Tablets – is anything set in stone?

If you haven’t seen it before the 2013 BESA Survey Report “Tablets and apps in Schools” is an interesting read.

If you don’t know who BESA are then have a look at their website. They are an industry body that works on behalf of its members who supply goods and services to the education sector. One of the things they do is to conduct regular research on the state of the market and its perceived needs. These reports are by there very nature snapshots and subject to the usual biases of similar surveys. In my experience they do provide a picture that is not a million miles away from what I have seen in schools. It is also true that BESA members pay a significant sum to be members so you would expect that the reports have some value to the membership otherwise they may not continue.

It should also be recognised that the report is not looking at the efficacy or otherwise of the technology in schools, just its existence or otherwise.

However, it is all information that we can take into consideration. If anyone has access to any other information in this area I would be interested in seeing it.

I want to pull two things out of this report. Firstly the current levels of tablets penetration in schools and secondly the levels that the surveyed schools foresee in the near future.

There is a perception (it may only be mine, but I don’t think so), if you were to only rely upon press reports, that significant numbers of schools had (in one of many ways) purchased iPads for every child. What does the survey say?

Based on the survey the estimate for secondary schools is that there  would be 141,000 tablets by the end of 2013. Assuming 3,500 secondary schools then this amounts to around 60 per school. In primary the figures are 117,000, which assuming 20,000 schools is less than 6 per school. This is of course in addition to all the other existing technology in schools, the fixed PCs and the laptops. The last good statistics I saw for these were the 2012 figures of 97 (20) laptops and 228  (29) desktops per secondary school (primary in brackets).

In terms of mobile devices that can be used in classrooms we have an average figure per secondary of about 160 units, or around 1 for every 5 (-ish) students, assuming that they are all in constant use. Which equates to less than one lesson per day for most students. What we also know is that the within school variance of technology use tends to be significant. Some students, if they have particular mix of subjects/teachers will get very little access to technology, whilst others will use it more often (which does provide scope for a very interesting piece of research if anyone wants to fund me to do it).

I would argue, that comparative to how much technology most students will use when they leave school this is not a lot. Whether this is a good or bad thing is another, more complex, argument.

The second thing to extract from the report is the intentions of the schools as reported by the respondents. As the report admits, looking forward to 2020 is always going to be problematic, but as a view of peoples intentions this has a validity. It is also important to note that the respondents may not necessarily have the capacity to commit their schools to this path (although given that they have responded to the survey they are likely to be influential in any such decision). Again, however, in the absence of any other evidence it does give an insight into where the system is at.

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Sticking just to secondary for now. The report suggests that the trajectory for 75% of schools is towards a 1:1 policy. This is not to suggest that schools see that this will actually happen, but it is their aim. It is also interesting to note that this is not just seen as being through Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programmes but via school purchased devices.

Leaving aside the not insignificant issue of where are schools going to get that kind of money, there is the small issue of being able to show that wholesale adoption of individual devices is beneficial. the feedback from 1:1 programmes is, to say the least, hazy. Reports derived directly from some of the institutions that have indulged suggest that there are benefits. Many of these are anecdotal and unrelated to any statistical analysis of outcomes versus inputs. There are also the many reports of the “broken iPads bankrupt school” kind, although some of them lack source reliability. There are many reports of learning improvement at the individual subject level as well, going back many years. Again, whilst much of this research is qualitative rather than quantitative there is too much that says the same thing to enable it to be dismissed purely on that aspect.

I have argued here that the most sensible route for school to go down is to prepare for a cloud-based BYOD future. In doing so I have not necessarily accepted that technology is the best solution to learning (in all cases) but that largely as a consequence of commercial pressures this is where schools will need to be, technologically speaking. For example, e-Books will replace textbooks, so if you want your students to access textbooks they will need a device. Perhaps this is where that 75% figure comes from.

There can be no doubt there is a drive towards tablets and 1:1. And, strange as it may seem as a long term proponent of the use of technology to enhance learning, this does worry me a little. Too much of the drive is commercial. Too much of the drive is “buy this now or be left behind” (see IWBs). Too much of the drive is the desire for the “big-bang” solution to everything (see IWBs, again). Against this I also have to temper the thought that if 75% of schools suggest that they would want to move to towards a 1:1 solution then perhaps they have seen more than I have to support it.






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