iPads, tablets and learning

I’ve seen a lot of great practice with iPads and other tablets in schools. The students are engaged in what they’re doing, teachers are excited by the learning taking place, and there’s a good, collaborative atmosphere.

So why do I have the feeling that there is something – a quite fundamental “something” – missing?

How do mobile devices change learning? Photo by Mike Avila http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikeymikez/I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I think the problem, in a nutshell, is that when I’ve seen students using their tablets, they haven’t been doing anything they wouldn’t have been doing anyway. The tablets have made it easier or more immediate, but not actually changed much.

To put it another way, tablets are mobile devices, but they don’t seem to be used very often for enabling the students to be mobile. The technology can be used where the student is, which as often as not seems to be the classroom. I saw a photo recently of a 1:1 learning iPad school, featuring rows of students sitting with their iPads in front of them. There didn’t seem to be much difference between that and the kind of photo that depicts kids sitting in rows with their exercise books in front of them.

I think there are several questions one might ask. The first one is to do with learning. Strangely enough, I thought of this, then came across a variation of it in a publication, then heard yet another variation at the Royal Society’s Technology-Enhanced Learning event. So, here are the three variations of the same question:

My version

How do or could iPads (and other tablets) change learning, or the learning process? For example,think of article aggregation apps like Zite, Flipboard or ScoopIt. Every time you fire one of them up you’re presented with a number of articles that you didn’t know you wanted to read, because you didn’t know they existed. If you’re doing research, it means that a good strategy is to have a look at those apps to see if there is anything of interest on your chosen topic. That’s a completely different mindset and approach to doing a search in Google. It’s a much more passive approach in a sense, and feels (not necessarily is) more risky in that it could mean that you waste time trawling through pages which contain nothing of any use at all.

For me, it recreates the experience of going into a library or bookshop for a browse. There may or may not be anything that catches your eye, but you can’t know that before spending time looking around, and you can’t ask the librarian/bookseller for what you don’t know you might want or you don’t know exists.

The publication version

The draft manual of mobile learning has a chapter heading that I think gets to the heart of the matter:

How to start thinking in a mobile way?

The tablet computer is not necessarily simply a smaller version of a desktop computer. It has certain capabilities or characteristics, such as enabling you to access resources and information wherever you happen to be. How can we use that as the starting point for using them?

The Royal Society event’s version

I think Richard Noss expressed  this sort of issue very well. He said that the question “Are iPads good for learning?” is the wrong question. A much better question is “What kinds of learning do our inventions (like iPads) support?”

Some solutions

The Open University, Institute of Education and others have been developing applications which start from the premise that what we in education need are tools that have been designed from the outset to address educational issues. As Diana Laurillard reminded us at the above-mentioned event, educationalists have always taken tools that were not designed for use in education. We have used them to our advantage, but (and this is my own opinion) it could be argued that we have made the best of a bad job.

Take Word, for example. A brilliant word processor: you can get it to do almost anything. But if you’d set out to design an application to teach kids how to word process, would you really have come up with a programme that has a gazillion features, most of which most people never use?

I’ve already written about some of the apps that have been developed, in the article Mobile phones in education revisited – apps like iSpot, which I described as “social networking for nature lovers”. At the Royal Society event the London Knowledge Lab had an exhibition which featured recent developments.

Look, for example, at the Open Science Laboratory, which as well as iSpot already mentioned includes nQuire, to support real scientific enquiry (or, to be more precise, enquiry in a scientific way), and remotely controlled experiments in which you can use a virtual microscope or telescope.

Another development is Ensemble, which describes itself as “Exploring the Potential of Semantic Web Technologies in Teaching and Learning”. To be honest, I haven’t had a chance to really delve into what Ensemble can do (the video below explains it), but what caught my ear was the person on the stand saying that students on a dance course or involved in a dance performance could, say, capture an impromptu street dance on video via their mobile device, upload it to YouTube, and then tag it in Ensemble to link it with other useful data. Once all this is more transparent and user-friendly, what could this mean for teaching and learning? What possibilities does it open up?

A second question

I have another question. Going back to my point about using Zite and so on (what one might call “passive research” or “serendipitous research”), how might that change what teachers expect in the classroom? (I’m using the term “classroom” as shorthand: what I mean is anywhere the lesson happens to be taking place, which could, of course, be anywhere.)

I think if I were still teaching, I’d have at least one lesson a week where the students had undirected time in which to do digital research however they wished, with no penalty attached if they found nothing. I wouldn’t make it completely unstructured, ie it wouldn’t be an excuse for kids to sit around doing nothing, and I realise that the students’ age and maturity and other factors have to be considered, so it’s not quite as simple as I’m making out. But still.

Here’s another example. Given that some people find it hard to type on a tablet’s keyboard except by texting, isn’t texting a skill to be encouraged? Surely the girl who produced an essay in text format should be praised? Especially if she could also have included photos, a video and a link to her Facebook page!

I think what I am saying is that it seems to me we need, or will pretty soon have to, question the old rules. At the moment, we seem to be in the same stage of development as the early cinematographers, who basically just filmed plays. Once mobile devices start to be thought of as a completely different category of product, then other ‘givens’ will end up being questioned as well.

A third question

If we agree that the sort of learning that takes place with mobile devices and apps is likely to change radically, and that this may lead to what would look to some like a state of anarchy in the classroom, we need to think of what professional development teachers might need to enable them to get the most out of the kids using the technology.

For me, this was encapsulated in a finding from a student survey at Tideway School in Sussex, England, conducted by Assistant Headteacher Jim Fanning. In response to the question, “If one change could be made to BYOT, what would it be?”, 39.36% of the students surveyed said:

Ensuring that my teachers have an understanding of the need for me to use my technology in class.

And how do we get others (such as school inspectors) to be able to recognise that “it may be learning, but not as we know it”?

A final (killer) question

If learning is changed, the “classroom” is transformed, and teachers have the skills and competence to manage the new paradigm, then why would a school need a 1:1 iPads/tablets programme anyway? Why not go the whole way, and adopt a Bring Your Own Technology approach, and really start to get the most out of all this?

Here’s a challenge to those schools that have embarked, or are thinking of embarking, on a 1:1 mobile learning programme: why not use it as a test bed to see what sort of learning might occur, and what changes in pedagogy might take place, and then save yourself a fortune by going down the BYOT route?

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