Thursday, 23 June 2011

What is an iPad? Consumer delight, or education folly?

I pose the question simply because some people seem confused, especially in the education sector, not because I don’t know the answer. To me, an iPad is a large screen smartphone that isn’t even that smart, not least because it can’t make phone calls. Of course, that doesn’t make an iPad any less desirable. Anyone who has ever used one, or even handled one, immediately wants one. It is as seductive and appealing as any gadget on the market. That doesn’t necessarily qualify it as the personal device of choice for learners in the classroom. The trouble is, because we don’t agree what an iPad actually is, we don’t agree on whether we should go out and buy lots of them for use in schools.

With Netbooks it is easy. If you spend most of your time on the web, and only want to do fairly low level tasks with installed software, then a Netbook represents fantastic value for money. It is cheaper than a laptop, it lasts longer, the battery life is better and it is lighter and easier to carry around than conventional laptops. Importantly, it will run all the web-enabled content out there that any other computer will do. It will handle authentication, printing, and through a wide range of browser plugins will provide access to any feature-rich content going, be it using Flash, Java or Silverlight.

Therein lies the rub. Browser plugins. Apple has decreed that Safari on the iPad cannot be modified, so that means no plugins. Instead, the feature-rich content that would normally be displayed seamlessly on any other computer will only be available on an iPad if the content owner produces an iPad App which can then be downloaded from the iTunes Store. Apple itself then becomes the gatekeeper for all of this content.

Netbook users can browse the web, downloading plugins as they go, and view everything out there from the whole of the internet, in their browser. On an iPad it is very different. Content that would normally require a plugin will be invisible in the iPad’s browser, and instead the user has to switch to a downloaded App. So, to get the same sort of coverage, you would have to install a great many Apps – one for every site that needed it. This is very different to what we are used to. Once you have downloaded a particular plugin for, say, Firefox, you then have access to all of the websites that use the technology requiring that plugin. That is, one plugin gives access to a lot of content. With an iPad App, you just get access to the one website.

Once all the web sites have converted their content to HTML 5, it won’t be a problem. Apple has committed to its Safari browser not only being up there with the rest, but ahead of the pack. However, this day is a long way off. It would take a lot of investment to convert educational content to move away from, for example, Flash, at a time when spending on ICT in education generally is being squeezed more than at any time since the 1980s. I have read many reports of professional users getting around the lack of Java by using Citrix or remote desktop connections, effectively accessing the feature-rich content by using another computer somewhere else via the iPad as a thin client device. The infrastructure required to do this is expensive, and likely to be beyond the reach of many education users.

I am reminded of the days before the Internet when we had an icon on our desktop for each chunk of content we wanted, and there were no relationships between them. On an iPad you have an icon for each chunk of content, the only difference now being that it is delivered from the Internet rather than from a CD or local hard disk. I can’t help feeling we are sliding backwards.

On the plus side, the iPad is extremely desirable. The multi-touch screen is a delight to use – zooming in and out, for example with a flick of the fingers. Although some might say you only need to use this because the screen is small to start with, even though it is bigger than many of its Android based rivals.

The main issue for educators, it seems to me, is to be absolutely sure that an iPad does what you need it to do. As a general purpose web browsing device it has many limitations. It’s no use buying a class set and then everyone needs to access content that won’t work. In a walled-garden of Internet web sites, you can control the user experience. You only set users loose among web sites that work properly. For another set of web sites, you make sure they all have the correct installed Apps. Personally, I wouldn’t want to restrict users in that way. I am more worried about users only being able to view what an App exists for, rather than what is freely available to users of conventional, or should I say, proper computers. And just how does a teacher manage the Apps on a class set?

Compared to Netbooks, the iPad is certainly not cheap. A triumph of style over function carries a heavy price premium. Why is it then, that people want to pay more to be able to do less? Apple themselves are honest about the iPad being complementary to your main computing device. We should therefore think very carefully before making it a pupil’s main device.

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Thursday, 9 June 2011

Interactive Whiteboards: the Right Technology used in the Wrong Way

My long standing enthusiasm for wireless slates has often been confused with an out and out rejection of Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs). This isn't the case. My objection to IWBs has always been that they have been installed as whole class teaching and learning aids in place of large display screens and other methods of providing interactivity. By combining the display function with the input function you end up with a compromise and therefore not the most suitable display, and not the most suitable input device. The display is not big enough, or high up enough for good visibility to the whole of the display area from the back of a classroom, and you have to come to the front and obliterate the view for some of the class for some of the time in order to utilise the touch-sensitive surface. So as a tool for use with a typical class of 30 learners in a typical size classroom (around 56 square metres or less) it is sub-optimal.

However, in a different teaching and learning environment, with much smaller groups of pupils, I am a keen advocate of IWB technology, especially now that the hardware manufacturers have cracked multi-touch, such as with the Smart SB800. In conjunction with a short throw projector, I have seen some fantastic collaborations between learners around a board, whether this be with gifted or talented youngsters, or those with special needs. Software is key to this, of course, but the ability for learners to model, to control simulations, to try things out together is motivating, captivating and exciting. It is not just vertical boards, but table top versions too, that can offer hours of fun learning. And why shouldn't learning be fun?

The real challenge now though, in these belt-tightening times, is whether the comparatively high cost of these systems makes them unaffordable. Can schools justify the cost in relation to the improved outputs, that is, higher attainment? I suspect they will. For example, I am currently working with four schools seeking to install interactive touch-panel screens in Nursery classrooms, for small groups of children.

So I do believe that IWBs are excellent, albeit quite expensive, tools for teaching and learning. It is their place at the front of a classroom for interactive whole class teaching that I dispair over.

