Another what’s the best way forward? blog post where I try and dissect my own thinking on what IT provision should look like in a Secondary School in 2011. Continue the current mix of laptop trolleys and IT suites or move towards a 1 to 1 environment of tablets or laptops?
This year so far has been all about planning ahead for me. We’ve started the process of planning two completely new courses to deliver to our students in ICT, and I’m delighted that both GCSE Computing & Creative iMedia have enough students interested for me to run both courses next year.
Next on my hit-list is managing & planning our IT provision across the whole site for the next few years. Our school has always been relatively cash-rich for a variety of reasons. This is not the case going forward. Despite Michael Gove & the Conservatives’ claims that they would not cut school budgets we are receiving less money this year than we have previously. This is after we take into account the pupil premium (and being situated in Central Manchester we have an above average percentage of Free School Meals). All of this at the same time as costs are increasing thanks to the Government’s removal of the Harnessing Technology Grant. Historically the IT Support team has been given a fairly modest budget with which they maintain the existing equipment and add some provision each year. Replacement of entire suites / trolleys etc have then been funded by ‘Summer Projects’ funded from surplus school cash. I am acutely aware that the surplus school cash may well not be here next Summer and it is time we plan and budget ahead carefully for the next 2-5 years. And so I come to my current position where I am left impressed at the cost of continuing as we are, yet thinking there must be a better way….
The Status Quo
We have 750 students aged 11-16, in total we have approximately 300 desktop PCs and 250 laptops within the school. Pupil facing IT is mainly provided by:
- 4 Computer Labs with between 20-30 desktop PCs.
- 2 Trolleys of Macbooks bought last year primarily for use with Art & Media.
- 6 Trolleys of (aging) laptops spread around other departments.
- Some desktops in the Library.
- 2 other mixed use rooms with approximately 12 PCs around the perimeter of the room.
- 16 iMacs in the Music room.
This is an impressive list for such a small school, but it has been built on repeatedly in prosperous times with little thought for the total cost of ownership (TCOO).
This is also an impressive appearing ratio of Devices:Students of over 1:2. Or it is on paper. In reality the computer rooms are almost fully timetabled to ICT, Tech & Science. The laptops have batteries that often barely last an hour and where they are good then only one trolley to share between 6 concurrent classes. At best that’s an IT ratio of 1 in 6 for students in the Maths department for example.
And then there is the reality of a lesson using IT. Which begins with either moving your class to the IT suite and logging on (10mins gone at least) or wheeling the trolley in, handing out machines and signing the sheet for each pupil, logging on (slowly). Again at least 10 minutes gone. Logins take too long. We have a wireless G network that strains to cope as we really need double the number of access points, it works great for a few devices but struggles when 30 laptops are logging on. We also have an aging core network. I wanted to replace both this Summer but funds won’t allow. We will be replacing the core network though, a new fibre ring and CAT 6 cabling to each room. Spare points put into every room too. It seems strange in this wireless world to still be spending on cables like this but it does need doing and should see us through for many years. A wireless-N network will have to wait until next Summer if I’m lucky.
These practicalities mean that the pedagogical uses of all this equipment are fairly ‘traditional’. Primary uses are Office needs and Internet research. Maths heavily use online resources from MyMaths & MangaHigh. Some departments have been increasingly using video and audio with Flip Cams, Audacity etc.. We have recently invested in RealSmartCloud as our VLE. This combines the excellent RealSmart suite of online learning tools along with Google Apps. This will be increasingly used by all departments next year.
From my experience I would suggest that this is a fairly standard situation compared to many secondary schools within the UK and elsewhere in the World.
Option 1 then would be to continue the status quo – planning ahead financially replacing the current machines as they reach their end of life. I have been using the incredibly useful Becta (God rest their soul!) ICT Investment Planner to help with this. This spreadsheet accounts for all of your current IT provision, factors in lifespan and replacement costs alogn with other annual costs to give you the total value of equipment, the annual cost to ‘stand-still’ and the ability to plan large scale replacements / improvements in future years. It’s a really useful tool and I’ve embedded a copy of it below as I’m not sure if it’s easily available following Becta’s demise.
Class sets of Desktops & Laptops in 2011
Desktop PCs in 2011 are becoming cheaper and cheaper. For the last few years the average PC has been more than capable of coping with the demands of the average user, and it’s only when you get into heavy video editing and gaming that more expensive machines are required. It’s perfectly possible to use something as cheap as an Acer Revo for Web/Office needs. We’ve been getting them for under £180.
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Acer Revo PC
Better spec’d machines based on the new Intel Core i3/i5 processors can be had for £250-400 with machines at the latter end of that bracket more than capable of performing any tasks we throw at them right up to editing in Adobe Premier Pro. LCD monitors last from one machine to the next (although some good do with a bump in resolution) so the upgrade costs are not too bad.
Laptops on the other hand don’t seem to be getting much cheaper. There are two over-riding requirements for laptops that make up class-sets and they are build quality and battery life. If they need charging 2-3 times a day or if you are constantly replacing keyboards, screens & hinges then they become increasingly costly and increasingly unavailable. We have a set of 30 Toshiba NB200 netbooks and whilst they have been a cheap class set the compromises in screen size, keyboard size and speed make them less than ideal for class sets. Prices have increased on netbooks recently as well.
