The hidden cost of the Chromebook

When I bought 20 laptops for my school and put them in a trolley back in 2007 I thought I had solved my school’s IT problems. No more badly laid out IT suite – the future was mobile. I had bought 20 cheap but reliable windows laptops. These devices would be used by the teacher in their own classrooms. Wow – I thought I was starting a revolution.

But I hadn’t counted on the hidden costs.

At the time, all the software we were using was Windows based and it all cost money. About 25% the cost of each device. And then there were technician costs. Setting up the things and configuring them for the network seemed to take days. But looking back it was about 6 half days – about 5% of the cost of the devices. After setting up, some of the devices went wrong – they needed software re-installing and drivers updating. Another 5%. And after a year some of the batteries started to go – not for all of the machines, just three or four – but it was expensive and added another 5% to the price of the solution.

But the biggest hidden cost was teacher time. The laptops took at least 5 minutes to fully load and get onto the network. Do this three times a day and you’re looking at 15 minutes a day. Do this every day in a 192-day UK school year and you’re looking at about 15 days. That’s £3000 at current supply rates, or about 50% of the cost of the solution. And that doesn’t even count the disillusionment that the teachers feel at the wasted time at the start of each lesson.

What’s more, having to charge the laptops up over dinner time, because with only 3 hours battery life, they wouldn’t last into the afternoon, caused even more time loss and frustration.

But now I have Chromebooks. The hidden cost is £19 for the management console. Setting up time takes 2 hours for 30 Chromebooks and my technician doesn’t need to do it – some volunteer children in Year 6 do it instead. The battery means they last all day. The eight-second start up is a huge bonus for teachers previously frustrated by technology. In short the hidden costs are about 10% of the device cost. Compare that with the laptops I bought in 2007 where the hidden costs where at least 85% of the cost of the device and you can see why I’m so pleased with the Chromebook solution.

Have you counted the hidden costs of your IT solution?

Why am I saying this now? Time to declare an interest: I’m presenting at the free, online Google Education on Air Conference this Saturday with the title “Chromebooks, the easy classroom companion.” I’ll be telling some of my school’s story with using Chromebooks over the last 4 years and explaining more of why Chromebooks are the ideal device for the classroom. Come along, join in and share your view…

Computing isn’t just Computing

I know many of you will have got this sorted in your schools already, but for me, in my school, we’ve taken some time to get our heads around the Computing National Curriculum. Part of the reason for this is that English and maths are our top priority – everything else comes second to those two subjects. Children in my school enter the school way below national average and we have our work cut out accelerating progress so that they leave school with the correct standards for English and maths.

But excuses aside, despite being ‘the Computing Co-ordinator’, I am not a natural computer scientist. Yes, I have taught children how to make patterns using logo. Yes we children program roamers in my school. But aside from that, my expertise, and therefore the expertise of the children and teachers in my school is around digital literacy and creating content using different media and technology.

So I was delighted, when I acquired the ‘Switched on Computing‘ scheme (by Rising Stars, written by primary education technology legend and broccoli fanatic, Miles Berry) to see that they have allocated the statements in the 2014 Computing Curriculum into 3 broad sections: Computer Science, Information Technology and Digital Literacy. It meant my school was already quite good at two of the sections – we just had to learn how to do the first.

For me, one way I like to learn things is through re-categorising them. So I took the stuff I knew about and tried to match it up. I know there are lots of great bits of planning out there done by assorted Computing Subject Leaders across the country, with possibly the best being the Google Site produced by the 30 computing experts who first advised the UK government on what should be in the curriculum. However, I found myself going to three main sources:

  1. The Rising Stars ‘Switched on Computing’ scheme of work. This provides six topics per year with suggestions on how to teach them. In Year 6 it becomes quite complex, with a large degree of prior knowledge expected and the implication being that it will become increasingly cross-curricular to find time within the normal school day.
  2. The Computing at School website, which is constantly being updated with handy courses and advice, but also has some simple expectation statements that can be used to define what children should know by the end of each key stage.
  3. Phil Bagge’s website. If you haven’t seen his Jam Sandwich Robot lesson, you really should, especially as it inspired me to make my own version.

I then re-categorised them as follows to make a kind of curriculum planning tool. Paganel Computing Planning (click the link to see the PDF – or you go straight to the Google Drive folder and download it as a docx).

