10 reasonable questions every parent should ask about mobile learning schemes

10 reasonable questions every parent should ask about mobile learning schemes

An increasing number of schools in the UK are considering embarking on large-scale mobile learning projects, in pursuit of improved educational experiences and outcomes. For parents, this often results in requests for financial contributions to help fund a ‘one device per child’ strategy.

Some schools are doing this extremely well. They are envisioning, planning, training, implementing and managing the associated change effectively and are seeing the benefits they had originally hypothesised become a reality. In my experience, these schools are exceptional. The modal outcome is still that schools carry out such projects quite poorly, because they are extraordinarily hard to get right.

If you, as a parent, are being asked to part-fund a 1-to-1 strategy, what follows is a list of the top 10 questions to which it is reasonable to expect a coherent answer. 


1. What’s your time-frame for rolling out this pretty complex project which will affect every teacher and every student in every lesson, in quite a fundamental way?

a) We’re being more cautious than some staff and many students would want. There’s a small scale pilot underway already – just a single class and a few teachers – because we want to explore the reality of this approach before scaling up. It’s possible that we will decide not to go ahead if it goes badly. We also have to get some of the basics in place before going any further – the wired and wireless infrastructure need to be significantly improved and we need to integrate wireless screen mirroring into every classroom display. Every teacher will have spent at least six months training and operating with the devices for just their teaching. At the end of all that, we’re currently planning to roll out at about the pace of a year group per term.

b) In 6 months time. Come September, every teacher and pupil will have their own tablet. Don’t worry, we’ve got an Inset day on the first day back and the broadband is being upgraded over the summer holidays.

c) Pretty much immediately – I’ve been told to have some devices on show in time for Open Evening.


2. I must have missed your invitation to parents to help with the visioning of this. How’d that go?

a) Really well – we’ve had a range of parents involved in the steering group for a few months now. They’ve helped us to understand their concerns and to design in better safeguarding and behaviour management measures. Their experience from similar projects in the business world, industry and their home lives has been cautionary and inspirational. It never fails to amaze me what you can learn by accessing other people’s perspectives! Our vision for what this technology should make possible is really quite ambitious now.

b) The PTA are funding some of this. They’ve helped us to appreciate that we’ll need to use school funds to provide a sliding scale of contribution payments, based on families’ circumstances.

c) We didn’t like to bother them with it.


3.What has the reaction of teachers been to this?

a) Mixed, to be honest. Some are sceptical that it will work – they’ve seen numerous other technology projects fail to get off the ground in the past. Many are dubious that it will be a good use of time and resources. Some are really enthusiastic. It’s our plan to take this slowly, build capacity, demonstrate the benefits and build upon the already great practice that we see here every day, rather than tear it down in the name of ‘innovation’. We want to complement, not replace. It will be a challenge, but we’re sure our talented staff are up to the task.

b) They love it, all of them, without exception. We’re the type of school that sees enormous challenges of frightening scale and risk and blithely says ‘Bring it on!’ Except Maths. They are still refusing to hand over their board-compasses and OHP-calculators.

c) I was waiting until July to tell them, so keep this under your hat for now, OK?


4. So, Digital Leaders – what a great concept, eh?

a) Yes! We’re holding our first round of interviews with Y9 next week. It’s wonderful to see schools that have really leveraged the enthusiasm and knowledge of some of their pupils to provide technical peer-support and even training for teachers. The network manager at one school I visited reckons that her Digital Leaders deal with around 50% of first-line issues. We’re providing a specially coloured device case for ours, extra training and an app-evaluation programme. They’re going to be one of the cornerstones of our success, I’m sure.

b) Ha ha, so you’ve heard of that too? ‘Digital natives’, eh? Yes, I’m sure we’ll get round to setting up something like that.

c) Sounds suspiciously like allowing children control over stuff… We’re going to have software to stop all that.


5. What did your work with Student Voice tell you about how to do this?

a) The first thing Student Voice contributed was the idea itself – we have a teaching and learning subgroup and they’ve been discussing for a while now ways in which their experience in school might more closely echo every other aspect of life outside it. Since setting up our Mobile Learning steering group, the student reps have been instrumental in shooting down ideas that just wouldn’t work in reality as well as steering the project away from some dead-ends (the Finance Director was mad keen on BYOD for a while, but they pointed out that lots of their friends would be ashamed of their old phones or Aldi tablets).

b) We carried out a survey with the pupils to understand what kit they already have and are comfortable with. That has informed our decision to go with Play Station 4 as the device of choice.

c) Will you stop banging on about children? That’s the second question in a row! This is a technology project.


