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Hand Hold Or Hand Held?

October 11, 2010

DSCF1067 Is it necessary for schools to continue to provide the computing power for pupils, or is it time to start asking them to harness the tools they already own? This is the question we are invited to consider by Ian Yorston in an article he wrote for ATL just recently. Unfortunately, there is much more to this question than first meets the eye as responses to his original article have shown.

What should we be doing? Do we hold the pupils’ hand and lead them through the technology we can offer in schools (and remember, very few schools in Scotland will be offering the same level of provision in terms of hardware or software… which somewhat begs its own question doesn’t it?), or do we let the hand held devices have their place? Yorston’s original article has certainly got a discussion going… though when I say discussion, it is more a case of ‘light blue touchpaper and retire’!

In “Why Schools Don’t Need ICT” Yorston makes a case for getting pupils to use their own technology in the classroom rather than schools providing ICT. After outlining a ‘state of the nation’ with regards to ICT in schools as he sees it, he says:

Our schools are now a desert swept with the winds of yesterday’s technology; meanwhile our students can be found drinking from an oasis of smartphones, smart apps and smart interfaces. They have answers to questions we haven’t even dared to ask. They outsmart us at every turn.

This is an incredibly clever statement on a number of levels. It will appeal to many teachers simply because they do feel that schools are neglected backwaters when it comes to ICT provision… we want iPads and Android phones and… well, anything to show someone cares and is listening. We do see some pupils with better phones than the teachers though we need to be honest, these pupils are a really small minority…  For me, the clue to realising that the piece should not be read totally at face value is the allusion to Karl Fisch’s influential ‘Did You Know’: quotation “…They have answers to questions we haven’t even dared to ask…”. ‘Did You Know’ has almost become a sacred cow. Teachers reverently show it to colleagues who haven’t yet seen it as a kind of rite of passage into the digital future of education… while conveniently forgetting that the original presentation pre-dates the iPhone. Yorston’s piece is (I hope) just too clever by far…

Of course, “Why Schools Don’t Need ICT” has been openly pilloried.

One of the first attacks came on the Angry Technician’s Blog. Actually, I think ‘Incandescent’ would be more accurate than ‘Angry’! He goes through the Yorston article more or less point-by-point and refutes with great references and some strong arguments. One of the main points The Angry Technician makes about the current situation is that:

everyone has access to the equipment, and no-one is disadvantaged.

The next attack I spotted was from Advisorymatters where the pointed question was asked:

Has appropriate technology become so ubiquitous that state schools can require or assume that students have it?

Of course, the reality is that we cannot assume pupils have a pen, let alone a mobile device…

And finally, I spotted Fraser Spier’s response which also takes a point-by-point approach to undermining Yorston’s piece. Having highlighted the problems that having a system based on whatever kit the pupils happen to have would cause, Fraser finishes with the sobering thought that:

I consider myself to be one of the more technologically capable teachers in Scotland and there is no way that I would ever accept the responsibility of delivering learning under such a system.

So… that’s it then. Mobile is a non-starter and we’ll carry on with the same old same old… except there is this niggling problem that I keep coming back to.

I don’t think Yorston was being completely serious in his piece, and he hints at as much in a comment on The Angry Technician’s Blog where he explains:

The original brief for the article was to offer up one side of the debate – which would be balanced by a suitable counter-piece in the same issue. Unfortunately they weren’t able to commission anything suitable within the time-frame – and they wanted to publish my piece in the Oct 2010 magazine because I’m speaking at the ATL Independent Schools Conference in Nov 2010.

I get the impression that he has written a deliberately provocative essay in the belief that it would be balanced against an equally polarising piece arguing against using pupils’ mobile tech…

Whatever the reason, Yorston has certainly succeeded in getting some people a little bit worked up! 😉

As part of my own response, I sat down to consider what some of the major differences between school provided ICT and pupils’ own ICT might be and came up with the following:


Schools Pupils
a) Schools provide the technology, software and support for ICT in schools Pupil technology: phones / iPod touch / iPad / Netbooks / laptops / none?
b) Allows for uniformity (conformity?) in approach is dictated by what pupils have / can afford… and who supports it in school if it doesn’t work?
c) ‘Standard’ programmes such as Word/Excel/AutoCAD/insert software of choice here Likely to encourage wider use of tools like Google Apps for Education (free!), allows new/cutting edge tools and sites to be used albeit on a limited basis
d) Polarising influence(?) – focus is on existing, and usually proprietary, software No central discounts! Schools have historically enjoyed education discounts… this is much harder to enable with mobile software at the moment (see
e) Allows easier control and locking down of systems “Open” – How do schools control / monitor / oversee tech use?
f) BUT: this model is usually slow to evolve, inflexible, and subject to the whims of LA budget constraints BUT: There are many limits to who can have access to what and this will be based on socio-economic factors out with a school’s control

This was just a brief attempt to try and get a grasp on what I perceive to be the main issues here… and I know that the points I’ve mentioned do not always have an easy ‘Column A vs Column B’ balance… but one thing does strike me about these and that is that the issue is not really about school tech and/or pupil tech as much as it is about how we approach any tech in the future.

Pupil technology cannot replace what a school provides, but that doesn’t mean that pupil tech has no place in school. For what it’s worth, I’m actively encouraging pupils to use their own devices in class if possible… with the proviso that they are only to do so if they have a contract that allows them to do so without running up extra charges. Why do I do this? Because I am not a technology or computing or business teacher so I only have easy access to one laptop in my room. It is not going to be enough to allow the whole class to access wikipedia, or to check one of the class blogs or wikis, or to find out anything that we take for granted when at home… or more accurately, that we take for granted the pupils will have access to at home.

Of course, using pupil tech is problematic for a whole raft of reasons – tech spec, software and support being the three I see as the biggest problem. Angry Technician, Advisorymatters and Fraser have all made that quite clear… but still, a part of me thinks that, as the money available to education becomes scarcer and scarcer over the next decade, we ignore the reality that pupil tech is in our classrooms and schools at our peril. If the money keeps drying up, we may see a future where pupils starting secondary school will be presented with a basic spec laptop or iPad that they will be expected to bring to school in order to participate fully in the work of the school.

There are no easy answers. Do we carry on holding the kids hands and telling them that ‘this is how we do things in this school… and so this is how you will do them as well’, or do we start letting them use their own hand held technology as a supplement to school provision?

One final thought: allowing pupils to use their own technology is a good way of encouraging them to work out their own solutions to problems… and doesn’t the Curriculum for Excellence have something to say about that… something about ‘openness to new thinking and ideas’?

Phone Oxymoron


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2010 9:56 am

    Not wishing to become embroiled in a ‘flaming’ war over the piece by Ian Yorston, I’ve held back and held back until I could formulate a measured response to Angry and Fraser. When I finally address the keyboard, having marshalled my thoughts … too late!

    Neil you’ve penned all I thought of and more on this matter, with more eloquence than I could possibly have mustered. Many thanks.


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