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Mac Planet: The NZ iSchool

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iPads and other portable computing devices are integrating into New Zealand schools. I talked to deputy principal Lenva Shearing, an Apple Distinguished Educator, at Bucklands Beach Intermediate about how the iPad is working out for education.

Bucklands Beach Intermediate, with a roll of 850, has a long association with computers, having started with BBCs back in the early 1990s.

As for devices, BBI experimented with iPods a few years ago but found them too small, from a pure readability viewpoint, to be useful.

Bucklands Beach is an Apple-using school, but is finding the distinction blurring between that and other platforms thanks to increased usability, compatibility, cloud services and wireless networks. Also, Bucklands Beach has iPads, with 50 available for whoever books them.

After those initial BBC computers, the school changed to Apple on the basis of ease of use for younger students and for its graphics capabilities. Almost two decades on, "Out of our four main contributing Primary Schools, two are Mac and two are PC, and the college most of our students go to is PC." (That's MacLeans College)

Looming on the horizon is Google Chromebook laptops - for reasons of usability, portability and, possibly most of all, price, many New Zealand schools are considering them, especially since many are already using Google Docs as their document creation, sharing and scheduling platforms.

For schools like this, Ultra Fast Broadband is eagerly anticipated.

Not that long ago, schools which went with either Mac or PC would have a Ministry of Education-prescribed list of software they could buy at special prices in bulk lots for staff and students. Now the Ministry is largely hands off, letting schools make their own tech decisions.

Bucklands Beach is already a committed user of Google Docs, and for a very simple reason: it's free.

Another reason, of course, is platform independence. All the docs are housed by Google's servers - the school only locally backs up its own office requirements. The student's work is always accessible, therefore, password protected, from Google.

"All the computers we buy are Macs, from desktops to laptops and iPads. But options are open on the Chromebook for next year. We'll get a few and have a look, since all we need to do with them is get online for Google Apps.

"But the Macs and iPads have a different role, for creating, using GarageBand and iMovie. You wouldn't use things like that on Chromebooks - they'd be just for uploading content.

"GarageBand is amazing, and our music teacher has an awesome education program with GarageBand. And iMovie is probably one of the most powerful apps we could have - even little kids can become very good editors with iMovie. And the pathway to Final Cut is excellent - I only learnt some Final Cut this year for the first time and I couldn't believe how easy it was, after iMovie. So students have access to really sophisticated tools at a young age.

"For school-bought equipment, we only have Apple. So far. For student-owned, we do have a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) scheme. And 53 per cent of students bring their own. But we don't allow physical connections to our systems if they have PCs, as we don't want viruses on our school system. If they want to print something out, they have to use a school machine. But the high percentage of the students bring Apple laptops or iPads; probably only a quarter of those students bring non-Apple."

The school's 50 iPads were bought for portability and wireless connectivity. "Students can film directly on the iPads and then edit them on them and upload them, all from the same iPad. We have high access to the internet thanks to the reliance on Google Docs. Wirelessly, we can have half the school online all at the same time."

Lenva has found the Bucklands Beach Intermediate students leave with effective technology skill sets. "Going from here to [PC-based] Macleans College, the change of platform doesn't seem to matter that much. Students these days, especially teenagers, know what they want to do, they are very adept at working it out and just doing it. They have enough skills to do that."

Lenva herself is a long term computer user. With iPads, she thinks the touch-interface of iPads and other tablets has removed a barrier to computing. "Particularly younger students thrive on the direct tactile connectivity to the applications they can use and things they can do."

The school iPads are bookable from a central place. Teachers book them online, via Google scheduling, for whatever they need for any tasks.

BBI works with New Era for their Apple needs, one of the entities that arose once Renaissance ended its Education Division (RED). New Era also arranges Apple packages for parents to buy or lease as BYOD if they want: laptop, backpack, hard case and Apple Care.

For educative issues, Lenva also deals directly with Apple representatives, which she really appreciates.

Which brings up damage and care. "We've had a few problems, like cracked screens. We've had some laptops damaged from people tripping over power cables - the Apple ones pop out (thanks to their MagSafe connectors) but the PC ones don't, so they can get dragged onto the floor." But theft and deliberate damage to devices haven't been issues in the school.

The cultural diversity of the school seems to have posed no problems to device use and take-up. Every ethnic group seems happy with the way things are used, although the school isn't as diverse as some, with the largest ethnic minority being Chinese.

For the most part, there seems to be no problems with the spend required for BYOD.
Parents can access their children's e-portfolios online, directly in Google Docs. "We like the parents being able to directly interact with the e-portfolios, and this is encouraged, but there's also a Google Share function if students don't want to tell parents their passwords."

With the teachers, Microsoft Word is still very popular, although many have made the switch from PowerPoint to Keynote for presentations. But Lenva only uses Google Docs herself, as she moves between three computer and an iPad.

Lenva believes the intermediate couldn't do what the school needs to do if it wasn't for devices and Google Docs. "It's extremely successful. We want each of our students to have an e-portfolio they can work on from school and from home, and preferably almost every day. And we want parents to be involved in it." With BYOD and Google Docs, the school doesn't have to supply hardware for every student.

This mode effectively blurs the distinction between school time and home time, which she sees as very a positive change compared to former perceptions of school versus home.

On the future for these students, Lenva says it's all bright. "The world's their oyster. Next year we are starting a Media course like Unitec's - they'll be filming, editing, producing and hopefully, showing their work in the local theatre. Creativity is now at everyone's fingertips.

"The students have got incredible problem solving skills, and they seem to be able to solve everything."

What would she like Apple to change? "I'd like Apple to come here sometimes and just ... listen to us." She considers. "The other thing I'd like is Apple and Google to be much better friends - I think they could work so well together."

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