6. How are these devices being integrated into key learning processes, like course materials and issuing & submitting work?

a) We’ve spent more time designing this bit of the project than anything else, believe it or not, because nothing is more important than the ecosystem that everyone will be working in and the workflow that teachers and students are going to be using every day. We’re using secure cloud storage for all student work, so that they can get to it anywhere. There are some great content-rich apps for specialist subjects, but actually 95% of work is about productivity – making content. We’re using a suite of apps with collaboration built into their core, so that students and teachers can work on the same documents. We’re investing in a single app for workflow and making sure every teacher is rock-solid in how to use it; we’re actually about to write it into policy. The next step is to make our own textbooks, created specifically for our students and our courses.

b) We’re using email and Dropbox. It’s not perfect and it’s pretty time-consuming, but its free and people understand it already. That’s the problem with iPads you see, they’re not really designed to get stuff off them. Do we really need to anyway, you know? What with the cloud and everything these days? Funny name for it ‘the cloud’, don’t you think?

c) There’s this app that shows a heart beating in 3D. It’s really cool. No, I mean it, you have to see this.


7. How much of the school’s money is being invested in this project?

a) Quite a bit – probably about a third of the total that’s needed. We think it’s really important that we invest significantly in the success of the project, if we’re going to be asking parents to do the same! We’ve used some Pupil Premium money to provide a hardship fund to enable every student to take part. Most of the school’s investment is in training, staffing and infrastructure, over several years; it’s important that we don’t just focus on what the devices cost! Our scale has helped too – through a combination of tough negotiation, leasing and identifying the right partners, we’ve got the price of devices down considerably. I’ve created a very detailed financial model, so that I’m sure of the total costs. We’re hoping that we’ve put together a compelling scheme for families to benefit from.

b) Some – around 10%. Pus we got 3 quotes and kicked the suppliers a bit. In the end their pricing came down by 5%!

c) None, we don’t need to. The guys who sold us this solution said that parental contributions will pay for everything, even their cut. Neat, huh?


8. Who is leading the project and what is their capacity to do so?

a) I’m glad you asked – with a project of this scale and importance, we knew we needed to have an outstanding person leading it, and someone without a million other responsibilities. So last year we created the role of ‘Director of Digital‘  – an assistant head – to oversee this from the outset. We’ve been really lucky to recruit a brilliant English teacher whose experience in using technology to enhance learning is a massive asset to the school. She’s going to spend about half her time leading this, and most of that will involve coaching and training her colleagues. It was difficult to find the money, but when compared to the cost of the project overall, it seemed ridiculous not to invest in the thing that makes the biggest difference. The Director of Digital is on the SLT, obviously, because her work is at the heart of every lesson and she needs to contribute this perspective to the overall leadership of the school.

b) We’ve given this project to the Deputy Head. He’s in charge of assessment, the curriculum, timetabling, behaviour, pastoral care, EAL, safeguarding, trips and mid-day supervisors so he knows a thing or two about challenging projects. It’ll be fine, he’s a workaholic.

c) The Network Manager and the Head of ICT are in charge, so if you have a complaint, please take it up with them not me.


9. How much training will each member of staff have had before the children turn up in their classroom with a device?

a) Probably not enough, in truth, but we’ll have had a whole year’s run-up from pilot, to department champions, to a whole-staff roll-out. We want every teacher to feel totally confident to use these tools (and let the children use them) whenever they’re the best thing for the job, and that’s a big shift in culture. We’ve deliberately simplified the ecosystem around a core set of tools. The Director of Digital will be running twilights, CPD in directed time, drop ins, team teaching and overseeing some coaching triads. She’s also put together a digital course that teachers can use at their own pace on their devices. In addition we been given a number of specialist trainer days by the device supplier, which we’re using department by department. In all, we reckon every member of staff will have the opportunity for around 30 hours of development over the year. But you’re right, this a massive change management task and providing staff with appropriate support is an ongoing issue.

b) Like I said, there’s that Inset day in September and we’ll probably do some optional sessions nearer the time, if I can wrestle back some CPD time from Ofsted preparation.

c) iPads are intuitive. Even babies can use them, I’ve seen it on YouTube. Teachers won’t need training.


10. What are the educational benefits that you think this will deliver?

a) We’re not certain, because context is so important and robust evidence doesn’t yet exist in this area. Schools that we’ve visited where this seems to be working are using the technology to accelerate and deepen some of the fundamental processes around teaching and learning that meta-studies like those carried out by John Hattie or the Education Endowment Foundation have shown have the greatest impact. We’re really excited about being able to give our students faster, more meaningful feedback, for example.

b) We think that children will be more engaged in learning and in lessons. We think that access to the Internet and creativity tools will empower them and create more ownership. We’ve read case studies where lots of schools say this is what happened to them. We’re a school too, so that will probably just map right across to our context… right?

c) I heard a speech by a guy from a school that uses iPads. He reckoned they were the reason their exam results improved. People laughed at his anecdotes. He talked about their ‘journey’ and had a Macbook Air. I want to be him.


Award 2 points for each A) response, 1 for a B) and 0 for a C)…

14-20 points: Your child’s school is well on the way to making a success of mobile learning in a considered, discerning and professional manner.

8-13 points: Your child’s school is headed in the right direction but may need to reconsider the pace, or scale, of their plans if they are to avoid costly failure, both in financial and educational terms.

