Tablets put schools on learning curve

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2012, 12:00am


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How long before we swap textbooks for tablets? Within three years, students in South Korea will read digital textbooks instead of paper versions, says its Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which is sinking more than 3.5 trillion won (HK$24 billion) into the programme.

Welcome to cloud cramming. Digital textbooks will be available for the students to download from a central server straight to their government-funded tablet, much as Kindle users get the latest novel delivered wirelessly to their devices.

Also in the pipeline is a system that allows students to submit assignments and attend online classes via a cloud-based hub that charts their progress.

'This is a bold and grand challenge,' says Durham University Professor Elizabeth Burd, vice-president for educational activities at IEEE Computer Society. Burd thinks it has to be about more than digitising paper-based learning materials.

'Ideally, the material should include multimedia and interactive content that encourages students to engage with the content in a thought-provoking way,' she says, recommending that the South Korean government work closely with educators and IT specialists.

The temptation to assume that modern, much-loved electronic devices can instantly improve education is a dangerous one. But there are some undeniable advantages. Anyone with a Kindle knows how it can lead to more time spent reading, although whether this is just a phase is questionable.

'Clearly, the main advantage of a tablet is mobility; it's lighter than a laptop or a pile of books,' says Niall Sclater, director of Learning, Teaching & Quality at The Open University, also pointing out that with the apps-based interface there's a lot less to go wrong than with a PC. Open University content is increasingly available as e-books, and much of it can be accessed freely on iTunes U, while there is also a range of apps that utilise tablets' touch screens, mostly for interacting with simulations.

For pure reading, tablets aren't perfect. 'Some researchers have identified that it takes people four times longer to read the same content on a PC compared to paper,' says Burd. 'And while e-readers and iPads are better, most research still points to reading speeds being slower than on paper.'

There's also a danger that using a personal device changes how a child learns. 'Small devices are not ideal to support collaborative activity, as they encourage students to work individually,' says Burd. 'Interactive tabletops or white boards need to be part of a modern classroom environment.'

Some also bemoan the tablets' lack of a keyboard. 'Compared with working from paper, the annotation facilities on tablets are still limited,' Sclater adds. That missing keyboard will eventually be replaced by gesture and voice recognition.

But both ideas are still at the prototype stage. It's a shame that 10-inch netbooks, which dominated for such a very short time, have been bypassed. A touch screen version could have been the perfect device for academic use.

The tablet isn't, after all, an educational tool per se. It was created as a casual entertainment device, and the top three uses are gaming, web browsing and e-mail.

Word processing, a relatively straightforward feature on a desktop PC, is fraught with both hardware and software difficulties, the biggest of which is a lack of a common, open platform.

Should a school use iPads, tablets running Linux, Android, or wait for upcoming Windows devices? In terms of kitting out a generation of students, that's an expensive decision to get wrong.

That hasn't stopped St Francis of Assisi's English Primary School in Sham Shui Po, which has asked all parents to buy an iPad each for their children's Chinese and English lessons. Although it is not compulsory, there is a concern that not all families can afford to buy the HK$4,700 gadget, although the school will rent an iPad to students for HK$2,000 a year.

It's about more than just the hardware. In the long term, if students use iPads at school they'll also want to access the same cloud service through their smartphones.

The Malaysian Ministry of Education has just selected the Frog 4OS learning platform to supply the country's 10,000 schools, which avoids the problem of apps that only work on specific smartphones and tablets by relying on a tablet-optimised browser.

'Frog provides the 'glue' that binds everything educational within the school into one device,' says Gareth Davies, managing director of Frog. He thinks the education sector is on the cusp on a big shift in how teachers interact with their pupils.

'Consider the data that Facebook and Google have on you,' says Davies. 'Now imagine having that richness of data, but all centred on the learner's educational profile rather than their social profile. Teachers will be able to get a better understanding of their students.'

For many schools a 'bring your own device' offers the possibility of cutting their own technology budget. 'If it is not government funded, it leads to disparity between schools,' says Burd.

'So, the schools in the richer neighbourhoods provide the technology for their students that the schools in poorer neighbourhoods can't afford to provide.'

Teaching by tablet, at its best, looks set to make learning more tailored and interactive, although traditionalists will struggle. How about handwriting with fingers? There's a tablet app for that, too.