Laptops and tablets in schools

Every time you turn around, there’s another article talking about this or that school who’ve issued all their pupils with laptops, iPads, ChromeBooks etc, accompanied by pictures of a carefully chosen ethnically diverse range of kids using them with eagerness and enthusiasm in the classroom (oh, the teacher pictured is always young and presentable too). We are then all meant to cheer this forward-thinking establishment and blush with shame at our antiquated pens and paper.

In some ways, you can see what they are getting at. I never write anything more than a couple of lines by hand (unless I’m in front of a class writing on a whiteboard) and there’s no doubt that drafting, editing, checking etc are much easier on screen than on paper. Personally I also type a lot faster than I write, and the contrast is even greater if I’m trying to write legibly. The thought of doing an essay by hand fills me with absolute horror. Also, I’m very rarely without my own laptop or tablet wherever I go – I don’t quite take it to bed with me or use it in the bath, but it’s not far from that!

So why am I not greeting this ICT revolution with open arms?

Well, the first reason is in my subject. Although there are a number of applications out there claiming to cope with hand-written maths and turn it into an equation, as things stand (and I can’t see it getting better any time soon), that’s always going to be a lot more cumbersome than just writing the equation. Once you’re into more complex expressions, the ones I’ve tried just don’t cope, anyway. Of course you can make equations look beautiful using packages such as MathType – but even for an experienced user who knows all the shortcuts, like me, it does take longer than just writing the equation. For kids taking notes or working on problems in the classroom, ICT just isn’t as helpful as pen and paper. And whilst software for graphing and geometry is immensely useful, it doesn’t fulfil the same purpose, or achieve the same learning outcomes, as doing those things by hand.

The second one is distraction. Now as I’m a student as well as a teacher, I think I can talk with some authority on this. My studies are entirely voluntary, for my own interest, and as anyone who’s been unfortunate enough to ask me anything related to it knows, I am extremely enthusiastic about almost everything I’ve studied and will tell you far more than you ever wanted to know about it given half a chance. But I can still get distracted when I am writing an assignment – I check my email, or I look at online forums, or on seeing a useful book mentioned somewhere, I go on to Amazon and then start browsing my recommendations. I have recently joined Facebook (cue for responses of “what took you so long” or “how could you”) and if you have that in the background, it’s a huge distraction – you hear a new alert, you find one of your friends has just sent you a life in Candy Crush and so you have to go and use it… Now if I, as an adult who loves my subject and am studying of my own volition, find myself easily distracted, think what it’s like for a 14 year old studying a subject they don’t like. OK, we can block Facebook, we can block YouTube, we can remove all games – but there will still be loads of opportunities for distraction. If I’d had a laptop with all my school-related stuff on it at age 14, you’d have found me playing with the graphing software and trying to make it draw a smiley face during my history lessons (I really really hated history. Strange, as I find it interesting now), using the dictionary to look up naughty words in German lessons and reading a completely different book from the one we were meant to be studying in English.

I ended up discussing this with some of our Year 10s not long before the holidays; it was in a private study period that I was supervising, and they hadn’t got much work to do, so we had a chat. It was actually initiated because I had my newest gadget with me (iPad mini) – so they clearly weren’t just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear assuming I was a technophobe. They’d seen one of these articles, and felt it was mad for everyone to have an iPad in the classroom – the distraction issues I mentioned, but also, interestingly, they felt they didn’t process info the same way when it was typed rather than handwritten and they wouldn’t remember it as much. None of them typed up revision notes (which personally I do) and most draft by hand before typing up (I never do). Go figure, those who say oldies like me can’t understand how technology is integral to the younger generation.

So why the focus on ICT? It’s one of those educational “cure-alls” so beloved of governments and pundits. They never have the sense to realise that there’s not one factor that’ll sort everything out (there aren’t even ten factors that’ll sort everything out, if we’re honest) and that there are no real quick fixes in anything to do with handling real human beings.

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2 Responses to Laptops and tablets in schools

  1. Adnan says:

    I’m not a teacher, but have a son (doing GCSE’s) who insists on doing certain homework e.g. history, geography on the computer. I personally don’t like this. There are “benefits” for him in that it allows him to fire off a draft to his teacher if he’s really stuck, make lots of changes, and come up with something that is neat looking, and (probably) spell-checked all the while pursuing the distractions you mention above in the background (or is it the homework being done in the background)?

    Doing homework like this actually means he sits down for longer than he probably would if he wasn’t doing it on computer. He also loses out on the skills of actually writing neatly, planning what he’s going to do, and how he’s going to organise it on the page because he’s working iteratively. This need not be a problem if he reviewed what he did and learned from it…

  2. As a very heavy IT user myself (though not of Word, PowerPoint etc), I often see this very cynically:

    Basically from my perspective, modern IT education teaches not the principles of use of IT, nor any meaningful computer/computational science, but rather just “how to use the current version of Word/PowerPoint/Access etc.” The products used are invariably supplied by the large vendors (e.g. Microsoft) who have enormous educational and corporate lobbying power.

    Though I use IT every day almost all day to do my job, the tools of my trade (experimental physics) are an old fashioned email client, a text editor (emacs), a python interpreter, a C++ compiler etc etc. I write my papers using LaTeX. I don’t consider these things “advanced use” or “computer science”, and nor should they be. I use a computer to help me do things better or faster than I could do without one. This is what real world “power” IT usage looks like often, and more often in the higher levels of technical professions.

    Teaching everyone some IT skills and concepts == Good. Spending hours and hours of valuable curriculum time on the minutiae of Word 2007 == Bad.

    I see this as basically large software vendors attempting to extend their already entrenched dependency culture and monopoly. This needs to be recognised for what it is – a small, not especially hugely important, yet pervasive, privatisation of part of our curriculum not just to an industry, but to individual large players within that industry. And I do not differentiate between MS Office or iOS 7, the goal of all these people is still the same.

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