George Cole explores just why 'feral' iPads are an awkward fit for Shireland's ICT strategy
It’s not every day you hear Apple’s iPad being described as “feral,” but that was the word used by Sir Mark Grundy, executive principal of Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick, at this year’s Naace conference. There was no surprise that the comment caused consternation among Apple supporters, but Sir Mark is unrepentant. “All I meant was that we have really high expectations," he says, "and that if we invest in a solution, it can actually do what it’s supposed to do.
“You shouldn’t have to compromise what you really want to do, be it learning or some form of assessment process or a financial transaction. You should get it to work naturally – you shouldn’t have to compromise with it.”
Shireland Collegiate Academy has 1,110 students and 90 teaching staff, and has been a trailblazer when it comes to integrating ICT with teaching, learning and management. Its Learning Gateway, for example, is an advanced learning platform that includes a Family Portal regularly accessed by some 700 families.
'We found that with the iPad, you couldn’t manage learning'
Not surprisingly, Shireland has taken a keen interest in using digital tablets and it seemed natural to take a look at the iPad. But the results were disappointing. “We found that with the iPad, you couldn’t manage learning,” says Sir Mark, “an Apple educator said in response, ‘why do you want to manage learning?’ Well, if you are not about managing learning, why are you in this job?”
Shireland’s experience with the iPad wasn’t wholly negative, but the tablet didn’t deliver what the school needed, says Sir Mark: “We found that pupils could do some sensational stuff with them, but it was very difficult to get them to systemically change or improve the learning experience. The iPads helped us create some fantastic learning opportunities, but they were also the heroic ones that we had moved away from.
"Five or six years ago, our use of technology was heroic – it was amazing people. We had a group of people who could do very clever stuff, but everybody else couldn’t do it. What I saw with the iPad was that some really cool people could do some really cool stuff, but that’s no good for me, because I have to make sure there’s an equable provision here; that everybody can have excellence and everybody can move forward, and unfortunately, the iPad just didn’t give us that.”
Sir Mark also wasn’t impressed with the advice he received, “The bit that frustrated me was, when we got people into school to advise us [about the iPads] and instead of telling us how we could link the iPads into SharePoint or manage learning, they just told us how great GarageBand was.
'I wanted something that could make a difference to 1,100 students and not 11'
"I know it’s great, but I wanted something that could make a difference to 1,100 students and not 11. I’m not anti-Apple – we have loads of Apple hardware – but what we do is put a good solution on to cracking hardware.”
Kirsty Tonks, Shireland’s assistant principal for e-learning and transition, and teaching school director, adds, “We did have some teachers doing some great stuff with the iPads, and some peaks of excellence, but we didn’t have the impact that something like Office 365 brings. It took us so long to try and work out what we were already doing.
"Some of the schools that are using iPads well didn’t have the legacy of using technology well and we couldn’t afford to go backwards. We haven’t got time to work out how to integrate them into our existing systems and that was the biggest thing for us.
"Everybody was asking, ‘Why can’t the iPads join up with the Learning Gateway?’ Or ‘why can’t I ship data over here?’ You could do all these things, but it would involve buying six different apps and then having to teach everyone how to use them.”
'Where we were, and where we wanted to be, didn’t quite fit with the iPad'
Alan Crawford, assistant principal and head of post-16, adds, “It’s not that the iPad can’t do lots of great things, but it didn’t fit with our vision. We still have some iPads in school, but it didn’t allow us to have the same productivity, and allow us to mark and send back work to the student.
"Students struggled with how to integrate them into a PC on our network. Where we were, and where we wanted to be, didn’t quite fit with the iPad.”
“We use the phrase that ‘our use of technology is mundanely clever',” says Sir Mark, “and it’s a pretty good description of what we all do. The iPad is sensationally clever, but I’d rather have mundanely, because it works all across the system and I can expand it. And we can become sensational from the mundane.”
He stresses that, for some schools, iPads are great devices. “I had a head ring me last week and say, ‘I’m going to buy 300 iPads and I’ve just seen your comments. Am I making a mistake?’ It turns out that very few people are using technology in his school, so I said it was probably a good idea to purchase the iPads, as they might encourage more people to use technology in his school.”
Shireland checking out Surface RT and Pro tablets with Windows 8
Shireland hasn’t given up on tablets and is now exploring the possibility of using Microsoft Surface RT and Surface Pro products. Harpreet Mudhar, systems and network manager, says, “The RT is a stripped-down version of the Pro and you don’t get the same functionality. With the RT, you can only install apps from Windows Marketplace, and so if you have third-party apps that you want to use, you can’t put them on to the RT.” Sir Mark says they are looking forward to seeing cheaper Surface Pro devices.
Shireland has also been investigating Windows 8. Sir Mark adds, “We intend to move it across the whole campus in the not too distant future. We think there are some advantages to using it, and some bits we need to grow into.
"We had an early version of Windows 8 and it probably wasn’t going to be as practical as we hoped, which is why we will probably wait for version 8.1.” Sir Mark Grundy sees Windows 8 also as a means of extending the lifetime of the school’s hardware, “We think it will create a better legacy effect for some of our machines.
"As machines get older, there’s obviously an advantage to put Windows 8 on because it’s less hungry and that could give us an extra year or two. With the current economic situation, with a lot of schools stopping investment in technology, Windows 8 could change that dynamic.”
George Cole is a freelance journalist who writes about technology and learning. A former teacher, he is also the author of The Last Miles, a book about the jazz musician Miles Davis, and runs The Last Miles website