Sunday, 11 March 2012

A Flying Start with iPads! But who will cop the bills?

Far be it from me to criticise our government for spending money on technology in education!  Technology has been responsible for some of the most innovative changes in education, and we ain't seen nothing yet.  Within a generation, we'll see a change in schools that will make them almost unrecognisable compared to what we see now.  So, why do I have such an issue with Qld Labor's policy to give iPads to year 7 students over the next year or two? 

It is relatively easy for governments to spend money on technology in schools - it goes down well with most of the punters, and makes you look like a politician with an eye on the future, a bit of a thinker.  Unfortunately, it is also easy for govenrments to waste money on technology.  Technology by itself doesn't do anything for education, and the general public would be horrified to know of the number of laptops and computers sitting unused in classrooms, in cupboards, in bags, right across the state.

The Electronic Jellybean

There were plenty of stories from early days of computers in Queensland schools of teachers covering them with tablecloths and flowers to hide them from students, or using them as an 'electronic jellybean', a reward for good behaviour or hard work.  Very little impact on actual education.

Education Queensland has developed some really good programs over the years for making good use of computers in classrooms.  Most of it is based on two really simple principles - get the technology to teachers before the students, and give them time and training in best how to use them.  The department also regularly rewards high flyers who develop good, scalable ideas for the use of technology in education.

So, how does the Flying Start iPad rollout stack up?

Firstly, there is no indication that the teachers will be receiving iPads themselves.  Even if they do, it seems they will get them at the same time as the students.  Now, for some teachers, that's fine.  There will be some teachers that will run with them and do some very good work with them.  But there will many others that just won't know what to do with them.  And to be honest, between preparing lessons, marking, behaviour, talking to parents and colleagues, and actually teaching lessons, finding time to work out what to do with a class full of laptops will be right down the bottom of the list of priorities.

What about the finances?

$5.7million for 5000 iPads for 5000 students averages out to $1140 per iPad - how does that stack up to real costs?.
The policy specifices a WiFi only 32GB iPad (or equivalent).  A runout model iPad 2 at these specs currently costs about $649.  Sounds good so far. 
But the policy also calls for a warranty (Apple Protection Plan).  That's another $99 for 2 years.
Schools also need a way of charging a class set of iPads, Syncing, and uploading Apps. Apple sell a cart for that, for the sum of $2600.  You'd  need one per class, let's say one per 26 iPads, or an extra $100 per student iPad.
Even with a warranty, you want to protect the iPads from accidental damage, so there's another $50 for a case for each iPad.
Want an Office suite software package so students can actually create documents, spreadsheets, slideshows and so on? Add a few other simple Apps in, and you're easily talking $50 at a bare minimum.

So how much is left now?  The school would be lucky to have $200 per iPad left.  For a school with 100 year 7 students, that's $20,000 to fund a technician, teacher training, teacher iPads, network infrastructure, increased internet usage.  And unless the government is going to stump up the cash each year, that $20,000 would have to last the lifetime of the iPads, probably about 2 years before they become obsolete.

$10,000 a year?  You'd be lucky to get a technician 1 day a week.  And if you think iPads are pretty rugged and won't need much maintenance, sit outside a school at 3pm and watch how the kids treat their bags as they get on the school bus or take off on their bikes each day.  There will be breakages.

So who pays?

Schools will have a few choices.  The money to really run the iPad program and make it work can come out of existing school funds set aside for maintenance, painting, furniture and so on.  It could come from increased fees for parents of students receiving iPads.  Or, they could just run a half-baked program where there is no teacher training, no technician, and no increased internet bandwidth. 

What  next?
It's great that the government wants to spend money on education.  But if it wants the money to be effective, they need to slow down, give schools time to plan, and in this case, double the price tag to cover all the costs.  Do that, and they can step back and let schools do what they're best at.