(Tab)let them eat cake

Last Monday we held our first Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meeting of the term. I have mentioned this group before  but I would reiterate what a really good vehicle it is as a way of getting staff from across the school together and this week’s meeting was no different. The topic of the session was “the future of tablets in education”. Although this was a broad and wide ranging matter it gave rise to some very interesting discussion and exploration. From the start we put the issue into context by outlining that the technological infrastructure required to run tablets was not the issue we were trying to address. We felt that there was no point spending time talking about WiFi, charging points, storage, etc. Instead by imagining that all of these administrative details were in place we could focus more squarely on actually using a tablet for teaching. As a final reference point it was also made clear that we were talking about tablets in general rather than any particular model.

The session was incredibly illuminating and as a quasi-luddite I was fascinated by the ideas staff had for using tablets to help teaching and learning. In fact it presented me with quite a challenge to transcribe the minutes. Not only was there a range of opinions but also different levels of actual experience shared during the session. (As an aside with reference to meeting minutes, my personal feelings are that there is a real art to getting them right. Whoever writes them can be a scribing Shane Warne, spinning comments one way or another. In my other life as a head of department this can be quite useful! However, to try to keep as much veracity in the TLAG minutes I emailed a draft around to those who attended so they could check I had captured the sentiments expressed correctly) To lay my cards down on the table I am currently cynical of the effectiveness or tablets in improving teaching, learning and assessment in my own classroom. There is no real problem that I think they would address and I wonder whether they might actually make life harder for me. Whenever I think about change, new ventures or novel ideas these two points are my fist questions: “what problem does it solve?” and “will it make more work than the previous option?” However, I am always open to listening to new ideas and the wisdom of others:

“I not only use the brains that I have, but all I can borrow” Woodrow Wilson

Over the issue of teachers using tablets for email and as organisers there seemed more agreement in their usefulness. It is easy to see how a Drama or PE teacher could give feedback on a performance or skill instantly to a group of students by using the video or camera and then playing it back; you would be mad to suggest it would not help or be an impact on their learning. My personal opinion is that I would definitely benefit from having access to a premium model as an organiser and way of working away from my desk.

However, there were the beginnings of two camps with regards to student use. Some could see subject specific niches that they would fill and therefore enhance learning opportunities. But here comes the greatest sticking point for me; how do we know that they actually improve learning? Where are the double-blind placebo-controlled studies? It makes me twitchy to think that such finite hardware costs so much. Is it a humungous white elephant? Especially considering my dubious views on the end product; I struggle to think of any use for them in my next week’s teaching. Genuinely nothing. I have no doubt that they would be great for a research lesson and a colleague who has taught in a school that used tablets confirmed this. However, it was also pointed out that even 100 years ago pupils at our school have had access to more information and knowledge than they would ever possibly need via the library. The problem is guiding and focusing learning.

Just in case you were unsure, The animal above is a dinosaur. (Image taken from www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Just in case you were unsure,
The animal above is a dinosaur.
(Image taken from www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Whilst I am airing my slightly prehistoric views I also raised the point that the vast expenditure of buying in tablets and pimping up the technological infrastructure could be used to employ more staff. Perhaps this might alleviate some of the admin tasks that teachers face on a day to day basis actually allowing them more time to focus on their teaching, learning and assessment? I also think that without days, if not weeks, of expert training the teaching body will never be able to make the most of tablets.

A common theme that cropped up in our meeting was that using this sort of equipment should not be foisted upon staff. A lot of my reaction to tablets is most likely the “yuck factor” that my university lecturers used to explain why people took certain views on ethical issues in biology. I certainly have some fear of the brave new world of techno-education and I will admit that most of it is probably due to not being aware or exposed to the opportunities that exist for using tablets effectively in the classroom. However, for me the biggest issue is the doubtful pedagogical effect these devices would have. As another colleague who got all Tom Cruise said during our session:

SHOW ME THE MONEY! (Image taken from Wikipedia)

SHOW ME THE MONEY!
(Image taken from Wikipedia)

For me the crux of the matter is what problems do tablets solve and will they create more? A common concern was whether they will prove to be a greater distraction in the classroom. In my opinion undoubtedly. You might argue that we should be guiding students in how to use technology and avoid potential distractions. After the session I was interested to read a blog from a university lecturer in the US who has moved away from using technology all of the time with his classes. The writer references a metaphor used by Jonathan Haidt of an elephant and rider which I think neatly sums up the problem of student distraction. There will be many who think we should indeed be strengthening the “rider” when using new technologies and I would agree to a certain extent. But why introduce a definite distraction unless it has a definite positive effect?

There is no doubt in my mind that tablets have the potential to be very useful, but they are no panacea for improving student performance. And I would go so far as to say they never will be. Instead they will be another tool in the arsenal, a quicker method of completing tasks, another resource to use in conjunction with a variety of others. The tablet should not be central to learning but rather a device to support it. My line manager is a very wise beast and he summed it up nicely when saying that we should not be blinded by “tabletmania”; only when a sub-£100 tablet makes them truly ubiquitous within education will we start to really see their best uses as they start to naturally evolve. To conclude I found the information shared and the issues explored a real eye opener. I have a lot more reading to do on the subject and I look forward to coming back to this topic with a little more wisdom and perhaps different point of view in the future.

Header image taken from Flickr.

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One thought on “(Tab)let them eat cake

  1. Pingback: (Tab)let them eat cake II | tlamjs

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