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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Infotech - a snapshot of the world of computing in 1988

Back in 1988 I published a book of photocopy masters for use in secondary schools called 'Infotech'. I still have a copy, so I decided to scan the pages and create a PDF version. The idea of the book was to give a comprehensive view of the ways computers were impacting on the world, with an introduction to as many applications as possible, from farming to air travel, and from medicine to war. What I find fascinating looking back is that all of this was before the Internet. It is easy to forget how things were done in those days. I've made the publication available here as an historical curiosity, to show just how far we have come in such as short time. I find it amusing that at the time I thought it was important to devote a whole page to the humble mouse! Notable omissions, apart from the Internet, were mobile and wireless technologies. Click on the cover image to download and view the PDF file. The file is only suitable for on-screen viewing, to keep the size down.

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Monday, 30 May 2011

Pure Luxury in the Classroom

Some of us have been lucky enough, occasionally, to experience pure luxury: the smell of soft leather in a new limousine; the service on board an aircraft when unexpectedly upgraded to Business class; the comfort of a 5-star boutique hotel; or the mouth-watering delights of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Every once in a while we can get to appreciate what luxury looks and feels like, and this is exactly what I experienced when I picked up and used the Mobi View wireless slate for the first time at BETT. An overstatement? Not at all. Now I have been able to take the device for a full test drive I appreciate just how far wireless slate technology has developed since the very first one landed in London for us to try out more than ten years ago, and incidentally made by the very same people as the new Mobi View. The look and the feel of the Mobi View oozes luxury and quality in every way.

What really sets this slate apart from the competition is the embedded touch screen, about the size of an iPhone screen which you can use to type with, as it has a on-screen keyboard just like you would find on many smart phones. Not only that though, there are icons for controlling the slate functions and for launching web sites, files and applications. This means that you can move the lesson forward from anywhere in the classroom. There is no need to stand in front of the screen as you would with a conventional interactive whiteboard, or return to the computer at the front of the classrooms in order to switch from, say, annotating an object on the visualiser, to launching and running a video, to typing a password (without anyone else seeing either the keyboard, or what keys are being pressed).

The Mobi View is very easy to set up and connects seamlessly, and very quickly, to a USB dongle placed in the computer. The battery charge seems to last forever, and ingeniously the special pen charges whenever it is placed in the slate, regardless of whether the slate itself is plugged in. Several slates can be connected at once, so the teacher can keep hold of one, and have one or more others being passed around the classroom.

The software which is bundled withe the slate seems to combine the best features found in many other similar programs. A single touch of the pen and you can annotate any screen such as a web site, a presentation or an image from the visualiser, and save these screens for future use, as one would expect. The 'whiteboard' software has all the content creation tools you would need, and content and screen annotations can be saved in a wide range of formats, including PowerPoint, JPG or PDF, as well as the native GWB format.

The slate comes with a base unit rather like the base of a cordless kettle. You just drop the slate down on the base and it starts charging straight away. However, you can also plug it in directly to a mains charger with the USB lead.

I have long believed that wireless slates are much better classroom tools than interactive whiteboards. After all, they do everything a whiteboard can do, and much more besides. But for typing you also either had to have a wireless keyboard, or you had to use the pop-up on-screen keyboard where everyone can see what you are typing and which obliterates whatever was on the screen before. The built in touch screen display on the Mobi View gets around all of that. It means that when the device is passed around the class, pupils can do more than just point, drag and click, they can type too in a way they will already be familiar with.

The Mobi View is being marketed as a mobile interactive whiteboard, and of course this is exactly what it is. It gives you interactivity anywhere in the classroom and empowers the teachers and the learners, rather than just empowering the classroom wall.

Why shouldn't teachers be given the best tools? And why not a taste of pure luxury? In my last post I argued that in these tight times every penny spent on ICT has to count more than it did it the days of plenty. A projector, big screen and wireless interactive slate in every classroom does make a difference, as we saw in the ICT Test Bed Project. Add a visualiser to the mix and you have a truly value for money teacher and learner productivity kit.

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Mobi View website


Sunday, 22 May 2011

ICT in Schools: The Inevitability of Change

The days of plenty are over. The last government's enthusiasm and urge to spend on ICT is not matched by the current administration, but I may be breaking ranks a little with the profession in saying that maybe this isn't such a bad thing. There are many cases where the huge investment in ICT in schools over the last few years has made a real difference, but there are many more examples of how this investment has largely been wasted. For example the numerous studies showing take-up of the interactive whiteboard being disappointing and it more often than not being used as an expensive projection screen. Similarly the disappointing takeup of the hugely expensive Learning Platforms. Technology has been literally thrust at schools and at teachers without any serious attempt to understand what their needs are.

This is unlikely to happen any more. School budgets are going to be tight, and there will be no ring-fenced handouts from the government to spend on the latest gadgets. Every penny spent on ICT will have to count. It will have to make a difference, in ways that it hasn't really needed to up to now. The ongoing costs of maintaining and supporting the ICT infrastructure will start to come under much closer examination. Schools' wish to have 'control' over their ICT and run their own Exchange and SQL servers, for example, in mini data centres may have to be challenged. In spite of several high profile lapses by the industry, there is an inexorable shift towards renting infrastructure in the Cloud, and teachers have been steadily making the switch from locally installed applications to subscription based web-hosted content. The improvements in connectivity have made it much more attractive to turn to the Internet for more and more ICT resources. Why would anyone nowadays buy and support their own Sharepoint server when Office 365 does it all for you?

