When I first began writing about the iPad in education, I remember being enthused and excited by what it had to offer within the 21st century classroom. As one of the first colleges in the country to go iPad 1:1, I knew Parkside 6th were breaking new ground, with all the stresses that entailed. We learnt as we went along and made lots of mistakes, many of which I wrote about on this blog, but by and large it was a success. A move to a second school, and an attempt to replicate 1:1 in a different context, was much less successful. I made the classic error of failing to learn this new context first: by not paying close enough attention to the organisational culture of a profit-making international school I made the fatal error of assuming that, if it worked in one place, it would work in another. Sadly that was not to be, and as a result I lost some interest in ed tech. Perhaps it wasn’t ever going to deliver what it had initially promised. Perhaps teachers were too set in their ways, students too habituated in using these devices for leisure rather than learning, for them ever to be truly effective.
However, after a few years away from the classroom, and a career which has moved into educational management, I have found my interest in ed tech reviving. And so I have decided to turn my attention back to the iPad, to see if we can develop an integrated setup which enables it to be most effectively deployed.
One of the key problems we had at Parkside was controlling the devices. Like most schools, we didn’t want to appear too draconian: we bought into the idea that these were personal learning devices, and as a result students needed control over them. We gave our new 6th formers an iPad and allowed them to personalise as they saw fit. We wanted them to have certain apps, but that was it. However, even this proved painful: it was the days before volume purchasing of apps and deployment programmes, so some students didn’t download what we had asked and would sometimes be left behind in lessons. I liked the idea of going paperless, and asked students to download iBooks of the novels we were studying. This wasn’t popular: they wanted paper copies they could write all over, and I realised that so did I. However, for subjects like Theory of Knowledge the iPad was brilliant: being able to direct students to resources, and them being able to do their own on the spot research, made lessons so much more varied. However, there were times when I wished I could see what the rows of iPads facing away from me actually had on their screens. Students are very good at looking like they are working whilst actually checking Facebook. I mean, we do the same, don’t we, during meetings and conferences which bore us. We can’t blame them when their digital world is a lot more interesting to them than we are.
With the advent of Apple Classroom comes an opportunity to be a little more discerning about how the iPad is used in class time. Even if you only use the dashboard, which shows what each student is looking at in real time, at least you can have some comfort that you can monitor use more effectively. For younger pupils, being able to direct them to certain apps, or lock their screens when you want their attention, is invaluable. I do think Classroom will offer comfort to teachers and parents. Students too: in my experience they prefer to be monitored – they know they get distracted and appreciate anything which can limit this. As it’s Bluetooth powered, students can potentially turn Classroom off if they disconnect Bluetooth, but you can see their device greyed out on the dashboard. Apple have done us all a favour with this new setup.
However, I have been thinking that, whilst Classroom is a welcome step in the right direction, we need to think far more holistically about the entire configuration of our schools if we are going to effectively prepare our students for a world which most of us find unrecognisable at times. I have been reading with interest the move towards Activity Based Working (ABW), with more and more offices moving away from the standard setup towards open plan offices with different zones that fit different tasks. Whether this be collaboration, conferencing or quiet reflection, companies like Google, Facebook and Linkedin are creating innovative new spaces which support these new ways of working.
And I have been wondering whether our schools could be set up in the same way. If we were to be radical about it, why couldn’t we build a school which allowed teachers and students some control over where they worked? At the moment, we have the timetable, which puts a teacher and a class full of students into a classroom. Same room for every lesson at that time of the week. But why not change this? Surely we can be more creative about how spaces are used? And if we can build schools with these principles in mind, or reconfigure existing schools, creating open plan spaces, quiet reflection zones, small rooms for one to ones or small group work, lecture theatres, and standard classrooms, then we might just find that teachers and students are motivated to think more creatively about how to deliver and demonstrate learning using devices like the iPad.
My final thought then comes back to the iPad, and I begin to realise that we need to forget about the device for the moment and think from the ground up, simplifying teaching and learning into a series of stages, or processes, supported by the most effective people, spaces and tools. Curation, dissemination, learning, demonstrating learning, assessment, curation, and so on. That’s about it. And if each of these stages is interrogated, and the best ecosystem is deployed around it to maximise its effectiveness, we might find that the traditional ways of doing things are sometimes still the best. But not always. Surely Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos can’t all be wrong. It’s time we learnt from those who run the highest performing businesses and looked at how each of these stages can be brought into the 21st century. After all, we owe it to those we teach to prepare them for this new world. And it might just make us dust off that iPad and get it back into the classroom. I know I’d be game.