Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education Blogs.

We’ve all bought, or been given, stuff that’s disappointed us. Sometimes it’s the fault of the stuff, often it’s down to us for not being clear about whether it will do what we want. Here, for instance, is a sixth-form student at Shireland Collegiate Academy, commenting upon his school-issued iPad.

‘I do not think the iPads have been useful because we cannot work on them because we cannot download Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Publisher and writing notes on them is difficult.’

To be fair, there were approving comments, too, mainly on the convenience of being able to do internet research on a compact, mobile, schoolbag-friendly device. That original remark about the absence of familiar content-creation software, though, is frequently repeated. Kirsty Tonks, E-Learning Director at Shireland, says,

‘Student feedback told us they liked the immediacy of access for research and notes, but when it came to producing work and doing things of real value they’d rather have a device that will do more.’

At whole-school level, the problems come when you want a device which will fit seamlessly and efficiently into an enterprise eco-system, sitting among desktop PCs, laptops, printers – going with the flow, enabling true ‘anytime/anywhere’ learning. Experience, and a lot of frustrated IT managers, shows that the iPad isn’t really intended for that sort of world.

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Shireland’s principal, Sir Mark Grundy, puts it like this;

‘We had the iPads in September 2012 and it took us till about January before teachers could even attempt to use them with their classes in the way were used to when the students had laptops’

Essentially, it’s about the management of learning – using the various parts of the school’s learning gateway for sharing work to and fro, teacher to student, student to student, encompassing differentiation, creation, collaboration, assessment, seeking advice and making suggestions. Sir Mark speaks of,

‘Fantastic pieces of work sitting on iPads, never seeing the light of day, when they need to be distributed, shared, marked and fed back.’ The point, which he and his colleagues make forcibly is that it’s not just a matter of whether this or that function is technically possible, given a bit of effort and the right apps, but whether it will work easily in the pressured working environment of a school’

He makes a comparison with the way instruments blend in an orchestra.

‘I think of the incredibly creative possibilities of individual musical instruments and how they need to be organised and co-ordinated in an orchestra. We found it difficult to orchestrate our iPads.’

Since Shireland introduced their iPads, tablets have boomed and proliferated, and institutions – including many schools – which quickly bought iPads, have since discovered their limitations.

The better strategy, as Microsoft’s global head of education Anthony Salcito constantly emphasises, is to buy nothing without first paying attention to the learning you wish to support.

That said, it makes a whole lot of sense for any institution where the creation and sharing of content is a core activity to use portable devices which click satisfyingly, neatly and unobtrusively into the technological eco-system. And that, almost inevitably, means choosing among an increasingly broad range of Windows tablets, hybrids and netbooks. You can still have a ‘compact, mobile, schoolbag-friendly device’, but in this case it’s unlikely to disappoint. In fact it will probably do even more than you expect.

So, I asked Kirsty Tonks, is the Shireland team re-evaluating their mobile learning strategy?

‘We are constantly reviewing new devices,’ she says. But whichever we choose, they absolutely have to work with the systems that we have. We can't be held to ransom by a device and the time and effort it takes to make it do simple day to day procedures, so that it disrupts our current successful practices and processes, moves us backwards, with a negative impact on standards. The device should add value, enhance and improve, but most importantly, dovetail into our existing frameworks.’