I visited the award winning Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy where they’re using Chromebooks to revolutionise teaching and learning.
This is an article I originally published in 2015, and while educational technology has come a long way since, I still fall back on a lot of the principles I learnt at IPACA when deploying new technologies in schools today.
While the technology may be somewhat out of date, a lot of the core concepts still hold true today, which makes this article worth republishing here.
Despite the grand name, the Royal Manor Arts College, now part of the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy, is a secondary school like any other. The carpark is over-crowded, coffee wielding teachers coral students into lessons, and there’s an argument about a missing school tie I can hear in one of the offices. But unlike most schools IPACA is doing something remarkable with technology that has impacted every facet of school life.
I’ve been fortunate to visit many schools that use technology in innovative ways, but most changes tend to arise as the result of a big financial investment or organisational upheaval in the school. That’s not to deride the impact on student education this type of change can have, but more often than not this type of innovation is neither scalable nor replicable.
At IPACA there was no parachute of cash dropped into the school, everything they have done is from within current school capital. To put it more succinctly, everything IPACA is doing any school can do.
A school like any other
It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m late for my meeting with IPACA’s Digital Technician, Jordan Day. As I sit in reception the early bustle of students getting settled down to post-lunch lessons is just beginning to die down and my eye starts to wander across the student art work that adorns the walls.
The building shows the wear of decades of students passing through the corridors. A rusty radiator hangs limply from the wall, window frames are swollen and peeling from damp, and the corridors are narrow and dark..
There are no futuristic open plan spaces, no airport lounge style reception, and there isn’t a curved wall to be found. Only the colourful posters proudly announcing the school’s technological achievements give any hint as to what is inside.
I’m collected by Jordan and we begin a tour of the school. We visit Maths classes, Religious Education, Dance, Drama, Science, Music, and Geography and I can honestly say it’s the most excited I’ve ever been about technology in schools in my 14 year career.
IPACA was the first school in the UK to go 1:1 with Google’s low cost Chromebook. In September 2013 every student was issued with a Samsung Series 3 Chromebook, and the results have been staggering. The school has won numerous national awards for innovation in ICT, and recently their Digital Support Team — IT Technicians to you and me — won a prestigious commendation award from Pearson.
This isn’t a gimmick or PR stunt, Chromebooks are now the centre of the school’s ICT provision. Desktops are simply no longer a focus at IPACA, everything revolves around mobile.
Class after class, row after row of students with Chromebooks. The devices are as much a part of the IPACA student’s toolkit as a textbook or a pencil case.
All we need is WiF and an Internet connection and we have a school.”
We visit an English class where 30 students are all sitting concentrating on their Chromebook screens reading Shakespeare aloud. 30 students reading Shakespeare from an LCD screen. The teacher simple shares the link to the page in the book and every student has immediate access to a text which would normally cost hundreds to distribute. All the classics are free on Google Books.
In an RE lesson two girls are using paper and pen while the rest of the class write Google Documents. I asked them why and answered that they “just preferred to work this way”. There’s no requirement for a student to use a Chromebook unless the teacher specifically requests it.
Classroom after classroom. None of this is set up for my benefit. Students tucked away behind bookshelves in the library are socialising with their friends — on their Chromebooks. Students sitting in corridors on Chromebooks. In IPACA a classroom can be anywhere with a WiFi connection.
Costing it up
As you drive through villages on the way to the Isle Portland, outside of the bustling harbors and restaurants, there is row upon row of boarded up shops, TOLET signs, and empty buildings. This isn’t an affluent area, so how did a school in this situation afford to give every student their own personal device when other schools are struggling to keep ahead?
The truth is there was no big financial investment here. IPACA simply shifted the money from their ICT and departmental budgets to focus on pushing technology in the classroom.
One teacher said he had concerns that his departmental budget had been cut to finance Chromebooks and had initially complained. But when I asked if he would do the same thing again, he answered, “undoubtedly, yes.”
Old for new
IPACA also had to invest in their infrastructure to cope with an influx of close to 1000 wireless devices. The strength of their Meraki wireless network was key to making the project work.
The school’s server room — more accurately described as an old cupboard — is a mess. A row of dusty Dell servers sit forlornly on a shelf, their power supplies ticking down to their last breath. Above the whir of the temporary aircon unit one of the servers is letting out a shrill beep, beep, beep. A disk has failed in one of the servers, and the computer is crying out for help — enough to put most network admins into a cold sweat. But at IPACA the technicians are relaxed. “Yeah, it failed yesterday, but we probably won’t replace it.”
IPACA is making a big push to use cloud services where possible. Everything from their asset management system, to their web filtering is hosted outside of the school. And while this type of set up brings data protection complications it’s given the school amazing flexibility.