This shift to the Cloud will inevitably require less on-site technical support, less up-front investment in hardware and software and lead to a much closer examination of value for money when choosing to subscribe to web based services. All this will be coupled with much greater numbers of web client devices as opposed to traditional rich client PCs, which in turn will increasingly be entirely solid state, have lower capital costs, and last much longer. Again, needing much less on-site technical support. How often does an LCD monitor fail, compared with the old CRT version? We have to drive down the Total Cost of Ownership, and at the same time ensure that what we do spend really makes a difference to outcomes. Deciding not to buy that Interactive Whiteboard which may never be fully utilised, and instead opting for a large projection screen at substantially lower cost but which is used continuously is a case in point. Adding all the interactivity you need with a relatively inexpensive wireless slate starts to make much better sense.

Schools collaborating with each other so that they can leverage economies of scale may also become a necessity in these tight times. It makes sense for schools to share capital investment in ICT and also the ongoing support costs, regardless of any other political or structural set of relationships. ICT as a 'utility' will only come of age when you don't need a team of on-site technicians to cajole and coax the resources to life on a daily basis. Shifting from a capital to a revenue model of expenditure on ICT is something many have argued for years, and something which drove the approach to ICT under BSF. What went wrong there was that the revenue costs escalated out of control. For ICT to continue to be at the top of the shopping list it has to provide not just the same for less, but more for a lot less.

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Thursday, 5 May 2011

ICT should be about solving teachers’ and learners’ problems, not about creating new ones

In the summer of 2009, my colleague Guy Underwood and I presented a paper to the RITWIT Conference in Cambridge. As I think the issues are just as valid today, I thought it worth reproducing an extract from the paper here.


Many teachers’ reluctance to fully embrace technology in the classroom is due to the failure of local and national government, consultants and advisers to properly analyse teachers’ and pupils’ needs, identify the barriers and problems to effective teaching and then design and apply technology solutions to address them. Throughout the last 30 years the reverse has happened, in that technology developed for purposes other than education has been thrust upon teachers who have been told to change or adapt their teaching in order to fully utilise this technology. This has been accompanied by assertions that if only teachers were properly trained and changed their practice then the technology would bring about improved standards.

One example comes from the early 1980s when teachers could use a low-resolution PC with software they often wrote themselves and a large screen TV/monitor to assist in getting over difficult teaching points with a whole class. The same teachers were then given more modern computers with higher resolution graphics that no longer worked with affordable large screens. They lost the ability to use software with a whole class and instead had to contrive individual or paired work around computers, regardless of the preferred pedagogy. This was the case for many years before projectors became affordable.

The second example comes much later in the form of the Interactive Whiteboard which was hailed by experts as a natural extension of the way teachers worked already. Rather than systematically analyse existing pedagogy to see if technology could solve any of problems inherent within it, the technology merely entrenched existing practices regardless of their effectiveness. Thus teachers were given technology that was difficult to use and which ensured that they had to continually face away from the class, and move in front of a display that was never designed, both in terms of its size and position, to be accessible and viewable by all pupils in a class.

The third example comes from the inexplicable failure in schools to exploit visualiser technology that solves many of the day to day problems that teachers and pupils are faced with and which limit their effectiveness. These include showing something small to the whole class, modelling a skill or technique, exemplifying with pupils’ work, peer assessment and having a shared focus for dialogue.

This paper will draw upon the experience of the ICT Test Bed Project and subsequent investment in Barking and Dagenham in which technology solutions were applied to problems identified within the pedagogy as a result of a thorough analysis and stakeholder engagement. This at least partially addressed the issues of teacher training because technology that is readily seen as indispensable in solving many day to day problems in classroom teaching has a much higher and faster rate of uptake by teachers and pupils.

Finally the paper will suggest that policy makers should in future adopt a much more conventional approach to the implementation of ICT solutions, including a systematic analysis of the problems to be solved.


This paper is a brief commentary on the last 30 years of ICT in English education, where a combination of public policy failings and the inability of the technology industry to address educational needs has resulted in not only much wasted investment but the introduction of a range of new problems for teachers and learners to solve in the classroom rather than the solution of existing ones. This position will be exemplified with three examples: large screen displays; interactive whiteboards; and visualisers. The computer itself and the development of the Internet are beyond the scope of this paper.


Between around 1982 when the first computers arrived en masse in schools until about 1986, RF and AV outputs allowed these early school computers such as the RM 380Z and the BBC Micro to be used with large TVs and AV monitors. As the computers were scarce this feature enabled a whole class to see the display at the same time. Inner London schools were able to utilise the previously redundant (after the demise of the ILEA live cable television broadcasts) large specially made DECCA monochrome monitors with their new 380Zs, and this combination enabled effective whole class teaching with a single computer. Clarity from the back of the class was helped by the low resolution graphics.
However, from around 1986 up to around 2000 the newer computers arriving in schools, albeit in rapidly increasing numbers boasted a combination of VGA output (or similar) and much higher resolution graphics. Large VGA displays were prohibitively expensive and the higher resolution meant that these computers were not suitable for using TVs. During this period almost all schools had few effective means to use a single computer with a whole class. There was a period in the late 1990s when large VGA displays (such as the Hantarex range ) became within reach of schools’ budgets but the increasing resolution of the computer output quickly made these obsolete. For the whole class to see clearly, a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels was the highest possible, but 800 by 600 pixel displays and higher were fast becoming the norm.