I think it was important to do this, because I have to be realistic about where the children are at – I can’t impose the Switched on Computing lessons immediately on Year 6 as they require a considerable amount of prior knowledge. But if we have those to aim for, with a document that helps teachers identify the prior knowledge required, it should help us get our children to a good standard as soon as we can. After that, what I am excited about is using computing to make our maths standards go through the roof, which is something Conrad Wolfram talks about here.

The education technology divorce

Who actually makes the education technology decisions in schools?

My authority runs a bus to BETT, the main trade show for education technology in the UK. I have to say I’m rather nervous about getting on the bus, because of who else might be on it. Having travelled to BETT a few times before and bumped into many attendees as I travel, I’m convinced that the majority of attendees from my part of the country are technicians and network managers. I haven’t met many teachers who go to BETT.

So who will make the decisions about future technology purchasing? Network managers or teachers?

I have to say at this point that I have a marvellous technician who works for me at my school. He is always on the look out to develop best practice and is keen to learn new stuff, not just to stick with what he already knows. But I’ve spoken to several teachers who have complained about their technicians or network managers – they complain that the network manager sets the rules about how to use the IT system. They decide what children can or can’t do. They decide the kind of software and hardware that children use.

My fear is that in many schools the technician, or the network manager, has become a barrier to good teaching. The expectation is that technology will be used across the curriculum, and from 2014 a new Computing Curriculum will come into place. Is there an teacher in each school who is ready for this? Ready to make decisions on how best to make it work for our children?

Education technology works best when the technology serves the education: when the tech makes the lessons better. This means that teachers and technicians need to work in partnership, but ultimately it is teachers who need to be empowered to make the decisions about how best to use technology to make a difference for their children. Without that a divide will develop that will result in teachers divorcing the technology from their teaching.

Chromebooks after 2 and half years

So I’m coming round to the point of view that I need more Chromebooks, not less.

They have been brilliant in my school.

We have used them since September 2011 and they have been reliable and effective. Teachers have gone from a point of disaffection with old technologies to enthusiasm and trust – they know the Chromebooks will work: the only barrier is the ability of the child to remember their password.

I have 6 months left on the ‘life’ of my Chromebooks and I’ve been toying with what to go for next. But everything else is so expensive. I can get 30 Chromebooks into a classroom for around £6000 a year. With apps and technician costs, 30 iPads would be closer to £12000 and 30 PCs would be around the same.

The thing is that Chromebooks take no technician time at all – I employ a technician for half a day a week and the bulk of job is to keep the servers going for the admin staff and maintain the wifi network. And because they’re ‘just the web’, which everyone uses, they don’t take much CPD time either. I’ve had an old-school teaching assistant who has always stayed out of technology lessons tell me that she would prefer to cover a class using the Chromebooks than in the PC suite, because they just work.

Chromebooks are just there now for us. Like pencils, like exercise books. They’re part of the furniture – part of the environment that allows teachers to teach and students to learn.

 

Why should a primary school go to #BYOD

It’s been a while in the making, but this year we’re finally opening up our school to #BYOD.

For those who’ve not heard that acronym, it means Bring Your Own Device.

Yes, after years of banning Mobile phones – taking them off the children as they walk through the door and handing them back at the end of the day, we’re going to suddenly allow them into the classroom.

Here’s why.

  • Mobile Devices are really useful.
    • They act like a pen or a pencil, because you can create your own text and images in them.
    • They also act as an exercise book because you can store work and have it marked on them.
    • Finally they act as a text book because they are connected to the web. You can Google stuff, research stuff and even chat to experts to find out all sort of information.
  • Mobile Devices are really dangerous. We’ve had all sorts of incidents where children have used their mobile devices that they already own inappropriately. This does not happen in school, but irrespective of that it affects school performance. I’ve had to deal with cyberbullying, text broadcasting, threats, and mental abuse, even though none of these things happened in school. I can keep the children much safer if they bring their devices into the classroom, and are taught how to use them safely and appropriately.
  • Mobile Devices are really expensive. These are austerity times and so schools don’t have much money. Even though I value technology and appreciate its value to accelerate learning, it cannot compare with the role of the teacher in the classroom. Direct instruction and then effective feedback from a learned adult is far more valuable for a student’s learning than any device can ever be. I need to spend my school’s money on maintaining the adults we have, developing their subject knowledge and their pedagogy. I must not spend my school’s money on technology that has less of an impact on learning. #BYOD allows the families that have already spent their money on devices for them to be more fully utilised.

