EdTech: iPads in education

Oh, a long post on a niche subject? There’s an idea guaranteed to get you more readers. *cough*

Last week, I went along to a “iPad Information Evening” at my kids’ school. The school has requested that from age 8, each child should have access to (read “own”) an iPad, as they will be integral to the school’s educational journey from the start of 2014.

One of the speakers was Tim Keller, who has been working alongside the school’s deputy headmaster in implementing this programme and he gave a very interesting presentation. I popped onto his blog when I got home and found this, which was (unsurprisingly) very much in keeping with what he had to say:

Let’s imagine that a tablet sits on every child’s desk, and text books have been banished. The tablet is filled to the brim with the best educational content curated by the finest teaching minds in the country. The content isn’t simply paragraphs and images, it’s completely interactive. Don’t understand Pythagoras theorem? Here’s a demonstrative video. A word in Shakespeare’s Macbeth that you don’t understand? Simply highlight it and see the definition. Photosynthesis just not making sense right now? Mark it to read later so you can study it at home. Your entire educational life would live on this tablet, from homework to novels to quizzes.

Photosynthesis has never made sense to me. Never. Extra study time wouldn’t have helped. But we get the idea.

The next day, Tim tweeted and said he’d like to get my thoughts. Since I was going to blog about it anyway, I freely agreed and – much later than planned – here they are.

So back to the evening. Arriving at the school, we were greeted by tea, coffee, a Digicape stand and some of the students demonstrating (with only limited success, to be fair) how they had been using the iPads already being used at the school. Hmm.

Arriving in the school hall, we were greeted by posters full of thought-provoking quotes:

What year are you preparing your children for?

If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.

and the somewhat patronising (I thought, anyway):

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

Hmm.

I’ll freely admit that even as an alleged “early adopter”, I was skeptical going into the presentation. I was concerned about several things.
Firstly, why was there suddenly a need for this change in direction?
Secondly, why the iPad? Why not an Android device, since we all know that Android is much better than Apple? (I will only be accepting supportive comments on this point.)
Thirdly, what about the basic skills of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic? When did they suddenly become irrelevant?
And then, the nuts and the bolts: security, insurance, cost, safety etc etc.

Spoiler alert: I came out converted, having had my mind opened. Here’s why.

There were several obvious misconceptions amongst most (all?) the parents present that this was something of a fad, something trendy that the school wanted to be involved in to look cool and progressive. It seemed like something of a kneejerk decision and for such a big decision, that didn’t seem quite right. Then there was the assumption that somehow the iPad was going to be used for everything: replacing books, replacing pens, pencils and paper; replacing teachers, I suppose, at the extreme.

To be fair, the school was partly to blame for this. The email about their plans was sent out during the long winter holidays, which was a bit odd (they are usually very good at asking for the parents’ input) and it didn’t contain much information, save to say that they would like us to buy an iPad for each of our children and that they would be using them in school from the start of 2014. The inter-parental network (I assume the school know that we have one of these behind the scenes, right?) went mad and (of course) everyone thought the worst. It’s human nature to resist change, see? And if you don’t like change… well… yes, exactly.

But then, they couldn’t have possibly told us everything in one email, as the 2½ hour meeting showed. So the parental mob arrived, pitchforks and flaming torches in hand, sat down and listened to what Tim and the other staff had to say.

The first thing that became obvious was that these people knew what they were talking about. One thinks of a science teacher (for example) knowing about science. Which he does, but he also knows about education – how to impart that knowledge of science to students. As the son of two teachers, I knew about this, but I’d forgotten about it. Education and how to educate is what teachers are trained in; the subject they teach is then secondary to this principle.

And then it became very clear that this was in no way a snap decision. It had been two or three years in the making. Research, networking, consultation and more research had gone into this. I didn’t know that. Had I known that I would have been more open to the idea from the start. It was also clear that this was being led by a very dedicated, passionate team. This is good and bad in my mind. I love enthusiasm and drive, but it must be tempered every so often by some realism. Fortunately, I think in this case, it’s balanced very well by the controlling influence of the Headmaster, who while obviously being involved, is also not directly part of the team tasked with working on the programme. Sensible.

The next thing I learnt was that the iPad wasn’t going to become the sole method of teaching. Rather it was just to be a(nother) tool for teachers to use. But the iPad is a “multi-tool” – the technological Leatherman. They demonstrated this, with three teachers showing how they were already using iPads with their classes and the benefits that it was having. They cited the engagement that the kids had with the device (I’ve seen this with my kids and my tablet) and the way that that engagement facilitated learning. The skills that it was teaching them – creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem solving and independent research – “skills for the 21st Century” they said. And they clearly stated that it was really not taking over – just that it was a really effective way of getting kids educated.

That interested me, because as far as I know, we, as parents, happily accepted the letterland system as the way our children were going to learn to write. We never questioned the suitability of the set of books our children are learning maths or reading from, nor, if we look at the technology side of things, that they have interactive whiteboards and projectors, rather than chalk and blackboards. We were completely satisfied that the school made the decisions on which tools they felt were best for educating our kids. Of course we were: that’s what we pay them to do.

So why the fight about iPads?

I need to ask my parents – were they consulted before we were shown our first VHS video at school? Or learnt BASIC on Spectrum computers? Was there widespread outrage, fear and panic? Did they think I’d never learn to write? If so, they hid it well.

That extensive research I mentioned earlier had also gone into the choice of device. And yes, Tim does sport an iPhone, so maybe he’s that way inclined, but the reasons given for selecting the iPad were perfectly reasonable. And I could agree with them too. Uniformity is key here and Android probably wouldn’t work in this scenario – too many different tablets with different versions of operating systems and different capabilities. Then the teacher (trained in teaching remember, not in sorting out tablets) spends the lesson trying to sort out tablets and not teaching. It’s not playing to your strengths. It doesn’t work.
Then there’s Apple TV, being installed in all the classrooms ahead of the new school year. What’s on your tablet, suddenly on the big screen, shared with the class – it’s not just very cool, it’s really helpful as well.

All in all, I was very impressed with the whole idea, the thought and effort that had gone into it and the exciting future that awaits our kids. So much so that I had to check myself just to make sure I hadn’t been brainwashed. But there was sound rationale for every decision they’d made and that’s good enough for me.

There are still those nuts and bolts to be ironed out. Or tightened up – whatever it is you need to do with nuts and bolts. How can a child who can easily lose a shoe – a shoe! – at school be expected to look after an iPad? What is going to be their acceptable use policy? How will they protect the students from the nastiness of the internet? (filtered wifi and special child friendly browsers, in case you were wondering.) There is more staff training to be done, network upgrades that still need to be carried out, special lockers to be purchased and decisions on what apps they are going to use. But every (reasonable) question that was asked, was answered, and answered well.

I’m converted. I knew that tablets were powerful, useful devices, but I’d never really considered their specific uses in the education sector. Now I’m aware of that, now that I’ve seen the enthusiasm of the team behind it at my kids’ school and I can see that it’s going to be implemented correctly and sensibly, I’m really excited for them to get started and I’m hoping to see some near immediate benefits.

Watch this space.

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