Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for Microsoft series of education blogs.

The debate around ‘one-to-one’ devices generates many misunderstandings. Any suggestion of caution, for example, is quickly interpreted by the more gung-ho enthusiasts as standing in the way of progress. A prime example of this unfolded late last year on Lisa Neilsen’s ‘Innovative Educator’ blog.

Lisa Neilsen is Director of Digital Literacy and Citizenship at New York City Department of Education and, for my money, is someone to be reckoned with. Earlier this year, for example, she attracted shocked media attention (which she fully reported on her blog) by suggesting that children whose parents had opted them out of standardised tests might be better off having a nap --

“The test might just be a perfect time to catch some zzz’s.”

There were some, also, who took issue when she posted at the end of November a blog headed, Microsoft big says stop doing 1:1 technology programs

It referred to Microsoft Global Education VP Anthony Salcito’s oft repeated plea (we heard it personally from him at BETT 2013)

‘Don’t pilot the device, pilot the learning‘.

Lisa Neilsen describes Salcito’s line like this:

‘When Anthony Salcito …speaks with educators around the world and asks them who’s doing a 1:1 laptop program or 1:1 tablet program or 1:1 interactive whiteboard program, he tells those with their hands up :

“Stop doing that”.’

Strong stuff, but you’d think any reader would realise the need to look further and find out what it’s all about. That not everyone does is shown by the fact that Lisa Neilsen had to write a follow-up blog – Why I don’t support 1:1 programs’ - in which she reported that ‘Some people didn’t read past the headline’, and gives an example of a tweet to Salcito from the principal of a 1:1 school who is , ‘concerned about the message you are sending.

Patiently, Lisa Neilsen reiterates and supports the Salcito message, which, in fact, is the theme running through Microsoft’s education mission –

‘Students, not devices, should lead our 1:1 purchasing decisions.’

If there’s a hint of frustration there, if you think that ‘Stop doing that’ is a bit strong, it’s because we’ve heard too many stories of problems caused by schools flooding their classrooms with technology – and particularly tablets – without first addressing the core business of teaching and learning. Hence headlines like this, on the BBC News site last November ,

‘Costly hi-tech kit lies unused in schools, says study.’ referring to a study by Nesta http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20348322

Horror stories abound – e learning guru Donald Clark, for example, tells one of “..iPads being collected in by a teacher at the end of the class ‘for marking’” .

And Lisa Neilsen provides a rather scary example of school principal overruled by ‘The District IT guy’.

‘It didn’t matter that she (the principal) wanted to let student learning drive her tech purchasing decisions. It didn’t matter that she provided research to support her decision. The IT guy was in charge of purchasing and, like it or not, tens of thousands of dollars went toward "devices" (smartboards in every room, in this case) she and her staff didn’t want. ‘

Clearly, given that sort of scenario, there’s no point blaming the teacher if technology is wrongly or under-used. I was a student teacher, a teacher and a head for thirty years all told, and frankly if at any point someone had suddenly come through the door with boxes of remarkable devices purchased, say, at the whim of the governors, or some higher echelon ‘IT Guy’, my train of thought might have gone like this.

‘OK, first job is to make sure these will be safe over the lunch hour. That probably means I’ll have to stay here with them. Darren! Be a good lad and get me a sandwich from the canteen.

‘Now, let’s have a look at one. Crikey. OK, I’ll take this one home tonight. Once I’ve checked where they’re going to be kept overnight.

‘Right, this is a neat gadget, let me look at what it can do to help me with my subject. I can see one or two places in the scheme of work where they might be useful. Mind you, I’m already pretty well resourced for those topics so do I want the hassle of dealing with the gizmos? It’s taken me ages to get my classes working the way I want. Now there’s all this potential for stirring things up. Handing them out, making sure they’re all accounted for, dealing with any that don’t work keeping the kids focussed on what they need to see. What’s that Kevin going to do with one of these in his fist? But at nine grand for the lot, I can’t just put ‘em away in a cupboard and forget about them can I? I’m sure we’ll get some training. Marjorie always know what to do with ICT stuff. And the big question is what would Ofsted expect me to do with them?’

OK, that’s a bit extreme, at the far end of the ‘device first’, in-at-the-deep-end spectrum, but I’d like to bet that there are people out there who find it uncomfortably recognisable.

I’d say that some of the objections not to the 1:1 policy itself, but to any hint of an ill-thought out rush into it are obvious enough. There are practicalities to start with. One is the need to be sure that the infrastructure is up to the job. That’s not entirely to do with connectivity, there are other administrative questions around recharging, storage, lines of responsibility, codes of use and behaviour, all of which need to be defined clearly, but with enough slack to cope with the unexpected.

Another question that can’t be ignored, but often will be, is whether the learning goals once clarified and established, might well be achieved by alternatives to mass purchase of tablets. A year ago, for example, we described how Cadoxton primary school, with Microsoft Partner ‘Solar Ready’ was using Microsoft Multipoint Server, together with free electricity from the sun to dramatically and cost-effectively increase the amount of conventional desktop and laptop technology available to students. There’s hint here of some of the solutions for under-funded schools in Africa described by Anthony Salcito

in this interview for ‘eLearning Africa’ --

‘….there are alternatives to one-to-one learning that can be wildly effective on the Continent, whether it is through having one computer with multiple screens for different students or having students share a computer with multiple mice attached to it.’ http://www.elearning-africa.com/eLA_Newsportal/education-in-africa-challenges-and-success-stories/

Then there’s BYOD, coming up on the rails so rapidly that there’s no doubt some schools will eventually feel they’ve jumped the gun with a ‘tablets for all’ policy.

Of course, gun-jumping is a price that’s paid for progress, and it’ll always happen. I can think of at least one school which, several years ago spent big money on a ‘desktops for all’ policy for several classes, and others that went for netbooks on the same basis. Did they jump the gun? That’s not for me to say, because they know whether they had value from their decisions, but there’s something there to think about I guess. When I started a Twitter debate about ‘tablets for all’ earlier, head teacher Duncan Spalding ( @duncanspalding ) summed it up neatly,

‘ Best thing to do is develop infrastructure such as wireless. BYOD crucial part of future. School focus then on specialist kit.’

Which more or less, is what we’re finding with, for example, the work of Microsoft Innovative Teacher David Rogers at Priory School in Portsmouth. There, BYOD along with some school devices deployed as necessary, together ensure that every student has the right portable technology when they’re out and about on Geography field trips for example. David’s blog, and his ‘Mobile@Priory’ policy and ‘cookbook’ are surely required reading for all with an interest in this exciting and fast-moving area.

There’s a strong message from David’s work, and implicitly from the approach at Cadoxton, and Salcito’s reference to Africa, that show us there’s more than one way of skinning this particular cat. In fact, keeping options open is plain good practice, not least because homing in on a single ‘x tablet for everybody’ solution risks shifting attention from a range of other approaches, some of which can work together to achieve a broader reach. A recent Microsoft FE blog on work at Barnsley College describes how a stack of Microsoft technologies, including Windows 8 and Surface tablets, along with SharePoint, Lync, Office 365 and others can together create a whole ‘eco-system’ that’s going to be far more effective and viable than any simple tablet handout could possible be.

Really, though, what’s particularly impressive is the amount of time and resources that Microsoft devote to putting flesh on the ‘learning first’ philosophy. Global initiatives such as Partners in learning and the Microsoft Expert Educator programme are solid proof of a determination to ensure that the best technology does the best transformational job for all at all levels across the globe.