Choosing new tech for your school? Our guide has the answers…

2nd September 2016 at 16:30

Choosing the right technology for the classroom is often fraught with difficulty. Knowing which devices will work best is essential if you are to avoid any unnecessary disruption to your teaching.

One bad decision could mean the difference between delivering a perfect lesson with technology supporting your every move and losing precious teaching time while your students wait for their devices to boot up.

And, in a time of ever-tighter budgets, it is crucial that schools buy the right kit to ensure they get the most bang for their rapidly decreasing buck.

So to help you through the minefield of choosing the right tech, we asked teacher and director of IT Roger Nixon for his advice on introducing new devices into school.

Find the right fit

Unless you are in the very rare position of starting from scratch and able to introduce one operating system for the entire school, it is likely you will need to pick different products for different settings.

Nixon, who works at Wheatley Park School in Oxford, operates a mixture of devices throughout his school and has sought to get the best from his existing legacy products as well as bringing in new Chromebooks that utilise the Chrome operating system and Google Apps for Education.  

For Nixon, Chromebooks offer a reliable, safe and easy way to provide each student with their own personal device. “For most people, the obvious reason they choose a Chromebook is cost,” he says. “But it’s not the main one for me. For me it is manageability. The longest part of setting up a Chromebook is taking it out of the box.

“You enrol students onto your domain through a couple of keystrokes and then you are ready to rock and roll. There is no other device I could get into the hands of the end user as quickly.”

But Nixon warns that the devices won’t be suitable for teaching certain subjects. “It isn’t entirely practical to run everything in the same system because certain educational software needs additional processing power,” he says.

“So for instance we have CAD [computer-aided design] packages and other software for our laser cutters and 3D printers in design and technology, which are PC-specific.”

Similarly, the school’s media suite uses Apple Macs, which they use to run media editing software, such as Adobe Premiere.

“If you want to do some really heavy-duty stuff like editing a 4k video then you will need a local workhorse with sufficient processing capacity to do that,” Nixon advises.

Laptop or tablets?

For schools considering introducing 1:1 devices for their students, Nixon says there are a number of competitive products on the market.

But it is worth considering what it is you want to achieve. If the devices are more likely to be used by older students, who will require word processing software, then it is probably better to opt for laptops.

If, however, you are looking for something that can capture video, take pictures and run apps, then a tablet might be more suitable.

“The iPad is obviously a popular choice for schools wanting to introduce personal devices to their pupils, and Apple has launched a classroom management feature which gives the school better management over the devices, but they are an expensive option,” Nixon says.

“Similarly, Microsoft’s Surface now has a management solution that enables schools to pre-configure a memory stick and plug it into the brand new devices, which will install your school’s settings,” he adds.

It is also worth considering whether your school is predominantly using one operating system or another when choosing your device. If your school is mainly running Windows, then it might be wise to choose a Windows tablet. But if you’re using a Chrome operating system, then a convertible Chrome device could be a better fit.

Finally, don’t forget to check out the apps out there and decide which you are more likely to use. Both Apple and Google Apps for Education have thousands of options that might sway you one way or the other when picking your device.

Teacher training

Staff training is vital if schools are to make a success of rolling out any new device. According to Nixon, if staff are used to working with a certain operating system it could take time for some of them to get to grips with a new one.

Poorly planned professional development is one of the biggest contributors to new technology either being used badly, or not being used at all. Therefore it is essential to get sufficient buy-in, particularly from key members of staff, to make sure the roll-out is successful.

“It takes a surprisingly long time to break the habits of people who are used to doing something a certain way,” Nixon says. “You have to demonstrate to them how it works and explain the tools, but you must also have the enthusiastic members of staff who will be your pioneers – they will help train other members of staff.

“You can’t just dump a load of new devices in the school and expect people to know what to do with them.”

It is also important to have a strategy in place for when the implementation process will begin, and at what stage staff will be expected to start using the new tools.

“I would plan some staff training, and have an implementation strategy so you can say: ‘By this time we will be moving away from using this ecosystem, we will be moving away from making our documents using this software, and we will have the training at each of these points,’” Nixon says.

It is also important to ensure that staff are equipped and fully trained on their devices before the new equipment is rolled out to students.

Go big on broadband

Another essential consideration is having the right infrastructure to cope with hundreds of devices being connected to Wi-Fi. If the technology is going to work seamlessly, it is crucial that the school network and broadband can cope with the added stress.

“You have to have proper enterprise-­grade Wi-­Fi,” Nixon says. “You must have a network backbone that can take the amount of traffic you are going to throw at it, and IP addresses to all these devices. And you must have the bandwidth that is reliable and a method of filtering the internet in a way that is not going to hinder you and allow you to do what you need to.”

Nixon’s school operates a 1GB broadband line, and he searched high and low for ex-­business network gear – even on eBay. “We have a lot of kit, for not a lot of money,” he says.

Try before you buy

If possible, see if you can borrow certain devices to see which ones you, your colleagues and your students like best. Try to think how much support will be needed to run different products. Will you be able to hand the devices over to your students and not worry about them, or will you need to rely on IT support to keep them going? Go out and visit other schools to see what they are using and make sure you get recommendations before you take the plunge.

Michael Hickey is an education writer

Find out all about the wealth of Google tools available to aid your classroom practice here.