"If you're writing poetry, write it. Don't type it in just because you can." The classroom is changing, as new technologies dramatically alter the learning for both teachers and students. And at the heart of this change is the tablet.
You might not think of the classroom as a key market for big companies such as Apple and Google, but according to research conducted by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), there will be nearly a million tablets in UK schools alone by 2016.
That's indicative of a vast worldwide market. Manufacturers understandably want their share – and it comes with some significant benefits to education too. According to BESA, the iPad has the lead at the moment, with 50% of secondary schools preferring the iOS platform compared with 29% for Android. Apple has confirmed it's sold over 15 million iPads into education alone. That would explain the significant investment in dedicated education platforms: Apple has iTunes U to make virtual courses, iBook textbook creation, an education section in the App Store and the Apple Distinguished Educators program, where Google has only recently launched the Google Play for Education portal to help teachers find dedicated apps and books.
The iPad has such popularity in education that the city of Sneek, Holland, there's an institution called the Master Steve JobsSchool. Here, Apple's tablet is more than a convenience – it's the foundation of the whole educational philosophy. Everything is channelled through the digital hub, and teachers are referred to as "coaches". This leads to a bigger question: is the iPad a tool for teachers to use, or could it actually replace them?
A tool to make good teachers better
Unsurprisingly, the answer from the schools I interviewed was emphatically "no". However, most are hugely enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by the iPad as a tool to allow good teachers to improve their educative skills. "The iPad in itself will not impact results on its own," said a blog post from the de Ferrers Academy, a state school that's been trialling 1:1 iPads for its GSCE and A Level students for three years, talking about the positive impact of the tablet in the classroom.
"However, for staff [the benefits are] making effective use of it, the intense focus on leveraging its ability to transform/deliver rapid AFL, effective feedback, independent study/research… and 24/7 access to support and learning resources via iTunes U/Google Drive." To find out how teachers are using the iPads on a daily basis to improve their teaching I met with teachers Daniel Edwards (Director of Innovation and Learning) and Simon Armitage (Director of Communication) at the Stephen Perse Foundation schools in Cambridge, UK, where each child from 11 years old is given their own iPad.
One of the things that came up time and again from the teachers I spoke to is the fact that tablets have a camera and large screen, massively opening up the way children can interact with homework, document their work to refer back and improve and more easily share with parents and teachers alike. For instance at the Stephen Perse Foundation schools, a class was set a task to identify 20 household objects, find out how they were made and use this information to explain how globalisation is present in every home.
Instead of doing a list or a static video, one pupil looked at the two options and mixed them together, creating an iMovie that showed an animated map to represent the objects, adding in stop motion. "What was great was she clearly had fun and got the whole family involved," said Armitage. "Getting the parents involved is something we've struggled with at schools, but proved to be one of the most impactful areas," added Edwards. "If a child is doing video all around the home, the parents must be asking what's going on, they would have talked about the project, and parents love to see engagement in learning."
Even for younger age groups, tablets are having a strong effect on learning, as a growing number of schools publish the children's work for parents to see. Even with strictly controlled use (and limited to one per three children) the children are more aware of what the projects they're doing mean. "If you post [pupil's projects] to a blog regularly, five-year-olds will say 'hang on' before you take a picture and then correct their work," said Edwards. "Trying to get that review process is almost impossible to get into the brain of child that young, so I'm told."
The results are in
Like the Stephen Perse Foundation schools, the de Ferrers academy has been running an iPad trial for three years, and has conducted studies which show an improvement in A-Level grades through tablet use – including a record result in Maths and Phsyics for the first group of students equipped with their own iPads in 2012. The same study showed a tremendous appetite for the new educational tool from the students, with 82% citing the tablet as having a "positive" or "very positive" effect on their learning experience.
This upturn in results and attitude towards the technology is also giving teachers more freedom to develop a closer educational relationship with the pupils. Instead of simply dictating lessons from the front of the class, it lets teachers see where students have learned and where there's need for further clarification.
