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BYOOD – It’s not a typo

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed the edtech community getting caught up in a number of different issues that, at least from my point of view, aren’t issues at all – at least not in the way most school leaders think anyway. Last year the most prominent concern was internet filtering and debates about duty of care and online safety and what-not.  What an absurd idea that you can filter the internet in 2012 (or 2011 for that matter). How about we think about our duty to educate and work to develop the moral compass young people need to navigate the wholly unfiltered big bad world we live in instead?

This year the bee in people’s collective bonnet is BYOD (or BYOT if you prefer) – bring your own device. Similar to those who think they can filter the internet (ever heard of phone tethering?), schools which believe they can “introduce” a BYOD program are living in another time. The majority of secondary students carry a smartphone of some description whether the school “allows” them to or not, so the notion that a school could somehow stop this (or indeed introduce it) is just a bit silly.

What is a device anyway?

Is it a laptop or Tablet PC? Or perhaps a phone or iPod touch or maybe it’s an iPad or an Android tablet? Some have the opinion that these devices are interchangeable and that a BYOD iPad or Android tablet program is a replacement for a laptop program. From the outset it is important to state that I am not one of these people and as much as I see the iPad (and devices like it) have their place, they just aren’t quite the creative enabler that laptops are – at least not yet.

Thinking about why we have a 1:1 program helps flesh this out. We see presentation, word processing, spread sheeting, web browsing, communicating, email and calendar handling as basic functionality which would be reasonably adequately met with an iPad or similar (some of those functions would require the addition of a bluetooth keyboard to be really viable though – hang on, isn’t that a netbook?). The addition of a myriad of apps available offer a breadth of other functionality of varying levels of suitability and significance, but the iPad and other capacitive touch tablets and devices fall short in a number of significant areas. I don’t think we should compromise curriculum with an “almost good enough” computer even if it is the right weight and price.

Having a computer to yourself – 1:1 as it has become called – helps ensure you are empowered to follow many more paths than you might otherwise have been able to had you not had the computer at the moment you needed it.

To help contextualise this for adults who more often than not enjoy access to a variety of devices, imagine having to do *all* of what you have to do on a smartphone or an iPad/Android tablet style of device. For most this would be a source of frustration – many basic needs are met, but a computer like an iPad is actually engineered for specific tasks and make other tasks more difficult or not possible. Why is this device OK for students if it is difficult or impossible to carry out tasks required by the curriculum (or the learner’s imagination)? It isn’t OK. Schools need to ensure that students have their own PC or Mac which can meet all of the needs of the curriculum as a minimum – hopefully this is a minimum.

BYOD – it just doesn’t work for learning

Straight up, from a learning and teaching point of view, BYOD is a bad idea. I can say this with conviction because my school has been running a “student owned program” since 1993. We are currently two years into a transition away from the BYOD model we’ve had for nearly 20 years. Here’s why:

Reliability matters

Since 1993 our school has recommended machines which meet the academic needs of the school curriculum. Around 85% (±5%) of families opt for this machine and purchase the recommended model from the recommended supplier. This allows us to formulate a standard software load and to manage and support these machines efficiently – important with only a small staff (3 – 2 technical, one administrative) and more than 1300 computers to maintain. The other 15% buy/bring all sorts of computers which we are unable to support (see disproportionate labour sink below) beyond initial connection and configuration.

The impact of this in the classroom is roughly 3-4 kids with a machine which may or may not have the software needed and may or may not actually be working when needed. Experience has shown that “non-standard” machines take longer to be repaired (recommended model machines are serviced same day on site with loan machines available while non-standard machine service times can range from a couple of days to many weeks) and as a result are more often the machines which aren’t at the ready when needed. There are a variety of reasons for this (return to base service models, insurance claims, apathy, etc.), but the impact on the student is the same: a compromised academic program and more work for teaching staff to compensate.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that this is the case for all students. There have been many students/families that have used non-standard computers and support arrangements at our school with no perceptible difference in their learning experience. It is important to note however that these students were organised and motivated – they wanted it to work and took steps to ensure that it did.

Having a working machine is a big deal and the best way to ensure machines are working as often as possible is to localise support and standardise the model.

Support limbo

Students have to largely manage themselves with a BYOD model and they often find themselves caught in a support limbo. Many of those who opt for a non-standard device in our environment do so because they believe they can get the same result for less money. At buying time insurance and support just don’t seem to factor into some people’s thinking and when something goes wrong the student finds themselves negotiating with their parents to pay for the repair or buy a replacement computer. This process is often laboured as the cause of the damage or problem is usually as a result of poor management (whether real or perceived) and parents are often slow to respond. Reading this you may think that this is a rare occurrence, but time and time again we have come up against this problem with the consequence usually being a distressed student caught between his parents making a point and the school attempting to resolve this nuts and bolts problem so it can get on with the business of teaching and learning – in short, it is distraction.

