Tablet computers in schools: will they make a difference?
A discussion of the benefits of tablet computers in schools and some of the challenges that would need to be addressed to ensure the success of such programmes in the Caribbean.
In the lead up to the new school year, there were several reports in Caribbean newspapers on the pending rollout of tablet computers in schools for students. Countries that appeared to have such initiatives include Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Saint Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago.
Differing frameworks under which the tablets will be available to schools and students appear to have been established. For example, they tend to range from students having access to the tablets during class time only, to having possession of the devices both in and out of school. Nevertheless, the ultimate expectation is that tablets will considerably improve the learning experience in our schools, which would be reflected in increased examination passes.
Although there has been a growing trend in developed countries to foster the use of tablets in schools, there is some doubt about whether the education systems in individual Caribbean countries, and perhaps the Caribbean as a whole, truly have the wherewithal to embrace and harness tablet computers in schools. This post explores key gains that can be realised through tablets-in-schools programmes, but also some of the critical challenges that would need to be addressed to ensure their longer term success.
Potential benefits from having tablets in schools
In our increasingly technology-savvy societies, and the longstanding focus on incorporating computers in schools to improve learning, the shift to tablet computers might seem somewhat obvious. In addition to being cheaper or on par with a laptop or desktop PC, tablets tend to be more user-friendly and have fewer moving parts (thus needing less repair and maintenance) than the former. Further, in the school environment they can offer a number of distinct advantages, which may strengthen arguments supporting their inclusion in the classroom. Four are outlined below.
- Levels the playing field. Initiatives that provide students with tablets, through which electronic books and other tools and aids can be accessed, can level the playing field for those who might not be able to afford all of required books and material. Hence, the students and even schools that traditionally might not have the necessary resources, may still be able to perform well should tablet computers become integral to the curriculum, since they would have access to critical material and tools through which to excel, consistent with those who can afford.
- Facilitates differentiated learning. The audio, visual, video and interactive capabilities of tablets can cater to a broad range of learning styles. Additionally, for those who might need to have extra tuition or testing to reinforce concepts, there can be a variety of options through which to provide additional, and even individualised, support thus improving the learning experience.
- More tools at teachers’ disposal. As an instrument through which students can learn concepts, tablet computers can be an excellent teaching aid, especially since, in principle, they have been designed for individual use. Hence, based on the content available and the device functionality, and in addition to more interactive and effective teaching sessions, the teacher might be able to customise the support individual students receive. They may be able to track students’ progress in learning concepts, thus allowing them to identify and help those who might need extra attention.
- Fosters familiarity with technology. In today’s work environment, computer literacy is essential for employment. Individual access and use of a tablet computer would mean that students should have extensive hands-on experience using that device, and be proficient in certain applications. Moreover, with the growing trend, especially among small and medium enterprises, to adopt tablets, practise in using tablets might hold today’s students in good stead into the foreseeable future.
Important challenges that must be addressed
The paragraphs above indicate a number of far reaching benefits that can result from facilitating student learning through tablet computers. However, there are a number of critical issues, four of which are discussed below, that policymakers and project managers for such initiatives would need to address in order for the benefits envisaged to eventuate.
- Content is required. Although obvious, frequently, decision makers do not fully appreciate the fact that the tablet, like other computing devices, is only a conduit through which to access information. The information must be created and must be in a format that is compatible with the tablet device, and with the teaching and learning needs of the classroom.
- Preparing the content requires resources. Without a doubt there currently is a wealth of information available on the Internet that could be used in the classroom. However, while countries might be keen to manage costs and use the Internet as the main resource for content, the information available must be carefully examined, to ensure that among other things, it is accurate and relevant to the curriculum.
Further, Governments might be inclined to require teachers to assemble and prepare the content needed for their classrooms, but that approach might be ill-advised. Most teachers would not have the time for such an extensive exercise, especially when their teaching and administrative responsibilities are considered. Preparing the content would require skill, experience and time to formulate the lessons and to ensure that:
– they are of a satisfactory standard;
– they are adequately supplemented by suitable audio-visual material to reinforce concepts;
– matters related to copyright and Intellectual Property are recognised and respected, and
– an enjoyable learning experience is created.
- Infrastructure demands. Over the past five to seven years, there has been a thrust across the Caribbean to get schools, libraries and even post offices, Internet broadband connectivity. Through money from Universal Access/Universal Service Funds and/or separate negotiations with the telcos, there generally has been some degree of success in getting broadband capability into schools across the region.
Having said this and depending on how and where the content for the tablets will be stored, additional infrastructure and networking would most likely be necessary in each school. For example, if the content is being stored in a cloud, and students, teachers and administrators must log into their own unique accounts, then the bandwidth requirements might be considerable to provide robust and adequate capacity for a school population that could total well over 1,000 persons per school.
- Provision for maintenance imperative. A recurring experience in the Caribbean that there is a huge thrust to roll out a particular initiative, and after the fanfare has died down, questions about whether or not the project is sustainable are raised. Across the region, many of the tablets-in-schools programmes are still being rolled out and the kinks will need to be ironed out. However, there must be provision, especially in terms of expertise and financing, to ensure that the programmes remain current and relevant, for example,
– the content will need to be updated continually
– Internet-based material and resources would need to be verified to ensure that they are still available, and
– the tablets, along with the other critical support hardware, must be updated and repaired as needed.
In summary, the procurement of devices for a tablets-in-schools programme may, essentially, be the easiest part of such an initiative. Considerable more attention and resources will be necessary to create and maintain the content, along with all critical support structures, to increase the chances of a marked improvement in student learning.