The great tablet debate
Some experts still have reservations about the wifi classroom
The latest advance in education technology was spawned in the boardroom. It’s called “bring your own device” ( BYOD), and it encourages students of all ages to bring their gizmos and gadgets into the classroom where the newest technologies are combined with cutting-edge learning programs and strategies.
Depending on the school, BYOD can refer to laptops (old news for most students), smartphones (great for updating Twitter but not an educator’s first choice) and the newest member of the personal computing family: the tablet. It has only been three years since iPads first surfaced on the market, but their ubiquity — and a market crowded with competitors — makes it feel like much longer. With touch-screen technology and convenient portability, tablets have begun displacing laptops at every level of education, from the primary school classroom to the university lecture hall.
At Toronto private schools, such as Bayview Glen, Saint Andrew’s College and Holy Trinity School (HTS), educators are diving headfirst into this brave new world.
After a pilot run in 2011, HTS launched its recognized iPad program this past school year. From junior kindergarten all the way to Grade 12 classes at HTS, iPads enable peer collaboration, facilitate test taking and research and provide a multimedia platform for student projects.
The school’s iPad program incorporates popular Google services such as Google Docs, along with the latest apps in education, such as Explain Everything and Notability (both of which are so new that you’re forgiven for never having heard of them).
When HTS head of school, Barry Hughes, describes how these apps actually function in class, it is clear a seismic shift is underway in the learning environment. “Applications like Explain Everything allow students to make their thinking visible through the creation of screen casts. Students can create a video of themselves solving a mathematical problem or annotating a piece of text, or they can even make a time-lapse video of the creation of an original piece of art.”
The connected HTS classroom that Hughes is describing is truly the classroom of the future. The 2013 New Media Consortium (NMC) report on emerging technologies indicates that more and more schools are implementing BYOD strategies and making use of the ever-multiplying number of mobile apps and programs specially designed for education.
“How students use technology at school should align with how they use technology in the rest of their lives,” Hughes says. “Through access to individualized resources and engagement with interactive and multimedia software, students can have a far more personalized learning experience.”
Yet when HTS students arrive at university, tablet in hand, they might be in for a surprise: where post-secondary education is concerned, the laptop is still king.
As head of information technology at Ryerson University Library & Archives, Fangmin Wang explains that tablets don’t yet possess all the capabilities needed by the average university undergrad.
“So far, laptops are still the most important device for students,” he says. “It is not practical for students to type an assignment on an onscreen keyboard, and a lot of the software used in higher education is only available for desktop or laptop computers.”
Beyond his hesitation about the suitability of tablets for university students, Wang also has qualms about the potential monopoly that a handful of companies could have on the tablet market. Businesses have a stake in promoting the digital classroom since schools implementing BYOD require students to purchase their products. There is also the issue of who is creating the content for education apps.
“Companies like Apple and Amazon have become content providers, which has a huge impact on our behaviours and thinking,” says Wang. “Critical thinking is extremely important for education. My hope is that the content and media that are delivered to K to 12 students won’t be controlled and delivered by just one or two big technology companies.”
Ultimately, this critique is part of a broader discussion about a technology still in its infancy. Many reservations with regard to the wifi classroom remain, including questions about student distractibility, traditional literacy skills and universal accessibility. What is certain is that the learning opportunities presented by mobile technologies far outweigh the possible drawbacks.
As the NMC report reminds us: “Tablets, smartphones, and mobile apps have become too capable, too ubiquitous and too useful to ignore.”
Some experts say tablets are just too useful to ignore