It was not until about 2000 that large projected displays finally became affordable, allowing the higher resolution screens to be visible clearly from the back of the class. Thus there was a an interval of 20 years during which it was extremely difficult to use a single computer with a whole class, but this had nothing whatever to do with pedagogy unlike the early computers which were designed for use in education, and everything to do with education having to adapt to the equipment developed for business and other non-education spheres. It is not disputed that the increasing availability of computers in schools allowed pupils to develop their own ICT skills, but whereas this was a gain, the ability to teach the whole class with a computer was lost.

Running parallel to these hardware developments was a marked shift in the type of software that was produced and its relationship with the pedagogy it was designed to support.

During the early to mid 1980s, as software could be used with whole class it was often written by teachers to aid teaching difficult concepts . This was alongside development of software for individual or small group use as the numbers of computers in schools increased. However, by the mid 1980s until about 2000, almost all software was written for individual or very small group use. There would have been little point in producing whole class teaching software as few schools would have had the ability to use computers with a whole class as the larger displays were too expensive. Those teachers that did persevere by crowding the class round a small screen suffered the double whammy of difficult classroom management and inappropriate software.

2000 onwards saw a resurgence of software for use by the whole class as projectors became less prohibitively expensive and the interactive whiteboard gained in popularity. The launch of Easiteach by RM in the autumn of 2000 represented a significant turning point.

The relationship between the technology and pedagogy proved to be different in primary and secondary schools. Before the national strategies took hold, the computer fitted moderately well into the ‘carousel’ system prevalent in most primary classrooms. The ‘computer timetable’ ensured all pupils ‘had a go’. However, it was difficult to integrate the use of the computer with the rest of the curriculum owing to the amount of time it took for the whole class to complete an activity and pupils would often have benefited from more effective teacher intervention at the time they needed it. In a sense this was no different to any other aspect of the way the teaching was organised, leading in part to the re-thinking of primary maths teaching in Barking and Dagenham and the national numeracy strategy that followed.

Once the national strategies were adopted by primary schools a single computer (often at the back) of a classroom was difficult to utilise alongside the increase in whole class teaching. Pupils using the computer, often out of context, would be missing out on what the rest of the class were doing. Teachers were often unable to intervene at all.

It was only when cheaper display technology allowed the computer to be brought to the front of the primary classroom for the first time that it could be used to support and enhance the whole class teaching. The fewer opportunities for individual or small group use started to be addressed by timetabled ICT-suite lessons or by using class sets of laptops as funds allowed.

The situation was different in secondary schools, where whole class teaching was the predominant pedagogy throughout all of this period. The single computer at the back of room was always seen as difficult to manage and many teachers saw it as disruptive. IT suites were difficult to book at the times they were needed, as they were often monopolised by ICT and business studies lessons. Teachers proved reluctant to change their teaching methods just so that they could integrate the use of a computer into their lessons. Something that was a reality as far as availability of the computers allowed in the early 1980s didn’t return as an option for teachers until the recent uptake of interactive whiteboards and low cost projectors, although these are only in just over half of all classrooms with penetration outside the core subjects particularly low.

However, positioning the computer at the front of the classroom with access to whole class teaching software and broadband Internet access provides the opportunities to support and enhance what teachers and pupils want to do. It is worth noting that this is a good 20 years from when the first computers were deployed in secondary schools.


‘Traditional’ teaching technology such as blackboards and more recently dry-wipe whiteboards enable teachers to do the following: writing and re-writing; drawing and re-drawing; highlighting, and annotating. However they have always been a backward facing technology in that the teacher and pupil has to keep turning to face the board in order to write or draw on it. The class has always suffered from interrupted sight lines due to the teacher keeping moving in front of the board, and the restricted visible area because the user has to reach all of it. In this latter respect the dry-wipe whiteboard was a poor replacement, in some respects, for the roller blackboard where the ‘active display’ could be rolled up for everyone to have a clear view.

Many innovative teachers, prior to the onslaught of computers, switched to using an overhead projector (OHP). This had the same benefits as the white and blackboards in that the teacher and pupil could write and re-write, draw and re-draw, highlight, and annotate, and had the added benefit of being able to re-use the content as the acetate sheets could be saved. However, it had some significant advantages that made it a much better match to effective pedagogy. It was a ‘forward facing’ technology in that the teacher and pupils could use it while facing the class. It was easier to ensure uninterrupted sight lines as the teacher and pupils remained static instead of moving around in front of the screen, and there was a large visible area on a projection screen that was usually mounted high enough for those at the back to see all of it. In the light of these advantages, few of the teachers using one regularly would have seen any reasons to give it up and go back to using the traditional boards, other than issues with power leads (which shouldn’t be underestimated).

The interactive whiteboard was only a partial improvement upon the OHP in pedagogical terms in that it re-introduced many of the undesirable characteristics that the OHP had eliminated. We saw a return to interrupted sight lines due to the ‘backward facing’ technology, a restricted display size and poor visibility of the lower part of the board (unlike the old fashioned roller blackboard). It even managed to introduce a number of new disadvantages when compared to the OHP, in that there were health and safety concerns around the projector beam , accessibility issues for disabled users and a high price tag. It would be reasonable to ask why, in the light of all these negative characteristics, whiteboards should have been adopted in schools at all.

Partly this is due to the ‘wow’ factor of what could be described as an illusion that teachers and pupils can actually write on the board and move objects around as a result of some special technology, creating the impression of a ‘magic’ surface. In reality the interactive whiteboard is merely a larger version of the tablets or slates that had been used for computer graphics for many years. The interactivity is a property of the software running on the attached computer, which would update the display in the same way in response to a wide range of input devices. The ‘magic’ effect is produced by doubling up the touch sensitive surface as a projection screen, but this leads to both being unsuitable for the task of teaching.