0-7 points: Your child’s school appears to be doing this in a manner and for reasons which don’t stand up to scrutiny. It seems unlikely that this will lead to anything good. Encourage them, constructively, to consider if this is the right thing to do in this context at this time.


Now this has clearly all been a bit tongue-in-cheek; I wouldn’t expect any school to have any C) answers to parents’ questions. The serious point behind this is that parents should not be afraid to ask schools probing questions about their mobile learning plans. The list above is an excellent starting point and covers the common issues that will give a window on a school’s readiness for this major undertaking.


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Link to Educate 1-to-1 book


  1. I wonder whether, when you have answered all the questions with option (a), which gets you full marks for feet-on-the-ground, eyes-wide-open, cautious pragmatism, you might not end up asking whether it is all going to be worth the candle after all.

    I throw my hat into the ring here as a constructive critic – I want this to work. But I am not sure that the formula here is one that will work reliably. It is like its a recipe for baking a cake which leaves out the eggs. And by eggs, I mean education-specific software – and the reason that there aren’t any eggs is that the hens aren’t laying.

    I’m really interested in question 6. Questions 4 and 5, Student Voice and Digital Leaders are all very well and may well be important too – but if you rely exclusively on student leadership without supporting teacher leadership at the same time, integrating technology into the processes of setting learning objectives, assigning tasks, monitoring progress, offering expert feedback – then this whole initiative becomes subversive of the essential nature of education. Lets not duck the issue here.

    So I have two comments on question 6, which is really about working out teacher leadership and control.

    1. Is it really an efficient way of doing this, nationally, to expect individual schools across the country to work out for themselves how they should be “designing this bit of the project”? Its a massively inefficient and probably ineffective approach. What we need is good software systems which automate the processes of “setting and submitting work” and all the associated transactions. Schools should be buying solutions off the shelf, not trying to work them out for themselves. Which brings us back to the fact that there aren’t any solutions for them to buy, prompting us to ask why that is the case.

    2. I think we are locked into a false dichotomy when we say “There are some great content-rich apps for specialist subjects, but actually 95% of work is about productivity – making content.” In this phrase, “content” is used to mean “informative media”. But the stuff of instruction is activity, not informative media. So when students create something – an essay, a video, a presentation, a model – they are not producing instructional content – the sense of the term that teachers need to start using – they are producing something completely different, a sort of learning outcome data, an artefact. And the instructional content that we need in the ed-tech ecosystem (and on the whole, don’t have) are the apps which will support curriculum-specific forms of creativity, as well as other forms of active pedagogy (investigating, memorising, manipulating, applying knowledge). The productivity tools aren’t alternatives to content – they *are* the content – and we don’t have them. Certainly not in forms which automatically integrate with the (also non-existent) learning management systems that question 6 suggests schools need to cobble together for themselves.

    It seems to me that we are locked into a chicken-and-egg problem. The reason that none of these software systems exist is partly because of our history of ed-tech provision being steered by disastrously misconceived Becta initiatives, and partly because of a lack of demand for such systems from schools. I don’t want to pour cold water on the sort of institutional change management project that you are leading here. I think it is a necessary and ultimately vital part of the equation, both in its own right and because it will focus minds on requirements and start to generate the demand for exactly the sorts of software systems that I am talking about. But I think we also need to see a revolution in the ed-tech supply market before this sort of project becomes something that schools can undertake without a great deal of trepidation.

    The ETAG report missed a huge opportunity by completely failing to get to grips with these difficult issues, and now all the politicians are off electioneering. But I hope that, come the summer, there will be an opportunity to revisit how these different aspect of the problem need to fit together.

    Thanks, as always, for the interesting post and for the opportunity to comment.

    • Thanks Crispin

      Hard to disagree with your point about the inefficiency of re-inventing this approach school by school! At the other end of that spectrum, however, we get ill-fitting, top-down approaches like that taken by the LA school district (which ended badly. It started pretty badly too, and the middle bit wasn’t that good.)

      I’m not sure where the middle ground should be… For example, I currently work for a group of schools and we centralise our approach to a level, but schools implementation of any technology is only ever facilitated and supported (or stopped, if poorly conceived). I think that because each school is, despite appearances, pretty unique in terms of culture, history and challenges, nothing will work everywhere.

      On the software point, I also agree with you – the sector is in desperate need of better, task-specific learning tools for the digital age. My comment about 95% of school work is productivity just reflects the lived reality in 2015. There is a lot of replication of tasks that previously took place in different media. These tasks are at least now more quickly completed, draw on greater sources of information and are output in forms that don’t necessitate levels of literacy/ presentation that are a bar for some learners.

      • Thanks Dominic. And I agree with that. I am not criticising your recommendations, aimed at they are at schools, trying to make sense of what they can do in the current climate.

        And I am am also completely with you on your opposition to top-down prescription. Though I think that there is a difference between this and centralising those bits of the provision that are suitable to be centralised. So long as schools are free to buy in those services that they think work best, you can combine central supply, which achieves efficiencies of scale and expertise, with bottom-up demand and control.


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