You can lead a boy to a tablet, but you can't make him learn
By David BRAUE
I noted with great interest the decision by Melbourne-area private boys' school Brighton Grammar to adopt 600 Acer Android tablets across its entire year 9 through 12 student body.
Here, Android supporters everywhere have rejoiced, is a school finally willing to flip the bird to that bastion of market dominance, Apple, and give its constituency of teenage boys a tablet that has all the Flash-watching, malware-exposed, multimedia goodness that Android's Honeycomb version can dish up.
This is all well and good, but it also highlights the lemming syndrome that's happening within many of our schools. Determined as always to position themselves as educational leaders, schools of all stripes are investing – largely in iPads, but some in Iconia Tab A500s – in tablets that will, it is presumed, magically improve learning outcomes for all concerned.
A pity they're being used for exactly none of that. I recently heard a report of one school that bought a number of iPads for its students, then had distressed teachers calling a meeting two weeks later after one of the units had developed a crack in its screen.
Turns out the boys were filling it with downloaded games, taking goofy photos of each other using Photo Booth, and tossing the unit to each other in a pique of monkey-in-the-middle play that went horribly wrong when the $1000 device made hard contact with an even harder floor.
While this sort of thing may offer new fun in the form of school-tablet dead pools, it's also a reflection of just what questionable technology decisions are being taken. As to why the school didn't think to invest in $40 covers to protect their devices, I cannot say.
The Brighton Grammar crew thought of covers, at least. Yet indications are that they're off to an equally ignominious start: look closely at the promotional photos distributed with the announcement of the deal, and you see one of the boys is playing Angry Birds.
In the library. In his school uniform, during school hours (which we can determine from the clock on the wall).
The other boys are engaged in even less educationally-relevant pursuits: one is idly flipping through the applications on the Android home screen, another is typing something into a non-specific application, and the fourth – whose screen we cannot see – could for all we know be tapping into the Iconia's Flash capabilities to watch a bit of streaming pr0n. After all, these are teenage boys we're talking about here; heck, even I was a teenage boy once, and I know what I would have been doing with a tablet like this if we had them back then.
Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought the library was for actual learning – and that schools should only invest in new technology if they have some real educational goal with it. Investing tens of thousands of dollars in new tablets, then proclaiming yourself enlightened as you hand them to teenagers and expecting them to go off and use it to learn something, is like giving that teenager the keys to your Ferrari and telling him he can only pull it into the driveway while you're overseas.
Were I the principal of Brighton Grammar, I would have been horrified to see a press release go out with pictures of the students playing Angry Birds; parents pay good money for strong learning outcomes, but I don't think this is what they had in mind. Schools are going gaga for tablets, but without educating teachers about how to use them there's simply no point.
Worse still, in some cases I fear the rush to tablets will compromise overall education. Consider another local school that has not only mandated iPads for all students, but decreed that all textbooks will now be loaded onto the devices rather than giving students dead-tree editions.
What could possibly go wrong?
This is not to say that tablets can't be used for educational good; only that teachers and educators must make themselves aware of the devices' potential, and develop a real and actionable plan for using them rather than simply being entranced by the amazing power of their gleaming chassis. Companies are the same: rather than being caught up in this vague concept of mobile computing, approach tablet purchases like you were spending your own money – and don't be afraid to hold off if it seems like everyone's just getting a bit to excited about a bit too little.
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Although the photos released with this story showed a boy playing Angry Birds, we are confident that the enhanced learning outcomes that will be achieved by each boy having his own tablet outweigh the occasional opportunity to explore gaming apps.
Our research into the use of tablets as a teaching and learning tool demonstrates that using tablets will increase the boys' engagement by:
Enabling instant access to global information via the web;
Increasing opportunity for collaborative learning;
Improving organisational skills;
and allowing the boys to undertake their school work anytime and anywhere.
To discourage boys accessing inappropriate content the school has invested heavily in the installation of a filtering system.
The School is looking forward to the widespread roll-out of tablets in 2012 recognising that boys, teachers and the wider community are all on a steep learning curve as we harness the potential of this 21 century technology.
I am more than willing to be proven wrong on this but am naturally sceptical about the rate with which schools are jumping on the tablet bandwagon. The benefits you highlight have long been available through more-conventional laptop programs already in use at many schools.
I'm curious to know what empirical studies have shown that tablets and e-books deliver a better (or, for that matter, even a comparable) learning result than laptops or traditional learning methods and textbooks.
That said, somebody does have to go first. I'll be interested to see where your students are with these devices a year down the track.