A far more pedagogically appropriate solution would have been to keep the touch sensitive surface and the projection screen separate, allowing both to be fine tuned to the needs of teachers and pupils in a classroom. By using large projection screens and wireless slates, the teacher could have remained forward-facing, the display area could have been much bigger and positioned where all of it was clearly visible from the back of the classroom, and there would have been fewer interrupted sight lines as the slate could be used anywhere in the classroom, not just by standing in front of the display. The interactivity remains the same in both cases, the cost becomes substantially lower, wheelchair users (for example) can use the technology with ease, and there is less chance of anyone entering the path of the projector beam. Not only that, but the slate can be passed easily and quickly around the class, enabling more pupils to take part in moving the lesson forward.

The rapid adoption of interactive whiteboards owes much to Government pump-priming grants for this specific technology, enthusiasm from LA advisers and consultants, and blanket marketing by manufacturers and suppliers. Throughout most of this decade there has been no interest at all by Government, LAs or (understandably) industry for a much cheaper alternative that eliminated most of the disadvantages.


It is evident that there were, and still are, misunderstandings at every level – from Ministers and government departments to local authorities. To give just one example of many, the Science and Technology Select Committee reported in 2002 that “they [the DFES] give interactive whiteboards as an example of where developments in ICT "allow teachers to access data and images and share [them] with the whole class, in a way not before possible" In fact, this is an example of the use of a large display screen and has nothing whatever to do with it having a touch sensitive surface. Charles Clarke, as Secretary of State for Education and Skills, professed a personal interest in the application of ICT in schools , and in a speech at the BETT exhibition in 2003 he singled out Robin Hood School in Birmingham as an example of effective embedding of ICT. However, this was based upon the school using large projection screens in place of interactive whiteboards in the majority of their classrooms. In the same speech he went on to describe the use of whiteboards in science, quoting from a teacher at Dixons CTC in Bradford: links to a computer model of an electromagnetic wave; an animated view of an endoscope travelling through the body; X-ray pictures of injuries to a skull; simulations of different forms of radiation; and photos of scientists. What he was describing was the use of a large display screen, not an interactive whiteboard, but he went on to say “the power of the imagination unleashed by the technology in this area is remarkable and takes you to a different league of what can be achieved.”

A few months later, Charles Clarke gave a speech to the NAACE conference in which he said, “...we have to shift away from the actual technology itself, to take the best practice that is being developed and establish it right throughout the curriculum.” However a year later, also in a speech at BETT, he said that “[whiteboards] enable teachers to enrich their lessons interactively with a whole variety of different methods, whether it’s a video clip, use of the internet, multi-media presentations, colour visualisations and even use of their traditional blackboard skills in the way that it always used to be.” Again he made specific reference to interactive whiteboards by describing their use as large displays as a build up to a major funding announcement. Later in the same speech he said, “So today I’m announcing new funding to further extend access to interactive whiteboards” and “this money will enable us to expand the schools’ interactive whiteboard expansion project”. This significant grant funding specifically for interactive whiteboards was in spite of asserting less than a year earlier that we should not focus on the actual technology. The terms of the grant were so specific that it was very difficult for LAs to propose alternative technologies, regardless of the pedagogical considerations.

When the evaluation report of this IWB Expansion Project in secondary schools was released in 2007 it was found that “IWBs are mainly being used: as a data projector which can navigate to multiple screens; as a surface which can generate a dynamic rather than static form of display; to enhance presentation from the front of the class”. Furthermore, “in a secondary classroom the full potential of the IWB does not necessarily rest with its touch-sensitive surface, but rather with the size of the screen and the various ways in which the screen’s contents can be manipulated. This kind of manipulation can be enhanced through judicious use of peripherals”. Throughout this comprehensive report, in the majority of cases, the use of the term “IWB” could be synonymous with “projection screen”. Similarly, in an equivalent report on the primary schools whiteboard expansion project , a number of examples were given of the use of interactive whiteboards throughout the report that were actually about having a large display screen, although this is unsurprising as the authors pointed out that “at present only a small number of teachers have the skills to use a wide range of the interactive whiteboard’s facilities”. These and other reports have failed to properly address the real questions around the appropriateness of the actual technologies employed. These include: “why would a relatively expensive technology with so many disadvantages be specifically promoted instead of much cheaper and potentially more effective technology?” and “how can so much public money have been spent due to a minister’s poor understanding of the technology he was actually talking about?” Ofsted, in their recent report on ICT in primary and secondary schools , commented “There was investment in resources, particularly interactive whiteboards, but this was rarely the result of evaluated need.”


Between 1998 and 2002 Barking and Dagenham LEA set out to find ways of supporting and enhancing successful pedagogy with technology and trialled some solutions in a local primary school and at the City Learning Centre. Fortuitously, the Borough was chosen in 2002 to participate in the DfES ICT Test Bed Project which provided £12m of investment in technology and training would be used to transform three secondary schools and six primary schools between 2002 and 2006. The council was under pressure from the DfES to install interactive whiteboards in all classrooms but the earlier work had produced sufficient evidence that there were better alternatives, given the embedded pedagogy. As a result, all the classrooms were equipped with very large projection screens, wireless tablets and visualisers, together with the same interactive software that was supplied with interactive whiteboards.

Visualisers were included because they solved many of the day to day problems teachers and learners encountered in the classroom. For teachers these included showing something small to the whole class at the same time, demonstrating a precise technique (such as a brush stroke, a stitch, soldering) and annotating real objects. For learners these included sharing work with peers, and modelling practice. Teachers and learners will always look for, and use, the most effective ways of solving these problems which the blackboard and whiteboard, interactive or not, have been unable to address.

