Should teachers have to pay for the technology they use?

It was reported today that the Australian Education Union in Victoria is taking the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) to court over the requirement of Victorian teachers to lease a laptop for school use.  Jewel Topsfield from The Age reported:

A highly contentious requirement that teachers at state schools fork out for their work laptops – even though they are essential for them to perform their duties – is being challenged in the Federal Court.The Australian Education Union is suing the Victorian Education Department, claiming it has contravened the Fair Work Act by deducting hundreds of dollars from teachers’ pay if they chose to lease a notebook computer from the department.

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A Brief History of the Issue

This issue first blew up 2 years ago, when the DEECD in Victoria stopped subsidizing the lease they offered to teachers. Teachers in Victoria are required to use a leased computer, being restricted from bringing their own to work due to software licensing agreements and the contractual definitions of the technical support supplied to schools.

When the lease program first started, it offered teachers a new model Windows notebook for a minimal price (around $4.00 a fortnight). Macbooks were offered as well, at just under double that price, but still heavily subsidized. As technology evolved and diversified, unfortunately the lease offers didn’t. To make matters worse, DEECD abolished any subsidization of the program. This left teachers with the full cost of a lease where they had very little choice of their device (other than Mac vs PC), and no choice over the length of lease.

For PC users, DEECD offeres the contract to supply the Windows notebooks for the lease program basically to the lowest bidder, and as a result Lenovo has supplied, what, in my opinion, have been some very ordinary models up to teachers (the edition running Windows Vista was a particular shocker, although Microsoft is as much to blame as Lenovo for that 3 years of leasing hell).

Not being able to enter into any bargaining agreement with Apple, the white Macbook being offered jumped in price from $7.50 to $11.50 after subsidization stopped. It also went from a 3 year lease to a 4 year lease. Making matters worse, it was the old white Macbook model, already scrapped by Apple and unavailable in stores. (This year, teachers will be offered last year’s Macbook Pro model, also at the end of its production life, at a cost to teachers of $17 a fortnight over 4 years.)

When I reported on this on my blog (see my original post on the issue: The Victorian Teacher Notebook Scandal) the story went viral on social media and was widely reported in the mainstream media as well. It seemed for the first time Victorian teachers were awakened to the injustice of being forced into a less than satisfactory agreement that was costing them a significant amount of money for a tool that they couldn’t do their job without.

What is the state of play outside of Victorian state schools?

Conditions for teachers vary greatly in this reagard in Australia. While some states have leasing schemes similar to Victoria’s, others have nothing at all. In some states and territories, if teachers don’t buy a laptop privately then they don’t have one to use, which makes encouraging appropriate technology use by teachers a nightmare for some schools. Many Catholic and independent schools provide laptops for their teachers. Some even provide a laptop and an iPad.

What about tablets?

This leads us to a further complication of this issue: the advent of tablet technology. In my opinion, the iPad (or Android tablet if you like) is essential and perhaps the most important tool a teacher can have. I’ve explained that in other previous posts, see in particular Evernote – an attempt at the definitive summary of teacher uses! and a pre-iPad post: iPhone: the Teacher’s Best Friend.

One of the first things I did as an Assistant Principal was provide an iPad for all of our staff. This means they all have a laptop which they pay for through the DEECD lease, and a ‘free’ iPad that remains the property of the school but is essentially theirs for personal use. At a school down the road, staff must pay another lease to get an iPad on top of their notebook lease. At many other schools, staff simply have to buy their own if they want one.

So what should we be expecting here? What digital tools, if any, should teachers get provided with to do their job?

I don’t believe its fair for teachers to have to cover the full cost of any tools that are absolute necessities for their job. Having said that, I don’t necessarily believe the best use of limited State money is to cover the full cost of notebooks and tablets for all teachers.

My opinion is that we need to look at this with a much broader and more modern perspective. When my blog post was published in 2011, much of the comments and commentary in the media turned into a Mac vs PC debate. Comments such as: “Teachers should just be happy with the $4 per fortnight PC and stop complaining. Why do they need a Mac anyway?” abounded. It should be obvious to all by now the ‘Mac vs PC’ debate is absolutely absurd and an unhelpful distraction. There are a multitude of devices now on the market that serve many different preferences and needs.

So the first thing to think about in answering the question of what teachers should be provided with is that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to technology of the past is long out-dated.

The next thing holding us back from answering this question properly is the attitude of many IT technicians that only certain devices should be allowed onto their ‘secure’ school networks. Everything is locked down and secured so tightly in a government school that typically only one device with one set of software is allowed for teachers. (at a real stretch and with lots of angst your average school tech will allow a Mac!) Besides the fact that this in itself is an insane approach to supporting a place that should be geared towards education and creativity, aren’t we past the local network age yet?