Because IPACA’s web filtering is cloud hosted, when the students get home their Chromebooks can be monitored and filtered in exactly the same way as they are in school, and the school’s wireless network can be managed from any computer with a web browser.
The school has a single server with multiple Windows Server virtual machines running essential services like DHCP and DNS, but all file storage, email, and collaboration is done through Google Apps.
Any new services the school take on — whether internally or externally hosted — have to be accessible through a web browser. Even the school’s MIS system was swapped out in favour of Progresso for exactly this reason.
Staff Training & CPD
The school does CPD to share innovative uses for Google Apps and technology in general, but there was no formal Google Apps training for either staff or students. Knowledge has been shared organically throughout the school and students have put pressure on teachers to use Google Drive to share documents and as collaboration has increased everyone has been forced to get involved.
Outside of the hardware the thing I find most exciting is how engaged the staff are. On the tour every teacher I speak to has on opinion on how best to use technology in the classroom. In Drama they’re using the Chromebook camera to record and playback performances, in English they’re reading text from the Chromebook screen, in Maths the students are collaborating on a probability task the results of which is displayed on the class projector.
But that’s not to say that Chromebooks are the only devices accessible at IPACA. The school’s Digital Services team are anxious to state that while Google’s laptops may be the school’s “go to” device, there are still iPads and Windows desktops around for specific tasks.
The Digital Technicians consider the school platform agnostic — yes, Chromebooks are their primary platform but they also support and encourage the use of iPads, laptops, and in future plan to push out a BYOD network to allow students to bring in their own devices from home. “We want students to use the most suitable device for the task, not the one we dictate,” said Jordan.
Outside of the impact on teaching there have also been huge cost savings at IPACA. The reduction in printing, managing internal hardware, and support contracts have all meant that money can be focused on creating impact in the classroom rather than on maintaining services.
Dealing with Realities
Of course the school also has to deal with the realities of 800 students taking a school device home. Accidental damage is an issue for the school, but one they anticipated and deal with pragmatically. On a desk in the IT office sit at least 30 damaged Chromebooks, and there are at least 30 more under the table, plus a bucket of spares and damaged parts.
Of the 800 Chromebooks handed out in September 2013, 300 had come back in for screen repairs in the first 9 months. For most schools a 40% turn over of ICT equipment would be disastrous, but not at IPACA. Screen replacements cost just £12 and repairing them takes less than 5 minutes. This is disposable hardware. Jordan estimates that less than £3000 has been spent on repairs over the first 12 months of the scheme.
There have been thefts…well, one, and the culprit was caught pretty quickly. Because every student has a Chromebook there’s little incentive for theft.
IPACA doesn’t have any processes in place for charging during the day, there are no loan power cables, students are just expected to have them. If they don’t they have to find a solution themselves — either borrowing one from a friend or have their parents bring in their charger.
The school has just taken out their first Windows ICT suite and they plan to remove more in future. When I speak to the students it’s clear why. Given the choice between a brand new Windows desktop and their Chromebook, every student I met chose the Chromebook. In the Library I spotted three students sitting on RM One Windows desktops creating a presentation in Google Slides. Thinking I’d rumbled the game I asked why they were using Windows instead of their Chromebooks. The answer was that they’d forgot to charge them up.
Student responsibility is a big focus for IPACA. Yes, students forget to bring their Chromebook in, or forget to charge them, but these situations are dealt with as a normal school disciplinary issue akin to forgetting your pencil case or PE kit.
The way IPACA deals with technology is different to any school I’ve visited. The low cost hardware, cheap repairs, and cloud services turn devices from precious gold bars that students are fearful to scratch to practical objects.
Accessibility is king
IPACA’s success isn’t about having the fastest computers, the most modern device, or the most sophisticated network. It’s about getting technology into the hands of as many students and teachers as possible.
I came away from IPACA buzzing with excitement. What they have done is prove that you don’t need huge piles of cash to make a huge impact with technology.
I’m writing this article on a rocky cliff edge overlooking the sea. I have no WifFi at all, and I’m doing it on a Chromebook. After visiting IPACA I’m left more convinced than ever that low cost, disposable devices like the Chromebook are the answer to every school’s ICT procurement problem.
We need to move away from the expensive devices and leasing schemes that currently define school 1:1. It doesn’t matter how powerful the device you hand to a student is if the student next to them can only peer over their shoulder and observe. IPACA proves that accessibility has the greatest impact on learning above all other factors.
Thank you to Gary Spracklen, Jordan Day, IPACA’s Digital Services Team, and the staff of the Royal Manor Campus for your hospitality during my visit.