Through the evaluation of the ICT Test Bed Project in reports commissioned by Becta, case studies undertaken with teachers and an analysis of the Ofsted reports of ICT Test Bed schools it became clear that including a visualiser as part of the interactive technology package had brought many benefits.

However, in spite of the universal praise for visualisers from all the teachers who used one, there has been relatively little support for them from government or relevant agencies throughout most of this decade. There has been no specific grant funding, and visualisers were excluded from the whiteboard expansion projects. Nevertheless there has been, belatedly, some official acknowledgement of their existence, with a reference creeping in to the Gilbert 2020 Report and an example of using a visualiser appearing in two of Jim Knight’s speeches in 2009: “[pupils] are getting hands on experience of specialist digital resources and equipment, having had techniques demonstrated by the teacher on a visualiser.”

The authors’ firsthand experience in delivering the ICT Test Bed Project in Barking and Dagenham and working with very large numbers of teachers revealed a rapid adoption of visualisers by teachers with little or no training. There was an incentive in that it solved so many real problems, and the devices were exceptionally easy to use. This contrasts with the high levels of training and support needed to fully exploit interactive whiteboards.

Although this was less than clear from the ICT Test Bed Evaluation Reports, visualisers are a complementary technology and can be used with both large projection screens and, albeit less effectively, with interactive whiteboards. The extra cost of adding a visualiser to an interactive technology package can be more than covered by swapping an interactive whiteboard for a large screen and wireless slate.

Whiteboard manufacturers have started to address some of the disadvantages of their technology: using short-throw projectors to limit shadow on the board, and mounting these same short throw projectors onto fixed beams above the boards so that the whole apparatus can be raised up to improve visibility. Both are belated and incomplete solutions to problems caused by the technology in the first place.


It is the authors’ contention in this paper that the last thirty years have seen many lost opportunities to improve teaching and learning with technology, partly due to public policy inconsistencies and failings and partly due to technology being employed in education that was designed for a quite different environment. Throughout this period there have been many attempts by academics to carry out research on the effectiveness of technology and whiteboards in particular . Much of this research has yielded disappointing or inconclusive results. Invariably the research takes place after the technology has been installed, rather than before, or in cases where it has been possible to take a longitudinal view the choice of technology has been a fait accompli rather than a deliberate attempt to solve problems identified through research as barriers to effective teaching and learning.

The research community has a role to play in informing public policy, not just attempting to validate the effects after the event. We should be employing the same systems analysis processes in education that other sectors use: namely a thorough analysis of problems, issues and barriers to effectiveness, and then design technology solutions to address these. Barking and Dagenham LA alone lobbied the ICT industry for a wireless slate to provide the means to interact with a computer display from anywhere in a classroom but it was three years before the first one was manufactured. Had there been some academic research in this area which influenced local and national public policy, it is likely that manufacturers would have responded more quickly. Similarly with visualisers, a greater uptake would have increased competition in the market. There is still much improvement needed in our education system, and technology undoubtedly has a role to play. However it should be first and foremost fit for purpose. To achieve this, we must ensure that the purpose is clearly defined.


Friday, 22 April 2011

What could a good ICT lesson look like?

Some years ago I worked on a project which aimed to dispel the myths around what 'whole class teaching' is about. The aim was to show that it certainly wasn't about 'sage on the stage', sitting in rows, or didactic teaching. There was nothing inherently 'traditional' about the approach. Far from it. Here, drawn from that project, is a what an ICT lesson might look like at Key Stage 3 where interactive whole class teaching has been integrated into the pedagogy. Compare this to a typical ICT lesson, especially the amount of talking and listening.

The lesson

As the pupils enter the classroom they are greeted with either a presentation running on the large screen or a paper based activity already placed on their tables or on a visualiser.

They get themselves into groups and with a brief and clear explanation from the teacher engage in the activity.

The activity could be a general ICT starter or something that relates to the previous lesson and/or serves as a precursor to the lesson introduction.

While the students are engaged in group discussions the register is taken.

The activity lasts for approximately 5 minutes and is followed by a whole class discussion with feedback from all groups. Pupils are expected to listen carefully to each other, to respect each other's opinions and to offer constructive suggestions for alternative ideas.

The teacher then introduces the objectives for the lesson.These are in 'pupil-speak' but relate directly to objectives for the course unit.

Also at this point the pupils' attention is drawn to the new key vocabulary. This is clearly displayed on the wall along with all the vocabulary that relates to the current unit of work.

The teacher also explains quite clearly what the pupils should have learned/achieved by the end of the lesson. This is important as it helps the pupils in their self-assessment.

The next part of the lesson may involve teacher demonstration, teacher modelling, or whole group planning. This will be dependent on the context of the lesson.
  • Teacher demonstration could be related to software skills or techniques.
  •  Teacher modelling could be to show an example of the intended outcome of the activity (for example showing a presentation on the large screen that is fit for the purpose and is relevant to the intended audience).
  • Whole group planning could be putting the activity into a context: consideration of the planning process, the stages pupils need to go through and the intended point they need to reach by the end of the lesson.

During this part of the lesson whole class interactive teaching is paramount. The constant use of carefully planned (focused and timed) questions by the teacher is vital. The teacher should ensure that;
  • the pupils' responses reflect correct use of vocabulary.
  • their responses are clearly phased and relate to the learning intentions for the lesson and are understood by the whole group as this reinforces their learning.

Next the students are given the opportunity to put into practice what has been covered in the previous part of the lesson.