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There’s a wealth of cheap 15″ laptops, but they often have poor build quality and awful batteries that then need upgrading to 6 or preferably 9 cell variants – that’s £80 on the base price immediately. A decent laptop with battery life to last a day seems to cost close to £500. And don’t forget to add £1-3k on top of that for a trolley. We’re yet to find trolleys that do everything that’s expected of them, we have supposedly top of the line Lapsafe trolleys at the moment and they have a terrible habit of overheating machines and destroying their batteries. Support is also expensive.
As you can tell I’m no great fan of laptop trolleys! From a cost, practicality and ease of use point of view they’re not a great solution.
Using the aforementioned budget planner rough estimates for the cost of continuing our provision along similar lines are £50,000 per year. Software costs don’t have much of an impact as the new Microsoft agreements based upon the number of Full Time Staff has reduced costs considerably to schools and the number of machines no longer affects these costs.
1 to 1 Options
I’m convinced that an effective and affordable one to one solution must be out their somewhere. Logically we’re edging closer to that ratio in school as things stand, and yet as I’ve discussed the pupil use ratios are way below the actual machine ratios.
I’m also convinced that a 1 to 1 programme would transform teaching and learning within our school. Staff would be able to plan confidently to use ICT effectively within their lessons. Pupils could access the web whenever they saw fit, using it to support their learning just like we all do in our lives. As we increasingly move towards the cloud pupils and staff would have access to all of their electronic lives wherever they happen to be learning. It would also transform the amount and quality of home learning that could take place, not only for the students themselves but also the rest of their families – a real positive impact throughout our community.
There are a few options to investigate here. And again there are priorities:
- Battery life
- Management demands
Battery life and time-to-online are crucial, if these are to be embedded in every aspect of our pupil’s learning then they need to be able to pull out their device whenever they choose, know it will work and be online within seconds. It has to be affordable and the software needs to be right.
In an ideal world the perfect current solution would be this:
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MacBook Air 11″
But of course the first priority of cost ruins this option. That aside I love my Macbook Air. The SSD hard drive makes it much more powerful than you would imagine, the battery is amazing, it weighs next to nothing, it’s incredibly well built and it turns on in about a second. Going back to something like the netbooks I discussed earlier seems like a trip to the dark ages.
Netbooks could work, but I’m just not convinced they are durable enough, they take an age to log on and they really don’t have much of a ‘wow’ factor now. They obviously have an advantage over the current generation of tablets in that they will run Windows based software. Friends and colleagues that I have spoken to who have run 1 to 1 projects with netbooks have struggled to get buy in from all parties, often not actually reaching that 1 to 1 ratio.
Netbook advantages: Cost, compatibility, battery life.
Netbook disadvantages: Power & speed, durability, screen & keyboard size, time to online, weight.
Tablets have seemingly sprung from nowhere to be the darlings of the computing world. The iPad has been an incredible success and the iPad 2 has built upon this. I love mine and think it’s a device packed with potential.
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iPad 2 – A ‘Magical’ Device
Some pioneering schools have started 1 to 1 deployments of iPads. Frasier Spier’s exploits at Cedar’s School in Scotland is perhaps one of the most well documented. He is a great advocate for the differences in teaching and learning opportunities that his students have enjoyed since the deployment. A few salient points from Frasier’s writing:
“I can tell you some long-term big trends that I’ll bet on right now:
- Pupils and teachers will never wish they had fewer computers.
- Pupils and teachers will never wish their devices had shorter battery life than the iPad.
- Pupils and teachers will never wish that they had to queue up to get access to computers.
- Pupils and teachers will never wish that their internet access was slower.
- Pupils and teachers will never want a device that’s harder to use than the iPad.
- Teachers will never want to have to go to a special classroom to use The Computers.
- Nobody will want a device that’s more expensive and less capable than the iPad.
- Nobody will want to carry around a device that’s significantly heavier than the iPad all day.
- Pupils will not want to use a special “education device” when the market is going elsewhere.
- Schools will not want to deploy a device that requires more tech support than an iPad.”
And on things like voting systems & the effect of the App Store:
“Put simply, if you’re in the business of making discrete hardware for the classroom you are in very serious trouble. Your business is about to be replaced by a $5 download from the App Store and the rest of your company’s existence will be about trying to sell a refresh to your existing installed base.”
I genuinely believe that an iPad per pupil could transform pedagogy within our school. Yes the lack of Flash & Windows programs is a problem. But the pace of development in the App Store is amazing and the move to the cloud & HTML5 mean these are issues that will shrink over time. The ability to output the screen straight to your projector makes it a great teaching tool now.
I’ve had initial discussions with our local Apple supplier. Discounts are sorely lacking for schools other than the obvious VAT saving. Apple Financial Services have started to run a finance package called iStudent. This allows parental contributions which is something we would need to do to even approach affordability. Unfortunately when you start to add on Apple Care and insurance. This takes costs right back to around £400 minimum per machine spread over a 3 year lease.
