a question: which countries censor the internet?
I left the class to work for about 20-25 minutes and started checking in with various students.
I spoke to the new boy in the class and he simply told me “I can’t find anything”. I looked at his iPad and he had typed in literally the exact question I had set the class: “which countries censor the internet?”.
He had, in fact, found three results that would help him on his way but he was used to simply being given a “google treasure hunt” and assuming that the way to complete the assignment was to find the right search terms that would hit the target that he assumed was out there.
At the same time, a girl who has been at our school for years went onto Wikipedia and pulled down their censorship map. She put that into an app called Explain Everything that allowed her to produce an animated voice-over video and then wrote a three minute script explaining the difference between “blocking” the internet, “censoring” it and just “watching it closely”.
That’s the kind of difference I see. I see students getting job offers at age 14 on the strength of their presentation skills while our exam board is content for them to take a half-finished PowerPoint and add some animations to it.
I strongly commend a 1:1 iPad programme to you. It is, by no means, a shortcut to transformation. What it is is a massive boost in the relevance of school.
My friend Abdul Chohan from Essa Academy in England likes to compare the hospital operating theatre of 1880 with the modern equivalent. The two are worlds apart, such that a Victorian surgeon transplanted into the modern hospital would have no hope of being able to function.
He then looks at the classroom of 1880 and the classroom of 2015. They are virtually the exact same. Certainly, a teacher from the 1880s would have little difficulty adjusting to a modern classroom - except perhaps struggling with the modern management jargon we have accreted around education.
Surely we can do better than the Victorians. A student entering school in the next few years has a seriously realistic prospect of living into the 22nd century. Let’s make sure they’re equipped to live there.
Thank you very much.