During this phase of the lesson the teacher is involved in observation and questioning (of individuals or groups). This is vital as it gives the teacher the opportunity to assess the pupils.

The students are engaged in dialogue/discussion of their work, developing their skills, knowledge and understanding of the subject and, most importantly, they have the opportunity to develop their ICT capability.

The students are engaged in continual self-assessment. This can be achieved because the learning intentions were made clear at the start of the lesson and pupils were given clear success criteria by which to measure their progress.

During this part of the lesson the teacher uses plenaries where appropriate. Flexibility and the need to adapt to meet the needs of the group are part of the teacher's armoury and ensure successful learning outcomes are achieved.

The last part of the lesson is the main plenary. This is a whole class activity and the teacher should encourage as many pupils as possible to engage in feedback.

The teacher draws out the main learning points from the lesson relating them back to the objectives set at the beginning of the lesson.

Again the teacher should use carefully planned questions and ensure that responses are correctly phrased using target vocabulary and relate to the learning experiences of the pupils.

Opportunities must be given for reflection and to think ahead to the next lesson thereby ensuring progression in the pupils' learning.

Appropriate homework is given.This ensures the students have an opportunity to consolidate what they have achieved/learned during the lesson.

Homework is also an effective way to prepare pupils for the next lesson. 

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Saturday, 12 February 2011

Farewell to the Westbury Centre

If you are reading this, then you probably know me, and if that is the case you may well have visited the Westbury Centre, the home of the Barking and Dagenham ICT in Schools Team for the last 25 years, although I admit that I personally didn't join the team until 1990 when I was appointed to the newly created post of General Inspector for IT.

For all of that time we supported all aspects of ICT in schools, and latterly in Libraries and Museums, from our base in the Westbury Centre in Barking. As ICT grew in importance in education, so the team grew in size and at the peak of the last Government's enthusiasm for ICT in schools, we numbered 30 people, from advisers to technicians and at one time the Council's corporate web team.

The Westbury Centre started out as a primary school at the beginning of the last century and it was not until 1965 that the building became the home for the Barking and Dagenham Teachers' Centre. It is truly a testament to the quality of the school buildings of its day that more than one hundred years later it is now being turned back into a school with a mere refurbishment. The pressure for school places has meant that all available buildings and space now have to be used for school buildings, and it is with great sadness that we saw the last members of the school improvement service relocate to other accommodation in Barking yesterday.

The ICT in Schools Team has found new homes in Roycraft House, the Town Hall, and the Eastbrook City Learning Centre, where they continue to provide ICT advice, support and guidance for schools.

From our perspective, the Westbury provided the focal point for all of our ICT training courses, and support operations, the hub for the £12m ICT TestBed Project, and more recently the Building Schools for the Future procurement process.

Conveniently located near to Barking Town Centre, many people visited us there. We trained hundreds of teachers, we hosted London Grid for Learning sector meetings, we negotiated hard with all our suppliers, we evaluated the latest technology, we entertained overseas visitors and we bonded as a team in a way that only the Westbury Centre could have enabled us to do.

Our first (and last) Interactive whiteboard was installed in the ICT training room on the top floor of the main building, where we ran the innovative year-long RSA ICT Dilpoma course, and all of our early work developing truly fit for purpose interactive teaching tools took place in the Annexe building when we moved the advisory and training parts of the team there, having outgrown our previous space.

So, farewell Westbury, but look forward to another hundred years serving the children of Barking as a Primary School.


Sunday, 6 February 2011

360 degree panoramas

Back in the summer of 1999 we were delighted to host a visit from a colleague from North Carolina and we spent a day around London with a tripod and a digital camera to make some 360 degree panorama views for use in schools on both sides of the pond. We used a Sony Mavica digital camera which stored the images on 3.5in floppy disks. The resolution was unfortunately much lower than we are used to today. Pressures of work and the passage of time meant we never got around to completing the project, until now.

The complete collection can be found on the Photosynth website.

One of the views was taken in the Council Chamber of the Civic Centre in Dagenham, which was later extensively remodelled as part of the refurbishment of the Civic Centre and Barking Town Hall. This is therefore probably the only 360 view of the original chamber.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Is the Kindle any use in education?

I love my Kindle. I am reading much more, and in places I didn't read before. This is because I carry it around with me always as it fits in my pocket, and I love the fact that it always seems to be charged up. I also like that it remembers my page in in each book I have started. I have loaded it up with enough reading material to keep me going for years, and it still has space for more.

Some important points I am completely comfortable with are that I am not trying to use it as a computer or a phone; I am not expecting full colour graphics; I don't mind that it uses a proprietary ebook format (as converters are available); I like that the screen is not touch sensitive; and the screen size and weight are perfect. I like the lack of a back-light, as it is easier on my eyes. I like that I could annotate the texts I am reading, even though I don't, and I can cope perfectly well with moving the cursor or highlight around using the 5-way controller. Anything that improves on any of these aspects would make it heavier, more costly, and reduce the running time on a single charge. In other words, less good for reading books.

It seems to me that there is a perfect niche for the Kindle in education where it outstrips all the opposition, and that is for literature and history students who have a lot of text-heavy reading to do. Lots of bulky text books to carry around could be replaced by one well stocked Kindle. What's more, students can annotate texts in ways that schools would rather they didn't with paper versions.

However, if I was an A-Level English Literature teacher, I would want a way of organising and managing the distribution of ebooks across a class set of Kindle devices. Currently it is possible with a normal Amazon account to register up to 6 Kindle readers (either the Kindle devices themselves, or Kindle apps on other devices) and share a purchased ebook among them. This would be cumbersome for schools. Schools would need a different system which enables them to purchase ebooks for multiple devices. I have been unable to find out if anything like this is coming, so if anyone knows more, please get in contact.

