Sunday, 27 May 2012

Tablets for Scottish Schools

I want to congratulate Mike Russell, Scottish Education Secretary, on the implementation of the recent pilot regarding the use of tablet computers in Scottish schools. The actual pilot scheme covers 10 local authorities, and almost 20 schools.

Mr Russell, Scottish Education Secretary, said: "The range of mobile devices that are now available and the promise of what they can bring to teaching and learning is very exciting and something that must be embraced." (source)

Scotland has a fine education tradition, and although always struggling for finance, and undergoing many changes in recent years, Scotland still has an enviable education system. If we want to maintain this, and improve it, and ensure that every child that goes through the education system in Scotland, has the very best education and opportunities for learning, then we have to step up a gear and speed up the process of getting modern, and sufficient, ICT (Information and Communication Technology) not only in schools, but to every child in our schools.

A tablet computer shouldn't be seen as a luxury for a child. It should be seen as an essential component of their education from the time they enter the school gates for the first time, to when they wave goodbye when they attain an age to leave and go in to the workforce, or on to college, or university.

A child should be handed a tablet on their first day at school, to be their constant companion, for their sole use, during the course of the school day, and for further learning and homework when out of school. That tablet computer, in effect, carries, via its connection to the world wide web, the knowledge of the world accessible to the fingertips of the child. It should remain in the care of that child till that child leaves school.

I have heard a few murmurs of discontent about the cost of such measures, the distractions a child may have using them, for gaming instead of learning, or accessing parts of the internet unhealthy for the viewing of children. These, although important and serious issues, are simply distractions from the positives, and there are countless measures available, both through ISPs, and through safe surfing software to eliminate much of the perceived dangers.

The fact is, in everyday working life, computers and communication are vitally important. If Scotland as a country wants to grow and compete with other nations, an intelligent well educated workforce is a must. This importance is more evident with every passing year, and to have a fit and capable workforce for the future, we cannot have children leaving school ICT illiterate, or poorly trained in the use of such because of poor equipment and lack of modern facilities.

"Across Scotland’s state schools the average pupil to computer ratio is 3.2 to 1. A quarter of our pupils attend schools run by authorities whose pupil to computer ratio hovers around 5 to1.
In the lives of most professionals, the person to computer ratio is easily 1 to 2; a laptop and a smartphone are part of the uniform of business in 2011. Add in a tablet or a desktop computer and it’s more like three computers per person.
One computer between three in schools and yet there are three computers per person in business; something’s wrong with this picture." says Fraser Speirs, Head of Computing and IT at Cedars School of Excellence. (source)

Cost, of course, is always the part of the equation that is like the elephant in the room. Cost though, can't just be measured in the purchase price of such equipment. The future cost to the nation could be in the balance, one way or the other, depending on how you look at initial costs, and costs over time, and ultimately, the benefit costs to the country and the economy, when eventually the initial investment is realised by having a well educated workforce, leading the country to prosperity in a wide range of business ventures, and invention, and innovation.

As for the initial cost of equipment, great saving can be made by staying away from popular and expensive tablets that tie a buyer into closed source systems and cost ever more for updates and add-ons as time goes on. There are many open source solutions, that not only use free and widely available software, but allow teachers and pupils to innovate, improve, and advance applications to suit their particular needs. Using these types of solutions entail only a one-off cost of the actual hardware. No repeated software licences to renew, or locked-in software to purchase for possibly every conceivable subject required.

One example of a country showing great faith in the education of their children is Australia, where they have announced:

One Laptop per Child Australia (OLPC Australia) announced today that the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard has committed $11.7 million to fund expansion of the OLPC program throughout Australia. Government funding will enable the delivery of more than 50,000 XO laptops along with associated training, software development, and support for teachers, primary school children, and their communities.

"With this funding support of One Laptop per Child in Australia, the Australian government has demonstrated its commitment to delivering a modern education to all children in Australia," said Rodrigo Arboleda, Chairman and CEO of the One Laptop per Child Association. "Access to a modern education is critical to empowering individuals to build better lives for themselves, their families and their communities." (source)

As a poorly constructed example, using as a base the figures above, and converting to GBP at today's rate, I would make this to cost approximately £150 per pupil. If every child entering primary school on the next intake, approximating, 30,000, was given a tablet at this cost (bear in mind the cost is inclusive of teacher training and support), the full cost would be approximately £4.5m for those 30,000 pupils. Cost off sets could be made though, one example, by purchasing eBooks that the child can access via eBook reader software on the device, saving the repeated purchase of expensive paper text books. Another saving by cutting down on the redundant IT equipment no longer needed, as every pupil would have the device required already at hand. Whatever the cost a school pays for text books per pupil over the course of that child's time at that school, I have no idea, but if it is around £150, then already the cost of the tablet to the school is nil or insignificant. Add on the savings of kitting out a classroom of desktop computers that would now be mostly redundant, and already the purchase price has been paid, and money savings are apparent.

Of course, that is an over-simplified example, just put forward as a thought, that although it may seem an uneconomical extravagance to suggest giving each new intake, annually, of school children, a device that will stay with them during the full period of time they attend school. Ultimately, the actual cost may be negligible, and in the long run, savings could even be made. What is not in doubt, is that every child in Scotland deserves the best education available, and to compete and thrive as a country in the 21st century, we have to ensure our children have the best learning tools available to them.

I hope this pilot scheme of Mike Russell's is a success, and money will be found to roll this type of initiative out over the whole of Scotland, so every school, and every pupil in Scotland, has access to the very best in ICT, and the very best learning devices at hand.

Some interesting links:

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