Guest post by Gerald Haigh, freelance writer. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education Blog(s).

Do get the feeling that some schools are in too much of a rush to equip themselves with tablets? It’s only human after all, that urge to get the latest technology without much idea of what to do with it. Hand on heart now. Have you never done it?

But schools? Surely not.

Well, there are stories around that make you wonder. An article in ‘PC Pro’ on September 11th this year, for example, tells of a school where the head allowed staff to replace their laptops with the iPad 2. They were, apparently, thrilled at the prospect. After all, imagine being able to dump your heavy old laptop and use a smaller and more mobile touch-screen device, instead. OMG! No contest eh?

But before you read the story, just spend thirty seconds reminding yourself what a teacher’s laptop is used for, and considering what problems they might come across when they’ve swapped it for an iPad. Then take a look at the article and see whether you identified them all.

http://www.pcpro.co.uk/blogs/2012/09/11/the-school-that-swapped-its-laptops-for-ipads-and-wants-to-switch-back/#ixzz26EgTIzV7

Now, it seems, ‘The staffroom is full of regret’, and Nicole Kobie, who writes the piece, comments, at the end,

‘With schools now given complete autonomy to spend their IT budget as they see fit, you have to wonder if headteachers across the country are making similarly bad decisions based on little more than gut instinct, appearances and the latest fad.’

She’s right to wonder, given the numerous reported examples of schools that have gone for iPads not just for the staff, but for all the students.

What we read, though, are the high profile stories (or, to be fair, often just the headlines) and it comes as something of a relief to find that when it comes to actual evidence based on more data, the message is that heads and teachers are probably more cautious than that.

In May this year (2012) the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) published research on the number of tablet computers in schools. They estimate that by the end of 2012, just 6% of all ‘pupil-facing’ school computers will be tablets, a figure that will go up to 22% by the end of 2015. If those quite modest figures hold – and estimates of technology take-up have a track record of being wildly wrong either way – they demonstrate that interest and enthusiasm are tempered by healthy caution.

In support of this, the same research finds that 72% of schools want more evidence before going for tablets. It’s not so much that anyone thinks iPads, or android tablets, or any of the less expensive educational devices are bad, or inefficient. All of them are great at what they set out to do.

No, it’s much more a question of first being clear, at least in broad terms, about you want to use a tablet for in school, and then deciding which of them will best do the job. That, I’d say, means moving slowly, doing the research, running a pilot – all the sensible things you’ve surely done right from the start of your technological journey.

At that point I stopped to wonder why, when I’d never had the experience of introducing tablets into a school, I felt so sure about that cautious approach. Then I realised it was because of what we experienced when I was a middle school head and our first computers arrived all those years ago.

Let’s just consider how we handled that innovation then, because although lessons from history can mislead, I think there are some resonances with the issues around introducing tablets.

For one thing, we didn’t acquire those wonderful BBC ‘B’ machines on a head teacher's whim. We all talked and listened and wondered and while we couldn’t always see exactly how they would fit into classroom routine, we could make out the broad outlines. Most importantly, we knew this was the future, a tide that had to be caught. The children and parents were with us all the way, and we were confident enough of our professionalism to know we would fix the details as we went along.

That said, we kept our heads, and didn’t beggar ourselves to buy lots of stuff at the start. We had just one computer at first, then quite quickly a second one, then we waited. We wanted time, both to get on terms with what we had, and to see what else might become available over time.

Neither, though, did we push those first two machines into corners as some did, destined for low-level peripheral activities.

‘When you’ve finished your work, Darren, you can go and play on the computer.’

Instead we purposely put them into the hands of those who would fearlessly and collaboratively explore the possibilities for learning and creating. Not just staff (teaching and support), but volunteer pioneers from all sectors – children who revealed previously unsuspected skills and knowledge, and their parents and their parents’ friends, governors, neighbours, folk we’d never seen before. A few were into IT, some had never before clapped eyes on a monitor screen, all were people who could see that something profound was happening. They tried stuff, they talked, they went on courses, they phoned and visited other schools, they linked with the nearby secondary (at one point, with the aid of a magical and ridiculously unreliable gadget that, we learned, was called a modem) and they set up an evening ‘Computer Club’. Every day they knocked my door with news of more exciting developments that none of us had thought of in advance and, yes, we did eventually see learning gains mostly from increased motivation.

As time went on, we grew bolder. We bought more computers, empowered by having gathered enough knowledge and experience to choose the devices and the software that would do the best job for us. (At that point, the young teacher who had emerged as the leader of it all was poached by the local authority to act as an adviser. Now, he and I meet to sing the songs of yesteryear and tell war stories of those ground-breaking days. Although that’s another story.)

Where was I?

Yes, tablets. Much the same applies, I’d say. So don’t waste time wondering whether they are coming to your classrooms, because, one way or another, they surely are.

But just as in those heady early days of school computing, that doesn’t mean rushing to get class sets, or even one for every teacher, and do everything at once. This is a still-unfolding story, with unwritten chapters. Best concentrate on looking at what’s available, acquiring samples if you can and giving them, as we did, to the young or old but always the bold, who will push the devices to the limit, exploring all the angles. Above all, whether you can afford or can beg and borrow the samples or not, it’s a case of doing the online research, asking all the questions and, above all, talking to as many people as possible, in schools, in the industry, in adviser organisations.

All the time, though, you may want to bear one or two things in mind.

Firstly, that if you don’t feel the need for one tablet per student, or can’t afford them, the ability to run multiple profiles on each one might be useful, so they can share their tablets.

And secondly, you probably want your students to have the option of creating excellent work with their tablets, at school or at home, using a suite of productivity software with which they are very familiar and will be using whenever and wherever they move on.

Take another look at that PC Pro article to see what I mean, and then at this, also from PC Pro.

http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/education/374944/schools-waiting-for-windows-8-before-buying-tablets

Let’s just say, if you are among those who have waited, you might be very glad you did…