I repeat, having a working machine is a big deal and the best way to ensure machines are working as often as possible is to localise support and standardise the model.

Disproportionate labour sink

As non-standard machines all require individual attention, they represent a significant and disproportionate volume of work carried out by school support staff, particularly at high stress times of the year. The efficiencies of a standard device allows support staff to streamline processes and which ultimately lead to a reduced support overhead.

Software licensing is not always possible

I’ve written about this before, but in brief, software vendors (at least for the time being) often won’t license software for machines not managed by the school and often charge much more for devices owned by students. There are ways around this with application virtualisation or by using alternate software titles, but frankly the best way to keep costs down and to minimise tiresome software management red tape is to standardise the computer model.

BYOOD – a common sense approach

So what is the answer? As I said above, I think schools need to go into bat for students and ensure they have the right tool to meet the broad needs of modern learners (and dreamers). So a Mac or PC sourced and serviced centrally by the school for all the reasons outlined above will ensure the technology is going to work when needed.

But what of the other devices which populate the lives and pockets of an ever increasing number amongst us? iPads and Android tablets, smartphones and iPod touches etc. all have a lot to offer in an educational context, but schools persist with banning them or restricting their use. These other devices are what I would think would be best be brought and managed by students and teachers – like I said in the second paragraph of this post, they already are. A change of policy enables these devices and to my way of thinking is just a common sense approach.

Bring Your Own *Other* Device ensures students have the tools they need for the job at hand.

Photosynth goes mobile

A couple of years ago I wrote about Microsoft’s Photosynth and the then innovation of adding your own image collections to make your own “photosynths”. This was (and still is) very cool, but Microsoft have recently added yet more coolness with the release of an iOS app which makes the process of creating photosynths stupidly easy and importantly, mobile.

The experience is a little different (from the PC version) with the mobile app creating 3D panoramas rather than the navigable worlds you can build with photosynth. When exported you get a flat image (which you can upload to Facebook or email) which looks kind of like a planar world map, but when viewed embedded in a website with Silverlight (see below) or in the mobile app itself you can pan around and get a real sense of the space where the synth was made.

Photosynth Capture

Stitching images together

The method of image capture is brilliantly conceived. You simply pan around your environs and the app automatically identifies points of overlap in the scene from the camera collecting images it needs to build a panorama (above). You can also capture manually. When you’re finished capturing the app will stitch it all together and give you some options for sharing. It is simple to use, but the results are stunning – a triumph of interface design and usability.

Stitching the images together

Stitching the images together

The mobile version of photosynth is a great step forward which really makes sense. Everyone with a iOS device has a camera in their pocket so further empowering people with a tool like this is such a good fit. Photosynth for iPhone is, simply put, amazing.

As a side note, Microsoft have, to date, only released this app for iOS devices – apparently WP7 currently doesn’t have the low level hardware access available to apps which photosynth needs, so WP7 users will have to wait. You can read more about this here if you’re interested.

iPads for education

With the release of iPad 2 I thought it timely to re-assess whether iPads may be a viable alternative to the tool we currently recommend for our 1:1 program – the Toshiba M780 tablet PC. There are plenty of people (and governments) who seem to think it might, and those who aren’t so sure.

Is the iPad a genuine alternative for schools? Source: Apple

From the outset it is important to provide some context for the exploration that follows. A conversation with a colleague from another school today revealed how important this is. Our school is an independent school in inner Melbourne. Our 1:1 computer program began in 1993 and requires all students from year 5 to 12 have their own device. How the program operates and the machines we have recommended has evolved as times have changed. In 2008 we transitioned to tablet PCs (we trialled slates before that and staff started with tablets in 2007) and have found these to be great devices when used to their potential.

Our program requires that all students have a machine which meets a set of requirements. Each year the school runs a tender to select a device to recommend to parents and until recently families had the option of purchasing any machine they liked as long as it met a set of minimum requirements.  The vast majority of parents (between 85-95% depending on the year) select the recommended model with the remainder opting to go it alone (we don’t support “non-standard” machines at all aside from connecting them to our network). We are now transitioning to a school purchase approach as experience has shown that those who have a non-standard device considerably disrupt teaching and learning of not only the student with the alternate device, but also those in the same class.

A little over a year ago the first iPad was released and I dismissed it as largely a media consumption device which removed scope for tinkering by its users. I wrote that prior to getting my hands on one and although I’ll admit it is (much) more than just a media consumption device, I’m yet to really find a way of getting under its skin while keeping the warranty intact – the tinkerer in me remains largely unsatisfied.