This can come from a simple set of questions answered in an online test – giving instant answers and showing where the gaps in learning might be - to getting pupils to give audio recordings of their voice with projects. This information, and the speed at which it's returned, can then be used to prepare more targeted lesson plans, saving time and helping children learn more effectively in the process.
Who's the teacher?
Some parents might worry that the iPad will become a crutch for teachers, a way of easily creating lessons that are showy and exciting but don't really teach a child in the same way as traditional methods. But those using the technology believe it can enhance the established systems rather than replacing them. "The curriculum will define the content you require and the skills you would use to teach, but you would always adapt that, however you're teaching. That's the point," says Edwards.
"For instance: a seven-year-old is given the water cycle to learn, and they've got to use a definition, an explanation, and a review. They can define it on paper, explain it and then review it by asking other people to comment. "But what the teacher wants is their unique voice. I can get an audio recording of each module from every student and I can get what they understand and don't from their voice – and you get more from that than what they write."
Edwards also pointed out how this worked in the opposite direction, with the iPad allowing him to give more feedback without adding time to his working day. "I had one class I marked with written work, and one that I annotated and recorded my voice. When I read out the written feedback, it was about 30 seconds long, where my video was 90 seconds. That's three times as much feedback in the same length of time for marking, because I had this device in front of me."
Putting U in the middle
At the core of this iPad learning is iTunes U. Apple's online portal allows teachers to create courses that are available to all those enrolled. With over 1.3 billion course downloads already, it allows teachers to set up the lesson materials for each student level the night before and offers students access at any time to the resources used in lessons – meaning pupils of different abilities can be catered for in lesson plans by adding in different elements appropriate to their level.
The resources in the iTunes U program are vast: it can include anything the teacher wishes, from web pages to PDFs to videos and pictures. Apps play a big part too, with students being asked to use dedicated tools to help explain elements of lessons more simply. May iPad harm children?
Most of these courses are private, with a code needed from the teacher to get access. However, courses are increasingly being made public, allowing anyone to access to information on subjects ranging from evolution in the Galapagos to advanced geometry and calculus. But open it up as a non-teacher and iTunes U is a confusing place. It looks like a load of subjects with some random documents assigned. So why does Apple's education portal exist? Why are teachers putting their courses online for others to see?
"They're not designed for remote learning," said Armitage. "[Teachers] on the outside say, 'Well, how am I supposed to teach using that?' Well, that's your bit." "It's a resource, a different point of view," adds Edwards. "[A teacher] can look at Simon's course from another school and take 15 of those resources and use them in their course.
"There are loads of teachers posting content all over the place, telling people what they want to do, with which resources people can look at and use freely. It makes education in learning much easier." Having the courses centralised also allows pupils to manage their own learning – if they miss lessons through illness, all the information is there, rather than leaving the teacher to photocopy courses, send exercise books through and make phone calls to explain what was missed.
The other element that attracts teachers to the Apple online portal is iBooks' textbook library. A vast number of volumes have already been created and can be instantly distributed to students, meaning no more back pain from lugging them to classes.
But the ebook distribution model also allows teachers to be even more tailored: iBooks Author lets educators create their own bespoke textbooks for their classes. In fact, 45,000 have been created already for that purpose, including some made by the students themselves. These are then published through the Apple portal, making them available for other teachers to look at and include in their curriculum.
Should parents have to pay?
The key question that comes up time and again is one of cost: iPads are generally seen as a luxury device for consumers, so how can schools afford to equip students with devices? Should they not be looking at lower cost tablets? Greg Hughes, assistant principal at the de Ferrers Academy, says the school preferred the iPad over other devices due to elements like the App Store, as well as its low failure rate.
"Cheaper devices seemed poorer in terms of performance, quality of camera and availability of apps," he said. "We love the fact that the iPad has such an easy learning curve. Students know how to use it almost instantaneously, so we haven't needed to give them any training all, just a few reminders about back-ups and so on.
