As we look into integrating tablets in the classroom, it’s becoming increasingly clear that buying tablets for the purpose of enhancing learning is very different to buying tablets for recreational purposes such as browsing Facebook and entertainment sites, or even for more serious pursuits such as business or work. Parents and teachers need to consider a myriad of issues specific to young people.
But are these concerns warranted?
The so-called generational “digital divide” (parents and teachers being largely digital immigrants, and kids being digital natives) can lead to unexamined assumptions about how kids will use (or misuse) mobile technology. For example, did you know that the idea of kids becoming addicted to tablets is actually a myth? We didn’t either, until we examined the actual evidence from our school trials.
Read on for the top ten things you need to understand fully when considering tablets for children and teens. Some of these are actually assumptions which many have been holding you back from committing to tablets for learning.
Unfortunately, this is not a myth – kids do tend to throw things around and break them. Tablets are increasingly lightweight and ultra-thin, lending to their fragile image. They are used daily, for long periods of time, and transported between classes. During our research trials in schools, breakage was a problem across all schools (between 5% and 7% of the tablets broke during the trial period). If a tablet lands on a corner or on its front, the glass will crack and the tablet will become unusable – requiring repair or replacement (both expensive).
However, we’re always surprised by parents and teachers who cite this as a reason to not use tablets. The better solution is to invest in a hard cases (preferably one made out of rugged grooved rubber). In fact, in schools, insurers require that you purchase cases before tablets are handed out. Our research found that one school decided to use Griffin Survivor Military Duty cases. These cases are certified to US Department of Defense Standard. Another school went with Belkin cases.
If your kids are younger and you are concerned about durability, consider “kid tablets”. These are specially designed for younger children. For example, the award-winning LeapPad range is aimed at kids aged 3-5, at very low prices. These tablets are reminiscent of the old Etch A Sketches – robust enough to be thrown around the playroom, and easy to clean.
If you want to use tablets for education, the right operating system is essential, or the tablet may prove to be useless for your purposes. It comes down to the apps that a particular operating system is compatible with. For example, because Google Play (running on the Android operating system) has hundreds of thousands of apps, you will have access to a wide choice of paid and free educational apps. However, you must have the ‘Ice cream sandwich’ or ‘Jellybean’ versions of Android. Older versions (such as ‘Gingerbread’) cannot access Google Play. In contrast, Apple products run on iOS, and offer less free Apps than Android. The operating system you ultimately choose depends on your situation, and whether or not you think you will be relying on free apps.
We call this the “tablets as cigarettes” theory and it has been thoroughly debunked by our research. Children who are given tablets to use in schools actually do not end up browsing them all the time. The parents and teachers who took part in the trial initially expressed concern about classroom management and children being distracted. However, they soon found that issues with gaming and texting in classroom largely subsided as the novelty of the device wore off.
Battery life is always an issue for tablets, and for tablets in schools it’s a particular issue since the battery must power the tablet for the entire day. Also, when it comes to learning resources, the tablet must be continuously connected to the network and the interactivity necessary for tablet learning means that batteries can run out sooner for students than they do for the occasional adult user. You can take battery life into account when deciding which tablet to buy (for example, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2’s battery will last all day). However, it’s not always possible or desirable to make battery life the deciding factor when purchasing a tablet.
There are also other ways to combat this problem – one way is a spare battery. For example, the Asus Transformer tablet comes with a separate keyboard which includes an extra battery. There are also apps (we particularly like Battery Life Pro) which are designed to help you monitor and track battery usage. Download and teach kids how to use these apps.
You’d be surprised at how many people are still mistrustful of all the “whizzy” features inherent in many learning apps and resources. Why can’t we just let go of the idea that children shouldn’t be having FUN in school? The (not so) good old days… The fact is that, far from distracting students or making their learning is superficial, our research has found that it is precisely the multi-media nature of learning apps that help students learn and engage with subjects.
Also, many students appreciate the multi-sensory nature of tablets. This was particularly true of special needs students – who could now engage with the subject material in ways that they couldn’t before. In other words, the rich media experience offered by tablets is not just sexy bells and whistles designed to hold student’s attention to boring subjects, but an essential part of the learning experience. However, this rich multimedia experience means that lots of memory is required if you want to use tablets for education. Consider that 8GB of memory can hold about 1,750 music files or 10,000 photos, and go from there.
If the tablet will be used for learning music, for example, you may need more than 8GB. You can always “top up” gigabytes with a memory card (though this is not an option for all tablets).
Tablets open up the world for students, and the flipside of this is an understandable concern that children will access unsuitable or dangerous websites. However, activating parental controls on tablets is not that much more difficult than on a PC. Also, if you are concerned about the types of apps that kids can download, then an app such as Android Parental Control will limit the types of apps that kids can access.
Again, for younger children, “kid tablets” have the advantage of built-in security features. The tablet limits the types of apps that can be downloaded so the child is not exposed to the “entire world” of the internet. If you worry every time your child spends an extended amount of time on the apps you have downloaded for them on your own iPad, then buying them their own kid tablet may be the way to go.
The phrase “tablets for education” is being increasingly used yet a lot of people only have a vague idea of what exactly it means for kids to be doing “educational stuff” on tablets. Is it just downloading random educational apps? Are tablets just larger versions of the smartphones on which teens Facebook and message friends? Not at all. A proper tablet rollout in a school will be much more focussed. Our research has shown that teachers are eager to ensure that only curriculum-focussed apps are downloaded, and to undertake relevant training on using tablets for learning.
Kids will be instructed as to which apps they need to download for particular lessons (much the same way as they are now told which books they need for certain subjects). Again, for younger kids, “kid tablets” are an excellent idea. All available apps are targeted to the age of the child and have been well-tested. As mentioned earlier, the LeapPad range is well-renowned. Instead of apps you can purchase cartridges with reading and music features.
As with security issues, safety is an understandable concern for parents and teachers. However, it is not borne out by the research. These fears around the value of tablets to thieves are quite similar to fears that initially surrounded iPods and smartphones. During our tablet trials in schools, not a single child was attacked or had their device stolen.
The devices are actually quite small, and fit discreetly into backpacks. Also, students were advised not to take them out in public places.
We found no evidence that cyber-bullying, or stranger interaction increases with tablet use. Tablets do provide access to kid’s regular social networking sites, however the emphasis on tablets in schools is focussed on apps related to lessons.
Teachers in our research welcomed the advent of tablets since it allowed them to monitor student progress and keep track of whether students were completing homework. Also, before tablets are handed out, students are given clear guidelines as to what to do if they are approached by strangers, or bullied. Teachers closely monitor tablet usage, and are trained to look out for any signs of bullying.
This is a common concern. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that new skills are being acquired – skills that employers increasingly require (including flexibility and the ability to innovate). By the time today’s schoolchildren enter employment, tablets will be fully integrated into the workforce.
Tablets enable kids to have access to many e-books – an entire library at their fingertips. Our research consistently found that students demonstrated greater engagement with interactive e-books, resulting in improved comprehension (particularly for special needs kids). The popularity of the Kindle app and reader also attest to the fact that people are not reading less because books are now digital, they are able to read more.
It’s true that since computers enabled us to start word-processing, handwriting has declined. But it seems that it is now being revived through the many handwriting apps available through tablets. We really like “Use Your Handwriting” – which, according to the Discovery Channel, “saves the handwriting skills that are an important part of our education”.