What follows is my list of pros and cons for the iPad as a tool for education (from our perspective) and a comment about the state of technology use generally in education. At times I have cited studies rather than just making statements as I’ve always found this useful when following up other people’s work. I hope you find it of use in your context.

A new kind of device

iPads represent a revolutionary step forward in the way people think about computing. Apple is referring to the iPad as a “post PC device” (despite having to be connected to a PC to be setup/maintained) and although not quite “post PC” yet it has definitely changed the way people think about and use computers. In my experience and observation of how people are using the iPad (in education and more broadly), this change in thinking stems from the immediacy of the device: The battery life ensures that it there when you need it and the switch from sleep state to active is seamless and immediate.

An intuitive interface and perfect size and weight

iPads are light, have a convenient form factor and have a great battery life making them available with immediacy. The interface mirrors that of the iPhone/iPod touch which has meant that users of these devices (of which there are many) have been very comfortable with the iPad interface immediately – the learning curve is virtually non-existent for many people (it wasn’t steep in the first place) and has resulted in confident users with little to no need for training.

The price is right (even if it may be wrong)

The price of iPad 2 in Australia (from $558-$898) has recently been announced and it is pretty cheap for what the device is. There has been some media speculation about whether it may in fact be too cheap and whether the conditions workers who make these and other devices is ethically sound. This may not be a deal breaker for schools and Apple are certainly not the only one using cheap labour in China to manufacture its wares, but it is something to keep on the ethical radar as we move forward.

All stylus, no substance?

A significant limitation (or benefit if you look at it from Steve Jobs’ point of view) is the use of a capacitive touch screen in the iPad rather than an active digitizer. As explained in detail here, the lack of an active digitizer on the iPad makes note-taking difficult even when dedicated third party applications and stylus devices are used. Note-taking using a pen-based tablet device (or on paper for that matter) is significant and different from an educative point of view. The act of note-taking is a process which has been shown to promote learning (Bauerand & Koedinger, 2007). Professor Gordon Sanson of Monash University articulates the contrast between being presented with professionally formatted notes (either in PowerPoint slides, textbooks, or any other form) and notes and diagrams constructed by a learner, with a clear benefit derived by those who construct their own understandings. This seems obvious, but the iPad can’t do this very well, making it less suitable (than other tablet devices) for a learner wanting to construct their own knowledge. Of course, users of an iPad could revert back to pen and paper to take notes, but that defeats one of the key benefits of the iPad – size and weight, not to mention the capacity to search across your notes both written and typed. I should say that I think the capacitive touch screen is perfect for what the iPad was designed for – but clearly note-taking was not high on Apple’s list of requirements for this device. For those who haven’t tried the different technologies, here are two samples:

Using a Pogo Sketch stylus on the iPad. Note the marks left by my palm - this is the touch interface confusing my palm and the stylus.

Using a stylus with a digitizer tablet

Using a stylus with a digitizer tablet (Toshiba M780ES)


On-screen keyboard

Another limitation (or great benefit) is the on screen keyboard. While note taking by hand is great for a student processing concepts and constructing their own understandings, a keyboard is excellent for fast text entry. The on-screen keyboard of the iPad is simply not as good as a physical keyboard in my experience and this is an obvious limitation for students required to produce and manipulate extended quantities of text. The convenience of the keyboard as part of the iPad is excellent from a portability point of view and is ideal for short bursts of text entry, so while a limitation in some respects, I think in a different context the onscreen keyboard is an enormous advantage.

Device management and software licensing

Management of iPads (from an institutional point of view) is half baked via iTunes. iPads have been targeted at the consumer market where users manage themselves. Education (and corporate) environments tend to want to manage devices and the software on them and this presents a number of issues. A simple solution may be not to manage the device as an institution and let users manage themselves.  There are a few issues with this in a school.

A 1:1 program implies that students have 1 device each. The iPad unfortunately requires students and staff have access to another device – so a 1:2 program or at least an implied requirement that students have access to another device to manage their iPad is, I think a limitation when viewing them from an institution’s point of view (at least our institution).

I also think that the cost of app purchases would quickly add up and the transfer of ownership of devices (when students or staff leave the program) and software is likely to become difficult and onerous.  Apple have devised a volume purchasing scheme (not available in Australia at the time of writing) to assist with the purchase of software on mass, but it doesn’t address the ownership transfer problem and frankly seems like a bit of a hack hastily cobbled together. I also think iPad licensing is expensive (for education). Looking at the iWork toolset which many suggest as viable alternatives to the standard office suite of tools, the prices seem quite reasonable (local volume prices not available at present):

By contrast, education volume licensing of MS Office including OneNote and all other MS licensing is $30 per student/year – the 3 apps listed above (granted they are perpetual licenses – or are they? I wonder if/when they’ll start charging for app updates?) add up to nearly $40. Of course there are free cloud based alternatives for the iPad (Google Docs), but similarly there are free alternatives for PC/Mac users with OpenOffice.