"The students view Apple products as 'cool' and for many of our students from challenging backgrounds, having access to their own device is both aspirational and transformational, for them and their families." The options to make Apple's tablets accessible are varied: from having a limited number of shared devices available for specific lessons, to the offer of school-funded iPads, schools are finding ways to get the devices into the hands of children.
According to the BESA study, the preferred method is for the school to pay for and own the devices, although there is appetite in secondary schools for parents to pay for the tablet, as they would for art supplies or school trips. And anecdotally, parents seem to be happy paying for the devices where needed, as tablets and smartphones are already so commonplace that their use in education seems obvious – plus for any students on the Pupil Premium schemes (traditionally used for free school dinners and similar) it seems many schools are keen to use that money to help out with educational devices.
But the notion of a school funding the entire deployment of iPads may be more feasible than some might think, with Hughes from the de Ferrers academy calling the experiment "cost-neutral." He pointed to a number of areas where costs have been saved through the deployment of iPads. These included: removing current virtual learning environments (saving about £10,000 a year), reductions in printing and photocopying (£20,000), cuts in computers and IT suite replacements (£45,000) and even moving to digital marking books, which would save thousands on its own.
The outlay is significant, as it costs £300 to equip the students with the tablets, a high total when over a thousand students are involved. However, de Ferrers asks for £1 per week per year for full use of the iPad (including being able to take it home) with an option to buy it outright at the end of the course. Given that 65% of students take up this option, the initial cost to the school is reduced by two thirds.
Are children safe online?
With any new tool, and especially one connected to the internet, there are understandable worries from parents about putting this technology into the hands of children. Who is watching them and making sure that they're not doing anything that can harm them?
Both schools I spoke to have robust systems in place to combat inappropriate use of the tablets, ensuring any device connected to the Wi-Fi network has restrictions on explicit or age-inappropriate content. Detailed device management also means the schools can see what apps are being installed on the tablets, allowing swift action to be taken.
Both schools also made sure that parents were educated on how the iPad was used in schools, giving them input into what their child is doing online, which Edwards said had proved successful in helping parents understand the role of the tablet. "Often we get the child to get their smartphone out next to the parent so the child can access lots of things on the phone that the parent can't on the iPad thanks to our security," he added. Parents are encouraged to set their own restrictions too: when at home in the family Wi-Fi environment, a separate passcode that only they know will enable them to set the child's privileges on the iPad.
Still work to do
There are other issues that need to be ironed out before the use of tablets in schools becomes more widespread – the most obvious one being the wireless connectivity required to enable it. On average primary schools are only halfway towards an ideal level of broadband connectivity, according to BESA, although in the case of secondary schools, the situation is much better. It will require investment (both in the equipment and the security software), which adds to the cost of tablet deployment.
And besides budget, one of the most pressing issues preventing tablet adoption is the training and support teachers need to use tablets effectively in classrooms. In the schools interviewed, this is primarily handled by one or two teachers engaged with the technology – however, for more widespread adoption there will need to be more readily available help. A number of schemes are being set up to help with this already, including iteach-UK, the iPad Academy and even Apple's own teacher training courses.
However, government research is needed to show that the tablet has a huge – and positive – effect on education, otherwise already overburdened teachers aren't going to take time out of their schedule to learn more about something that may not be of use.
Making a difference
What's been clear from looking at how the tablet is currently used in the classroom is that it's had a transformational effect. It's expanding how teachers are working with students, saving money and helping give pupils more freedom in their learning experience. However, schools using iPads in the manner described above are still rare, with a lot of hurdles to overcome. Teachers need confidence (and training) in the technology, and board-wide agreement needs to happen over the implementation and funding to get the schemes off the ground.
Other tablet options from Microsoft and Google will also become prevalent in the future, meaning teachers will have more choice in terms of functionality and cost as tablets become the norm in schools – and anything that makes the transition easier is likely to accelerate the rate at which digital slates become a daily part of education.
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