In my next post I’ll be moving from the why to how.

Universities Destroy My User Experience

I’ve recently noticed two ways that higher education spoils my life. The first is more annoying, the second is probably more serious. They are: the tech and the system.

 

The tech at universities is designed for grown ups. I teach small children. It’s simple really. I have no problem with universities having fantastic technology that supports their students’ learning*. But why does it have to be foisted upon me and my children. I’m sure Moodle does a grand job in its place. And all those other ones – Blackboard, Fronter and the like. But they’re so hard to manage – they require a full time position to keep parents engaged, encourage teachers to create meaningful online learning and to reset student passwords. I don’t know many primary schools who can afford that full time job. Then there’s all the training – how do I teach my teachers how to use it properly, given all the other training needs. 

 

 

 

I have to say that I didn’t even bother with Moodle. I had seen how it looked and thought how firstly my staff as users and then my children would suffer a poor experience. Not all teachers can be picked up from a poor leaning experience – they look at the failing tech and it confirms all they ever thought about computers. This is mainly down to the design – not only does it look wrong, but it’s designed for a different kind of productivity – primary school teachers are productive when they are having lots of 1:1 interactions with children in their class during the day, whereas students and lecturers at university interact with the knowledge, which can be held by the VLE. And of course VLEs (like Moodle) have come from universities originally, sidled into secondary schools where they are just about manageable and on, in their predictable way, into Primary schools where we know no better. Until now.

 

 


The alternative is Google and other web2.0 tools. Yes I am a Google Certified Teacher, so I am biased, but when I did collaborative data analysis with my staff a few days ago, they got it instantly – with no prior training. They collaborated on the same, secure Google spreadsheet at the same time, initially made mistakes but learnt from each other and from myself, getting the job done. The same had happened with Calendars a few days earlier. I couldn’t imagine being able to do the same things so efficiently and smoothly with the clunky systems that Moodle have to offer, or indeed Excel.

 

Other alternatives also exist. Textease is a brilliant suite of tools that work a bit like Microsoft Office, but start from where the children are. Similarly 2Simple produce some great software for very young children

The System is based on university success. Nations crave it. Lord Mandelson said it (when he was in power). Sir Ken Robinson declared it in 2006. And so on… The problem I have is not that some of the children will go to university and some won’t. It’s the stuff that comes the other way. And the thing is – it starts with the children who won’t go to university.

Opt in or opt out. It is not a choice for the primary child. You have to go to school. Parents can now be prosecuted if you don’t. By contrast, you don’t have to go to university. It’s a choice – a choice that takes considerable financial risk if you’re at or below the median** salary. Much of the primary school teacher’s effort can be taken up by ensuring motivation. This is not an issue at university – a student goes there by choice. And that student can fail the course if they don’t put the required effort in.*** So of course the concept of failure creeps back to secondary schools, where you can fail at ‘A’ levels and GCSEs, even though it goes all the way down to ‘G’ now. Apparently 6% of students don’t get a ‘G’ grade in maths and over 40% don’t achieve ‘C’ – the grade at which a GCSE becomes useful. This then finds its way into primary schools where you can fail by not reaching a ‘Level 3’ in the level 3-5 SATs, or where, if the school labours the point you can fail by not achieving the level 4, or not making 12 points progress. Some 11 year olds can’t opt out of this. They have no choice. They have to fail.

 

Failure hurts. It’s good to get use to that pain. But is 11 the right age? And is it even 11? Recently my own son started in a Year 3 class (aged 7) and was given a test in his first week. Of course he had been tested prior to that – there are assessments in Year 2, but I remember him coming home and talking about the ‘special booklet’ he had done that day – the teachers were keen to exert any stress with the concept of being able to fail at a test. Not so in Year 3. A test was sat. In reading skills I believe. We await the results with bated breath.

Is seven the right age to learn about failing in tests?

 

*although I suspect much of it is about guarding the knowledge so they can charge more money from it, rather than actually encouraging their students to learn.
**Never trust a set of data unless you know the range, median, mean and mode
***Unless they’re studying English. Or history.