Other issues to overcome are the management of 750+ iPads. Central management would become impossible at this scale. It would seem logical to allow students to manage their own device – they are intensely personal devices after-all. But what about ensuring certain apps are present – gift cards or app gifting would probably be required. And what about those students who don’t own a PC to sync their device to? Staff training and perception would also be a big challenge – but not insurmountable.
I’d love to be able to do this but initial funding calculations suggest I’d be coming up £40-50k a year short. Even factoring in the various savings we’d make elsewhere around the school such as on printing and paper planners. This also includes factoring in parental contributions of around £6 per month. I think this would be possible, and in a world where every pupil seems to have their own blackberry, not unreasonable.
iPad Advantages: Time-to-on, flexibility, weight, battery life, durability, wow-factor, App Store, other cost savings, hold value well, OS updates.
iPad Disadvantages: Cost, App & sync management, staff training / mind shift, Flash support, no keyboard, no USB/SD card options, theft & pupil safety off-site.
Apple of course do not have a monopoly on the tablet market, and the other manufacturers have been playing catch-up ever since the release of the original iPad a year ago. Largely based around Google’s Android operating system it’s fair to say that comparison reviews have not rated the first generation of alternatives. My limited experience of them has reinforced this view. However the latest version of Android has been written with tablets in mind and some machines are starting to look more competitive. Although it also has to be said that Apple’s dominance has allowed them to beat almost everyone on price as well as quality.
One new device that looks like it has real potential is the Asus EeePad Transformer along with it’s keyboard & battery dock:
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Initial reviews seem positive and this could be a great option going forward. Android tablets don’t require a base PC to sync with, but then again their software and App Store don’t offer the breadth and quality of the Apple alternative yet. But you could buy a tablet each and then have a stock of keyboards available to use within school when extended writing is required. They also offer USB & SD Card compatibility.
Android Tablet Advantages: Time-to-on, flexibility, weight, battery life, durability?, wow-factor?, keyboards, SD & USB.
Android Tablet Disadvantages: Cost, market fragmentation & OS update lifespan (many older tablets can’t update to the latest version of Android for example), values drop more rapidly, staff training / mind shift.
Of course a more modest device could be used. The Essa Academy in Bolton have had great success using iPod Touches as their 1 to 1 device under the expert guidance of Abdul Chohan. Whilst it lacks the power and extra flexibility of a full tablet, it still has the App Store and is of course half the price.
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iPod Touch Advantages: Cost, Time-to-on, flexibility, weight, battery life, durability, App Store, other cost savings, OS updates, camera.
iPad Disadvantages: App & sync management, staff training / mind shift, Flash support, theft & pupil safety off-site, smaller impact on need for traditional PC & laptop provision.
The final possibility that is on the horizon is the new generation of netbooks from Google based on their upcoming Chrome Operating System. These devices have no hard drive, just a small SSD for the OS. They are cloud based machines that really need to be online to be much use. They will come with integrated 3G connections. The simplest way to think of them is a laptop that runs Google Chrome and nothing much else. Traditional storage can be used via USB or SD cards. We use Google Apps so they would actually integrate nicely with much of our current work. There would obviously be full support for flash. Issues would include what happens in student’s homes without wifi. Could we get them with phone contracts? They should be available some time this Summer. There has been a pilot programme but it was only available in the US unfortunately.
Until production models are available for us to play with it is hard to judge if these notebooks offer a real alternative.
It looks like, unless I can source funding for an iPad project the costs for a full tablet deployment in our school are just too prohibitive. We don’t work in an area where we can ask for significant parental contributions, some maybe, but not to cover the full costs. Another issue that springs to mind with this or any device is the lifespan of the device and what you do at the end of it. We could start by buying all of our Year 7′s a device this year. But then in 3 years time they’d probably need replacing. And we’d be up to 4 year groups worth of leases and serious issues continuing the funding.
I’m not wholly convinced that the current crop of netbooks are up to task, the investment required wouldn’t transform our classrooms as I’d like.
Android devices are expensive and just don’t have the accomplished finish of an iOS device.
iPod Touches would be do-able right now, but I fear they would seem outdated in just a year or two’s time.
Chrome OS isn’t here yet.
So perhaps a cost and learning effective 1 to 1 solution isn’t here right now. But it feels very close. I am tempted to make do and mend a little this year, the forever downward trend of IT costs and upwards trend of power and portability mean that by September 2012 there could be a good solution. I’d rathe not invest heavily in old tech until then.
I’ll also talk to my friends and colleagues at Toshiba and see what they have up their sleeves.
And cheeky as this is, if you work for Asus, Google or a supplier and would like to provide me with an Android tablet or Chrome OS notebook that you believe could fill our 750 device shaped hole then please do get in contact with me.
Do you work in a school that has a successful (or not!) 1 to 1 programme? Or do you have a traditional provision like we do now? Have you invested in iPads? I’d be fascinated to hear other educators views on this whole topic – I can’t imagine we’re the only school going through these thought processes in 2011.