I love technology. It is constantly evolving and offering all of us new opportunities for learning and teaching. I admit that it’s sometimes very difficult to switch off my tech lust button but where possible I try to take a more pragmatic approach, my limited purchasing power dictating. Gadgets, despite their often seductive beauty, are simply problem solving tools, they don’t have to be the latest version or the coolest brand but they do have to be fit for purpose. I’m a huge fan of the open source movement for instance and will always try to find open source alternatives to proprietary software. Much as I love Stephen Fry I despaired when I heard him exclaim in his Gadget Man Series on Channel 4 last year that when it comes to gadgets: “It is entirely style over substance and people who think that’s a bad thing mistake the matter, the style is the point.” That’s easy to say when your pockets are deep. Let’s face it we all experienced a communal attack of style over substance during the Celtic Tiger Years . . . and that didn’t end well.
According to an Independent newspaper article published in September it was suggested that some schools may be experiencing an attack of style over substance when it comes to the introduction of tablets. This year over 20,000 students across 100 secondary schools began the school year with tablet devices. Gone was the bag full of bone crunching, scoliosis producing textbooks to be replaced with a slim tablet. And what was the predominant tablet of choice? Of course it was Apple’s iPad with few schools offering parents the option of buying a cheaper android device. As a parent I welcome the change to eBooks but question the choice of the iPad as the preferred device when there are other equally suitable and much cheaper devices available on the market.
With an average cost of €700 for an iPad together with school book licences this is a huge outlay for some already cash strapped families; a cost that could be significantly reduced if a cheaper android version was used. As the education system moves towards the widespread use of tablets school administrators need some real direction from the Department on this issue, providing unbiased advice on how best schools can implement the changeover. What, for instance, is going to be the most cost effective product that will support not only eBooks but digital learning as a whole in the classroom? What are the accessibility options for SEN students on the device? And, what about the book suppliers, can they provide hard copies of books as well as eBooks at no extra cost for home use for SEN students? Educate.ie, I know, is one such supplier that is currently providing both eBooks and hard copies. Finally, what teacher training is available? This is crucial if tablets are going to transcend their use as simple ereaders and realise their potential as fantastic teaching tools,; delivering the most up to date digital learning content. As we get hung up on the device we can all too easily forget that it is simply a tool and only as good as the teacher who is using it.
When planning a move towards tablet devices schools should consult the whole school community and in particular give details to parents as to why they have chosen a particular device, outlining its particular benefits and exactly how it will be used on a day to day basis as a learning tool. In this case parents are bearing the not insignificant cost of the introduction of tablets into schools therefore it would make sense that the rationale behind their introduction is fully explained. Simply referring to tablets as the answer to the heavy school bag is not enough. Tablets are not just ereaders, they are so much more. I certainly would like to think that a tablet would be used creatively in the classroom rather than just as a text book replacement. If you just want an ereader then get a Kindle. Other issues to be considered and discussed with parents are the downloading of eBooks. Broadband speed becomes a real problem outside urban areas so an alternative method of downloading eBooks should be offered. I know of one parent who spent a couple of afternoons using various free Wi-Fi hotspots to download their child’s books. Not ideal.
I have absolutely no doubt that each school introducing tablets into their classrooms feel that they are making the best choice for their student population and haven’t taken the decision to introduce a given device lightly. Perhaps schools feel they have to make the conservative choice and stick to the market leader rather than go with what might be perceived as a riskier option. Parents too may be influencing this decision to some extent. When discussing the introduction of iPads into a local school with a tech savvy friend she proposed that “iPads are more stable”. She knows me well enough to recognise my naysayer face and swiftly followed it up with a knowing “well, I’m an Apple head!” This view that somehow iPads are the original and therefore the best can be a pretty persuasive argument when you are trying to convince a whole school community to buy into new technology. That is not to say that iPads shouldn’t be considered as the tablet of choice for schools, of course they should, but so too should the alternatives. Schools are a huge market for Apple, Microsoft and Google and they should use this buying power to get the best deal on the best tech available for their students. This buying power should not be underestimated and should be used to maximum advantage. Indeed, instead of tech companies telling schools what they need, schools should be driving edtech innovation, telling tech companies the kind of devices they need now and in the future. The tablet is the device of the moment, but what will drive our learning tomorrow?
In the current economic situation where education budgets are shrinking and resources are being cut with surgical precision, now more than ever schools have to weigh up the pros and cons of introducing new technology into the classroom and ensure that any investment in new gadgets or software will deliver improved learning for all students. And that’s the key – using technology for technology’s sake will not deliver real measurable improvements in educational attainment but using technology to enhance learning and crucially improve student engagement will deliver time and time again. Style definitely has no place is this discussion, “fit for purpose” has to drive the debate.