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Educational Resource or Student Distraction? Tablets in the Classroom

One of the themes that we have focused on this year is the connected classroom, or the intersection of technology with the fundamentals of teaching. One sticking point for educators has been the use of tablets. Are these valuable learning tools, or do they serve only as a distraction? Are they worth the investment? Let’s explore how tablets are used in today’s classrooms and what this means going forward.

What Role Do Tablets Play in Education?

While you might associate tablets with games and social apps, they can serve as a link across the whole education process.

“Tablets connect all major stakeholders: students, parents, and teachers,” writes elementary school teacher Emily Ross. “Handwritten notes or tasks can be lost in no time, intentionally or accidentally. This never happens with digital data: any feedback including criticism, kudos, or concern, is out there for further reference.” 

With tablets, students can’t claim that they forgot to do something and parents can be more involved in their child’s academic performance.

Tablets also serve an important role in bringing education to students on a platform they are familiar with. Technology is second nature to most students and they feel comfortable engaging with it. “Students are using mobile even if you aren’t,” says Ryan Seilhamer, assistant director of mobile strategy and innovation at the University of Central Florida. “It’s something you should be at least aware of.” 

Educators report that some students complete assignments and write essays on their smartphones instead of laptops. Continuing to treat tablets and other mobile devices as anything other than conventional technology means educators will stay at odds with the learning styles of their students.

The team at Networks of Florida emphasizes the portability of tablets over bulky textbooks. Instead of students carrying heavy books for each class, they can have all of their resources in one lightweight tool, made fairly durable with a case. Tablets are particularly valuable when students can take them home or on field trips.

Despite the significant value that tablets provide, they still serve as an accessory to the classroom — or a side dish to learning instead of the main course. Dr. Chris Smith, BBC radio presenter on the Naked Scientists, consultant virologist and lecturer at Cambridge University, says tablets can’t replace “quality teaching, investment in quality teachers, or the commitment of learners.” 

While students might learn the material better on a tablet, it’s often because their teacher researched different learning games, online apps, YouTube videos, and other resources to make the material stick. A tablet cannot replace a good teacher.

Benefits of Tablet-Based Learning

There are additional benefits to bringing tablets into the classroom. To start, the NWN Corporation shared an interesting infographic on the use of tablets in the classroom. A few highlights from the information include: 

  • 54 percent of students think they are more actively involved in classes that use technology.
  • 79 percent of students think tablets help them do better in class.
  • 80 percent of elementary students use tablets regularly. 

Not just easier to carry than textbooks, tablets also have more up-to-date information than print publications and provide a variety of apps made specifically for tablet users.

Jacqueline Martin, a project lead for Pearson, says tablets in primary classrooms make students more autonomous. Younger learners, who need more hands-on guidance than older students, may have used kid-friendly tablets or their parents’ smartphones, but not PCs or laptops yet. Because tablets tend to be easy to use, “this allows us to take a step back and let our students work at their own pace, being on stand-by as a facilitator when students require help or a little push in the right direction,” she explains. 

Addressing the Case Against Classroom Use 

Despite their popularity with students, some administrators and parents are still wary of how tablets are used at school. In fact, the team at the nonprofit research organization created a page dedicated to tablets vs. textbooks to better understand both sides of the issue. 

One of the points in the “pro” column is that students who learn on tablets have higher standardized test scores. One of the “cons” is that schools need IT support to maintain, repair, and update the tablets. You can use this resource as a tool to counter arguments if you are lobbying for more tablets in your classroom or to weigh your options if you are on the fence. 

Technology writer Christina Tynan-Wood addresses the argument that tablets lead to too much “screen time.” She interviewed a kindergarten teacher who uses tablets in her classroom and finds that parents think about passive TV watching when they think about the concept of screen time. The parents don’t think about the active engagement that occurs when using a tablet for education purposes under the supervision of a teacher. 

However, not everyone agrees with this. Dr. Ann Marcus-Quinn, a lecturer in Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick, says “crucial skills, such as the ability to empathise and critically analyse texts, could be compromised by a shift to reading texts on tablets.” This is why many schools prefer tablets as an extra tool for learning—not a complete replacement for textbooks.

Funding Tablets in Our Schools

Cost tends to be one of the biggest challenges with bringing tablets into the classroom. If neither the school system nor the parents can foot the bill, they need to find ways to stock the technology themselves. There are options in this regard.

Education reporter Jenny Abamu says is a good platform on which to fund classroom technology and suggests social network gift exchanges and philanthropic grants as other possibilities. She warns teachers to avoid buying items just because they are popular. Without the right research, an expensive classroom tool could end up collecting dust if it’s not used frequently and for a variety of lessons.

That said, textbooks aren’t exactly cheap, either. Chris Zook at Applied Education Systems writes that textbook costs have skyrocketed 812 percent since 1978. That’s four times more than inflation since 2006. Public school districts pay an average of $250 per student per year for textbooks. Zook recommends digital learning and open-source content as possible alternatives to these expensive textbook costs.

The good news is that after the initial investment in classroom tablets, educators can find countless (and often free) tools and apps to facilitate learning. Educator Kathy Dyer keeps a running list with more than 75 digital tools and apps for the classroom. Each tool on the list follows strict criteria:

  • It must support formative instructional strategies so students learn to become resources for themselves. 
  • It must be free or close to it.
  • It must be something students can use outside the classroom, without direct teacher involvement.

This list is a good place to start when looking for different apps and activities to facilitate the learning process. 

How to Effectively Use Tablets in Your Classroom

Once your students have their tablets, you can step in and guide the lessons with creative activities to reinforce the material. To help, the team at Education Technology shared a few valuable guidelines for establishing tablet use in the classroom. 

One is that teachers physically set the desks so that they can visually monitor their students, possibly in addition to monitoring their work digitally. Traditional rows aren’t as effective as placing students in circles or teaching from the back of the class where you can keep an eye on everyone.

Marcus Guido at the digital learning game Prodigy lists more than 25 ways you can use tablets in the classroom — both for full lesson plans and other uses. For example, there are noise meters that track classroom volume so students can make sure they’re not being too loud, reducing disruption. 

Many educators take the lessons that they already have and simply modernize them for the digital world. Curriculum developer Jamie Goodwin says she had a pen pal when she was in school. She and her fellow students would practice their writing by mailing letters across the country. Today, kids can make video calls and Skype with other students all over the world.

Tablet-based learning might still make some educators and parents nervous; however, it is how today’s students learn. When educators present well-planned lessons with the assistance of technology, students can engage with the material in new ways and learn more thoroughly than they would otherwise.

Images by: Mark Bowden/©, racorn/©, SchoolPRPro, SchoolPRPro

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