Success or failure is all in the implementation… so what works?

Success or failure is all in the implementation… so what works?

According to BESA’s 2013 report, 57% of Primary and 75% of Secondary schools plan on implementing a one-device-per-child strategy in the next few years. In most cases that will mean tablets and, again in most cases, that will mean iPads. It’s not unrealistic to estimate that for a 1000 pupil school, taking into account infrastructure, the total cost of such a project will approach £500,000. With so many investing so much in this approach, what do we know about how to make it work well?

You will have read about or perhaps even visited schools where a 1-to-1 tablet approach isn’t just working well but is suffusing the school with a culture of creativity and empowered learning. Part of the secret lies in the device – before the iPad arrived in 2010, almost all attempts to make 1-to-1 success foundered on the limitations of the technologies available, weaknesses which proved deal-breakers for the pupils involved. Weight, battery life, even desirability – on such trifles hangs the success of these enormous investments of financial and educational capital. The main lever, however, is that the iPad is an accepted consumer technology which offers children more than anodyne digital textbooks and yawn-inducing productivity software. There’s an implicit deal being struck in successful 1-to-1 schools; you can have this amazing device with which to lead your digital life, if you let the school make use of it as a learning tool as well.

It’s not only that the technology is intuitive, converged and supported in a rich software ecosystem, but there seems to be something special about the form-factor itself that encourages buy-in from staff and students alike. Unlike a laptop, the screen isn’t a barrier but an opportunity to share with those around you. Add the ability to wirelessly mirror the screen to the classroom’s display and it’s almost as if it had been designed to encourage adoption by teachers. But the tech is only part of the answer to why some projects flourish where others fail.

Successful technology projects in schools almost always rest on the quality of leadership and implementation (including training), and almost never on the quality of the technology. There are some very well understood implementation lessons that have been uncovered by research as well as learned through bitter experience, but which inexplicably remain bear-traps into which many schools still stumble.

The University of Hull’s 2013 study of eight Scottish tablet-rich schools identified the following success factors:

  • personal ‘ownership’ of the device was the single most important factor for successful use of this technology. It’s surprising how often this lynch pin gets pulled out by schools opting for a ‘class set’ approach.
  • teachers’ individual possession of and early familiarisation with the tablet was responsible for significant buy-in. My experience is that it takes a minimum of six months for teachers to prepare fully for a pupil 1-to-1 project. A year is preferable.

Echoing this, Naace’s paper last year also points out a number of catalysts:

  • the availability of tools and apps designed for learning, rather than those focused solely on engagement or ‘edutainment’. To give the change value, schools should actively identify creative opportunities which move tablet use beyond replicating existing processes.
  • reliable internet connectivity (from which we can also extrapolate the necessary wired and wireless infrastructure to support an unprecedented number of data-hungry devices. Summary – whatever you have now won’t be enough);
  • ongoing, high-quality professional development. And here we touch on perhaps what unites all schools that have made 1-to-1 work – a commitment to ongoing training and coaching. Successful 1-to-1 schools  seem to devote at least 0.5 FTE timetable to in-class education technology support from an expert peer.

An additional point would add to what these studies have shown is the primacy of leadership in all of this, which is another ever-present feature of successful mobile learning schools. My ideal ‘mobile learning’ leader would:

  • not come from a technical background, but is an outstanding teacher first and foremost. An enormous part of the role is convincing colleagues that all this is worth their effort. Some of the best people I know in this role are teachers of PE, English, MFL, etc;
  • be on the SLT and hence able to mobilise the senior support needed to embed change, even when times get tough. I’ll even go as far as to risk coining a truism here: if the Headteacher isn’t genuinely 100% behind the initiative, it will not succeed;
  • be given sufficient time to devote to the project and consequently a light teaching timetable. It’s astonishing how often mobile learning becomes the 17th responsibility of a busy deputy head.

Finally but most critically, and this is too often bolted on afterwards, for 1-to-1 tablet projects to succeed, the educational use case has to be rock-solid. If it isn’t, why on Earth would any teacher, parent or pupil buy into it?

A useful starting point is to consider how this technology could be applied to proven learning techniques. A good example of this is to be found in Harrogate Grammar School’s mobile learning project. The school knew that effective feedback is an important and well-understood component in students’ progress (see Hattie & Yates). They also saw how a tool – a specific set of apps on iPads to create a workflow in their case – that enabled teachers to do this in a more rapid, detailed and personalised manner would improve this process and accelerate learning. Tablets could indeed have a potentially sizeable positive effect on children’s learning outcomes but only if we look at how mobile technologies support the processes of, and provide affordances for, teaching and learning.

I’ll end by saying that effective large-scale use of mobile devices in UK education is really quite rare. It only works if done exceptionally well, and it’s irrational to expect a school that is struggling on a number of other fronts to suddenly excel on this one. Schools that enter into 1-to-1 generally do so in pursuit of change. If they are not truly culturally, educationally and organisationally ready, the kind of change that it can bring is that normally associated with bulls in china shops…


This piece was originally written by Dominic for’s ‘MyAcademy Magazine’

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