Tablet PCs put pupils in touch with their future
Year One pupils have been using iPads for just a few months but already display the ease of seasoned professionals. As they sit in small groups, each child intent on their own tablet, six-year-old Yasmine Moss chooses a background and several images on the touch screen.
Yasmine says she is good at art, yet finds mixing the images on the Toontastic app easier than starting from scratch with a pencil or crayon. You can make your own cartoon using touch screen items involving colours, backgrounds, music and cartoon characters.
'I like using games like Toontastic,' she says. 'You just have to create your own show. Today I made a story about a knife and a horse.'
Yasmine is one of many Year One students at Renaissance College in Ma On Shan who have been using the iPad after the private independent school bought 28 of the tablet computers as part of its drive to involve students in information technology as early as possible. The school, which is run by the English Schools Foundation's commercial arm, Educational Services Ltd, places a strong emphasis on technology and already provides a mix of desktop and laptop computers for all primary school classes.
It will soon get another 90 or so audio-visual tablet computers and will roll out the programme to Year Two students. The iPads will be kept on campus, used for different classes, and their cost - HK$3,000 each - will be covered by the school.
Ania Zielinska, the school's head of learning technologies, says the intuitive, touch technology of the iPad makes it an ideal learning tool for the youngest primary pupils and will help to get them accustomed to working on computers.
'The device itself is so intuitive,' she says. 'There is so little learning for the kids. It takes them seconds to work it out. The children will have grown up with their parents' iPhones, so for them touch technology is an everyday part of their lives. Many of them play [on iPads] with their parents at home.'
There are several practical advantages to using iPads for younger children in the classroom, Zielinska says. 'It's a third [the price] of a laptop, a quarter of a Mac - and in the early years it is perfectly adequate. It takes only a few seconds to come on, unlike a laptop. The battery lasts for a day. So there is no disruption to the activity.'
Zielinska is convinced that today's five and six-year-olds 'have their brains rewired' in comparison to older generations. 'They react to touch interfaces in a very different way,' she says. 'They will have a go and they won't be worried about breaking something, like we would.'
Toontastic is one of several apps used in Year One co-ordinator Mandy Hodgson's class, where children recently showcased their work to parents. Others involve simple maths.
Avion Leung, whose five-year-old son, Angus Yip, attends Hodgson's class, says: 'I was very surprised. I was pleased that they would use something so technically advanced as a learning tool.
'My son made his animation on his own [using Toontastic]. He chose the background, the background music, the characters. He was the director of his own animation. I'm very surprised that my son can do this. The teacher does not interrupt him; he just makes his own choices.'
Apps such as Toontastic, says Hodgson, can keep children occupied and interested for weeks. A teacher in the music department is excited about the iPad's potential for teaching instrumental music and the Chinese department is looking at using one of the myriad apps in Putonghua for game-based punctuation practice.
But is the iPad an effective learning tool and is the expense justified? Professor Nancy Law, director of the Centre for Information Technology in Education at the University of Hong Kong, says iPads provide an opportunity for 'mastering something without being taught'.
'I think that's very important,' she says. 'Children who don't interact with these devices from [a] very young [age] are at a disadvantage.
'We should also give them the opportunity to learn through toys and physical artifacts, so I would certainly say it shouldn't be a replacement, but it should be an enrichment, this experience in electronic media.'
Law says today's children 'won't even know what a typewriter is' and should learn on new technology because it would be part of their everyday lives.
But she cautions that physical artifacts could be more effective learning tools for some activities and, eventually, the cost of new technology bought by private schools would be transferred in some form to the parents.