Saturday, 5 March 2011

Dictatorship by infrastructure

The school I work in had a bit of a problem in the summer holidays 2008 - it burned down. The entire school was split up and moved to neighbouring school sites, mostly into Portacabins, though Years 7 and 8 also surfed  the spare classrooms of Newmarket College. Meanwhile, Senior Management  were busy planning and equipping the new building. This was a hurried exercise, as St Felix will close at the end of the academic year 2011/12. Their aim was to reassemble the school within a term. I was consulted about ICT but for reasons of haste and insurance most of my requests were ignored. If such things interest you, here's one of my shopping lists.
The main thing I requested was to replace the bulk of our 100 PCs with the equivalent value in netbooks. This would have worked out at around 200 netbooks and an ICT suite of desktops. I had worked in enough schools to know that laptop trolleys are a complete pain. The trolleys are heavy to move, they rely on students plugging in the laptop on return (!) and unless the wireless network is very quick (they rarely are in schools) they are very slow to login.  Ideally I would have liked to see the netbooks sold/leased/given to students, but a small set (around 10) in every room was the next best. The insurance company wanted to replace like for like, however, so laptop trolleys it was. We are still living with the consequences. Nothing is guaranteed to put people off using ICT more than kit that doesn't work properly.
With the exponential growth of Web 2.0 applications and the arrival of Google Apps for Education, most "normal" curriculum work can be carried out entirely online. Media work too is possible, with Jaycut for video, Aviary for sound and images and a host of other sites that mushroom daily. Netbooks love working online - they have good battery life, their hard drive stays empty of programs and files and processor speed is irrelevant. A fast wireless internet connection is all that's needed. Although I'm not sure how many schools have that in the UK.
The ICT suite of my dreams had those curvy island workstations with breakout space for talk and paperwork. Unlikely. Then, if we must have rows then let the rows face away from the linear centre of the room so that all screens could be seen from one spot. No? OK then a long narrow room with back to back double rows with barely enough room to walk? No Problem. Well, yes actually. The 'organisation' of the room dictates the way you work. For a start, half the class cannot see the whiteboard when they are sitting down. For another it is difficult to organise group work. The room assumes that everyone will sit in front of individual PCs for the entire lesson so everyone else does too.
At best we work round this. Using NetSupport allows me to see what students are doing from my PC and also allows demonstration on screens by teacher and pupil as well as many other useful features. Google Apps allows groups of students to work on the same document. Last year we had the Drama Studio opposite and it was sometimes possible to move between rooms with a minimum of time wasted. But not this year.
I sometimes wonder how things would be if we had equipped the ICT room with netbooks and sofas...