Giving every student a small, light, unobtrusive, long-lasting and relatively inexpensive device containing all the set books they need for their studies looks like a good move, set against the way this is done at present. Those who say the students could use their own smart phones, or their iPads, or their laptops, are missing the point. They are nowhere near as good for reading, and reading long texts is what I am talking about. A device that is Jack-of-all-trades, is invariably master of none.

Providing a suitable and tested template is used, teachers can email worksheets and assignments relating to the books being studied, directly to each device. Ebooks are never lost, of course, even if the Kindle is. They never get dog-eared, and the pages don't fall out. Sustainability is built-in.

I have spent years yearning for the perfect ubiquitous device but I've stopped now. I have finally realised that for some activities I want a really big screen, a mouse and a full size keyboard, for some I need a pocket-sized high speed communications device, and for some I now need a Kindle.


Monday, 17 January 2011

A few neat products at BETT 2011

Each year, it seems that most of what is on offer at BETT is slightly better or more refined versions of the same things, but this year a few products represented more than just gentle evolution.

First, Casio were showing their new Projector which is based on a long-life LED-based light source rather than a conventional bulb. They claim that the projector will keep shining brightly for around 15 years based on a normal school day. The device itself is extremely slim and quiet and gave a remarkable quality image when displaying high definition video. Casio website

The second product that caught my eye was iRIS Connect, which is a web based professional development tool for evaluation and self evaluation of teaching. A high quality remote controlled video camera with good sound pick-up from a teacher microphone means that an observer can ensure that all aspects of the lesson can be recorded and timestamped against a lesson plan. Teachers can use this by themselves for their own reflective practice, or in conjunction with peer reviews and mentoring programmes. I saw some potential for very similar technology to be used for recording parts of lessons for access by students who either might otherwise have missed a lesson or for revising the lesson content at a later date. iRIS Connect website.

Next, I was particularly struck by a new take on interactive response systems from Jordanian company Ketab Technologies. Unlike the typical handheld devices with number buttons, their system works with paper pads and digital capture pens that write with real ink like any ballpoint pen. This means that the teacher can bring up on the screen an individual pupil's long-hand answers, maths working out, or sketches. Using the pre-printed pads, all the normal multiple choice responses are available too. Ketab Technologies Website

Finally, the wireless slate (or portable Interactive Whiteboard) has really come of age with the latest product from eInstruction, the same team that developed the concept of the wireless slate as an alternative to the IWB ten years ago). This version, the Mobi View, incorporates a small touch-sensitive screen much like a smart-phone from which you can type using the on-screen keyboard, or launch different applications. A dream to use. eInstruction Mobi View website.


Tuesday, 11 January 2011

BETT 2011 - International Conference

I stumbled across the programme for this conference and thought a few of the sessions looked not only relevant, but positively useful. Although the conference itself was rather low-key and not particularly packed, I wasn't disappointed by the sessions that had caught my eye.

My interest is in Cloud Computing, and not only that, but how you migrate to a cloud computing model from the traditional "servers and applications in school server rooms" model.

First there was a presentation by Daryl LaGace, who is Chief Information and Technology Officer with the San Diego School District in California, USA. The title of his talk was "Managing 140,000 Mobile and Desktop Computer Users with Reduced Operating Costs". The catch, though, was in the title. The solution was one based on delivering virtual desktops to users, so it is clear that the operating (revenue) costs would be less, but we know from our own BSF procurement process that if you want to deliver a virtual desktop to each of your users, then you need a substantial central server infrastructure which has a high price tag associated with it. It won't go away, either. It will need to be renewed on a regular basis. This is because you have merely shifted the processing to the private cloud, out of the school, not eliminated it. By switching to web apps, which are designed completely differently, the processing requirement will be substantially less.

Daryl explained that a decision had been made that all future content resources would only be purchased if they were web delivered, but the virtual desktop allowed legacy 'traditional' applications to still be available to users.

The second presentation was from Yuichi Fujimuru, Associate Professor at Naruto University in Japan. His title was "Secure and Low-cost computing for Education". To me this was more useful, because it seemed to focus on reducing ongoing capital costs as well as ongoing revenue costs. His solution was to build a private cloud to overcome data security issues which offered both Hardware/Infrastructure as a Service (H/IaaS), and Platform as a Service (Paas) but to blend these with the public cloud to deliver a wide range of cloud based web applications which can be made available to the community.

Both of the presenters were fortunate in that their respective solutions were able to lever economies of scale. With the demise of BSF and the fragmentation of local authorities' ability to act strategically on behalf of schools, it is unlikely that schools in the UK could ever benefit from this cost reduction unless there is a change of heart by the Government.

However, investment by the private sector in the kind of infrastructure being built by both speakers and then sold on to schools in more than one local authority area could definitely be a viable business model, but there would be enormous complications around connectivity and managed service arrangements.

If only BSF ICT had been more about innovation and driving down costs, rather than transfer of so much risk and driving up costs, then perhaps here in the UK we could have been ahead of the game in this area by now, and the Coalition Government wouldn't have seen ICT as such an easy target.

One more point I picked up from Daryl's talk was that they considered it wasn't worthwhile to buy extended warranties with low cost netbooks. Better to buy some spare for swap-outs. And he reported a less than 1% failure rate

The rest of the day's programme was patchy. Heppel of course was his usual omnipotent self, and there was a disastrous performance from the head honcho at SSAT. All in all, though, not a waste of a day.