Does this imply that one day they may no be free?

A further licensing issue is born of a restriction imposed by Apple to apps listed in the App Store. Apple controls the App Store and approves which apps can be bought and sold in that marketplace. Apple seems to be trying to control competitors with these restrictions, but a consequence has been that programming environments like MIT’s Scratch (even the Scratch player) cannot run. This may sound insignificant, but if you want students to create apps rather than just use them, then you need a different device for that. For those think that programming is “just for nerds” I would suggest a visit to Scratch’s website (or Microworlds, or GameMaker, or Alice, or Kodu, or …) and a bit of further analysis of what programming can do for developing minds.

That said, the existing applications and the large development community writing software specifically for the iPad is a significant (if not the most significant) factor in the suitability of iPads for education. There are many education specific apps to achieve all kinds of tasks from basic note taking to musical composition – sad that they are all viewed through Apple’s lens and the restrictions inherent with that.

A few other bits and bobs


Some cite security concerns when discussing iPads for the classroom, but the way we manage our environment I wouldn’t envisage this being a concern. Several people have raised it as a concern with me: “How would you control what applications students run?” “How would you manage which websites they visit?” I don’t think these concerns are real obstacles to iPads in schools – if it were our existing 1:1 program would be similarly affected and we manage this well now I believe.

Window to The Cloud

The cloud does promise to make devices like the iPad even more relevant and desirable, but the issues of cloud in 2011 still limit what is possible. Browser constrains, latency and data security make SAAS (Software as a service) less viable, at least for now.

Seek and you may find it

Search is pretty restricted on the iPad as it is limited to Apple’s pre-installed apps. Any notes you take in Pages or with Penultimate (or indeed any app) aren’t indexed for searching which I find problematic. I have become accustomed to the way PCs index materials which essentially allows you to find things quickly.


The repair side of iPads in schools seems to be a little sketchy. Speaking to resellers they explain that they don’t actually repair iPads (or phones), they just swap them out for refurbished machines. This may work quite well if schools were able to have a cache of hot swaps to deal with issues as they arise, but I suspect that this won’t be how the system will work unless the school funds it themselves. Resellers don’t seem to have much of an idea how this would work at scale either and this is an aspect of a school iPad program I would want resolved before moving forward.


The iPad is trying to be a cloud device with everything connecting to it via the Wi-Fi, 3G or Bluetooth. Apple’s decision not to include a USB, enable a user to expand the storage capacity or even replace the battery is not ideal in 2011. Similar to my comments about the cloud, I suspect this issue will progressively diminish as a concern – at least the storage and connectivity via USB.

In conclusion

The iPad represents a complete rethink of what computing is to everyday people. The computer in the form of an iPad is no more complex to operate than a television.  The difficulty for a school context like ours is that it has some limitations which make it less of an alternative tablet device and more of an augmentation device. The 1:1 approach that schools like ours have implemented and run with for many years may be nearing an end - perhaps we may soon see 1:many programs evolve – maybe we already have them with the iPods, Nintendo DS and phones kids bring to school already. The notion that students should have multiple devices is a luxury the vast majority won’t be able to service and perhaps why my feeling is that as much as the iPad may be close to what we want from a computer for education, it’s not quite right – yet.




GeoMaker – text to map in a couple of clicks

I found this little web app a month or so ago and it is just a little to good to let pass by with as little recognition as a tweet and a bookmark on delicious. GeoMaker is a quick way of taking text (cut and paste or from a URL), extracting the geo-spacial data within that text and plotting it on a map. It is nothing more than that, but it is this kind of thing which makes teaching, learning and understanding easier.

By way of example, let us consider we’re discussing the Western Front and the involvement of Australians in the First World War.  You find a description of the campaign and the places the Australian’s fought and died. Wouldn’t it be good if you could map these locations and illustrate the scale of the front? It’s easily done using  GeoMaker.

Step 1 – Go to GeoMaker and either paste in the URL where your text is located or simply paste in the text you want to mine for location data. I used this URL: http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/journey.html

Text input: Cut and Paste or direct from a URL

Step 2 – Filter out mismatches by un-ticking places.

Filter out mismatches

Step 3 – Hey-presto: a map of the front.

The map of places mentioned in the text - quick and easy

I know there are many maps of the Western Front and perhaps this isn’t the best one around, but it illustrates how easy it is to turn something into something else – a great thing for learners of different kinds everywhere.