About a week or so after I got back from the conference we distributed the phones to the senior pupils. It was a few months later than planned but at least we'd managed it. The idea was that with unlimited internet access on the phones, the pupils would be able to research on the web, upload photos and videos of science experiments, and record French, German and Spanish speaking practice for example (I believe we are the only school in Edinburgh to offer three foreign languages)
There were teething problems. Issues with the keyboard on one phone, another phone that didn't have the website filtering installed, sites that were blocked that we wanted unblocked, a cracked screen. Nothing too major within the first few days. However a couple of days after the launch I had to go off on sick leave. This was the first problem that we couldn't really have avoided. There was now no-one with the time to do the troubleshooting or chasing up companies.
The bonus to the project was the phone provider, O2, offered us unlimited calls and texts to other O2 customers. This meant that the pupils could call and text each other at no extra expense. We were told there was £5 of 'credit' on the phones, and as soon as that was used it would cut off and they wouldn't be able to make any calls to non-O2 numbers (except 999, of course).
This turned out to be the second problem we couldn't really have avoided.
This cut-off wasn't set up properly by O2. Yup. Give a bunch of 17 year olds a phone and say there is £5 of credit before cutting off and they will use it. We encouraged them to use it. We were happy for them to be using the phones. The kids did point out they felt they had been using it a lot so we checked up and were assured by the company that there was a £5 cut-off in place. There wasn't. I don't know the exact figure, but I believe it was pretty scary(*).
It took us a while to work this out though. First some phones' data connections were intermittently not working. It got confusing and we couldn't figure out why some pupils could get internet and others couldn't. The already-overworked teachers involved in the trial were getting very stressed. I visited the school under the disguise of bringing in some science resources that Sean didn't want any more. As I signed in I was warned by the bursar "I trust you're not here to do any work?!" I assured her I wasn't and was then warned I wasn't insured if I was working. Oh, what a workaholic reputation I have!
After testing the modem settings then switching sim cards round, we realised the issue was not with the phones but the sims, or more particularly the accounts. After a couple of phone calls we realised the problem. It took a while and a lot of phone calls I believe, but the pupils phones and internet connections were working again...until O2's billing computers didn't speak to their call blocking computers the next month. The system still thought we owed them lots of money so started blocking access again. I think this also happened again the next month.
By this time, naturally, the pupils had got fed up wih the phones not working and had stopped bringing them in to school. The teachers in the trial couldn't rely on the phones working or the kids having the phones, so they didn't use them in much lessons. This then gave the pupils another reason not to bring them, as they weren't using them in school. By the time the issues were resolved the pupils were into the serious revising season.
Is there a way to rescue the project? I'm not sure. We still have the phones, we could launch again with next year's fifth years, but we'd need to find enough money for the year's line rental, and this would be difficult to get given this year's success rate. We have the line rental until October, but it wouldn't be fair to the new fifth years to give them phones for two months then take them away again.
Could we have done anything differently? I don't think so. The only thing would have been releasing someone for a couple of periods a week for some time to do the troubleshooting and phone calls so the problems could have been resolved quicker. Unfortunately this wasn't possible because we had staff off ill (sorry!) I did even wonder if I should have carried on for another week or so more, but I really was struggling to cope by the time I went off ill.
Should I apply to present again at the Handheld Learning conference this year? I'd like to, although I think it will be difficult getting time off school once I'm back. I don't think we fit into the strand of "successful Scottish projects" though! Maybe we were. It felt like a huge victory getting past all the beaurocracy and legal paperwork to get the phones to the kids in the first place.
Were the beaurocrats right, that we shouldn't give mobile phones to pupils? NO. I still firmly believe that this is the right way to go in education. Mobile technology is enabling and motivating for young people, and all young people should have equal access to technology. Mobile devices let young people learn wherever they are, and in ways that are exciting and fun. This is the way forward, we just need mobile phone providers to be more adaptable and aware of the education market and students' needs.
(* all O2's fault. No public money has been wasted on huge phone bills for teenagers, trust me!)