As a Google Apps school, I had to really think this year about whether we even needed the department image or school network for any of our devices. Almost everything we use is web based. We even have printers now that don’t require more than a WiFi connection. Shouldn’t we be aiming for school environments where you bring your device of choice and all it needs to be able to do is connect to the school WiFi? Couldn’t we use cloud based methods of putting any essential non-web based software onto our machines? Better still, couldn’t we use cloud based virtualization software to run apps on our machines when we need them, rather than having to store them on our hardrive and necessitate the running of Windows or Internet Explorer? In this way, any device could be used and run any software needed virtually.

With these things considered, wouldn’t the modern way to approach all of this be to provide teachers with a certain dollar amount that would subsidize the device/s that best suit the specific needs they have that may be school or subject specific?

If this sounds crazy, consider that there are companies that are already doing this. I spoke to a Cisco employee last year, who told me that he gets a certain amount from his employer, with which he can buy any device or combination of devices he likes that will effectively support the particular job he does for the company. He chose 2 devices with the money provided: a Macbook Air and an iPad. Any Windows specific software the company had could run on his Mac via cloud based virtulization software.

Now, obviously we’re not realistically going to have the same budget to work with in state school education compared to a multinational company, but the same concept can still work.

The point is, even if DEECD backs down in Victoria and provides all teachers with a certain notebook, we should still consider ‘one device for all’ the wrong path to go down.

It’s not appropriate for all teachers to be using a Lenovo laptop. Most teachers doing their job well should need a combination of devices. A PC netbook and an iPad. A Chromebook and an Android tablet. A Macbook and an Windows 8 tablet.

Whatever the devices, surely what works best for teachers within their specific environment to provide the best education posible is what’s important and what we should be aiming for.

I’m certain that rather than receiving a $500 notebook, many teachers would prefer to be given that $500 in one form or another every 3 – 4 years to subsidize the devices of their choice. We would need to put some sort of requirements on those devices to ensure money isn’t wasted and the devices chosen can do the job. A similar system of minimum requirements exists in most BYOD schools for students bringing their own tech. Why can’t it work for teachers?

What do you think? What agreement should exist for teachers in regards to providing the technology that is essential in their jobs?

6 thoughts on “Should teachers have to pay for the technology they use?

  1. Hi Rich,

    Thanks for writing such a balanced and sensible piece on this issue.

    As I mentioned earlier, I use my own laptop at school, and that, combined with my iPad, is a great combination for my needs at the moment. I know at many/most other schools BYOD wouldn’t be an option.

    I think thousands of Vic teachers will be envious of your program giving teachers iPads … even though it’s perfectly sensible…if not essential!

    Your proposal of DEECD subsidising teachers’ devices of choice seems like the perfect solution to me. Although I instantly know it would not happen. Why though? What is it about the institution we work for that’s so heavily fixated on uniformity? Does it come down to accountability? If all teachers have the same tools will the output be comparable? Well, obviously the answer to that is no but bureaucracy tends to see things differently…

    Another comment about having to lease our notebooks I’ve heard many times over the years is, “oh well, it’s a tax deduction”. I guess that’s a small advantage but kind of contradictory if you don’t want that computer anyway…

    Lots of good food for thought as always!


  2. Thanks Kath. You’re feedback is greatly appreciated as always!
    Sad but true that this is all most likely pie-in-the-sky stuff. But if no one speaks out and offers new ideas or generates discussion we can’t really complain about the ‘same old’ always happening. Approaching things with a new perspective gives others the permission to do the same, and eventually ‘radical’ ideas become the accepted norm (if they’re any good!). So hopefully this sort of post isn’t all a waste of time. At least maybe in 10 years or so when something like this finally gets off the ground I can say ‘I told you so’!

  3. True! I love that you always challenge different ways of thinking.

    Look at the whole IWB issue that you’ve been talking about for quite a while now. More and more people seem to be realising that zealously installing stacks of IWBs in classrooms isn’t necessarily the way to go. But only a few years ago I felt like it would be totally way off or wrong to say anything about looking at options other than IWBs…

    So the same may very well become true with your ideas about teachers and their personal tech devices. I hope so!

    Even though I sometimes feel trapped in the system it gives me hope to know there are like minded people in my PLN!


  4. Great well-rounded, non-biased account of the current laptop saga in state schools. Thanks for being a voice for so many teachers. Keep the “radical ideas” rolling…

  5. Another great post Rich. I’m with Kath on your proposal for DEECD subsidising teachers’ devices of choice. I agree that it’s unlikely to happen soon, but hopefully the day will come.

    The desire for control through locked down ‘one size fits all’ recipes rests on a fundamental misunderstanding about who knows best. The expertise lies with school communities and especially in teachers like you and Kath. You need flexibility, not straight-jackets.

    SOEs have value. They reduce complexity, costs, and some mistakes, but they also limit the educational potential of technology in the hands of teachers and students. Given the power of that educational potential, it makes sense to loosen the controls and give schools more freedom to discover new and better ways to learn.

  6. I would love to be disscussing Apple Vs ipad and subsidies but the reality as a ECE teacher in NZ i use a laptop on a daily basis for work but i have to buy my own or use the one work laptop only at work divided amongst ten teachers …

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