Back in the old days, many teachers were unsure exactly how to share their single lonely computer among a class of 20 or more kids. The lonely Apple Macintosh sitting at the back of the classroom, with a rota system allocating 15-minute slots to every student during the week, was a common sight to behold. This was acceptable; beyond word processing and rudimentary games, there weren’t many reasons to use the cumbersome classroom computer of the 1980s.
Now, of course, there are endless ways to use technology in the classroom, and with BYOD and the large number of ICTs available in schools, most students of today will never understand what it means to wait patiently for their turn with the joystick.
However, in some learning environments where there is a single iPad or tablet device per classroom, it appears the student rota system is experiencing a renaissance. It isn’t uncommon, particularly in early childhood settings, for children to be allocated their 10-minute slot on the iPad or given turns to take it home.
There is nothing wrong with turn-taking, or with giving children the opportunity to engage with the technology individually. In fact, Clark and Luckin’s research this year into using iPads in the classroom shows that teachers felt that the iPads enabled them to promote independent learning, to differentiate learning more easily for different student needs, and to easily share resources both with students and with each other.
While individual ownership of tablet devices is thought to be key to this, a recent Norwegian study (Gasparini, 2012) showed how a class of students who took turns with the class’s communal iPads were still able to personalise them to suit their individual learning. It was discovered that one student with reading difficulties had added free apps that supported text-to-speech. The fact that he had been able to identify and obtain useful assistive technology to support his additional needs illustrates the ease with which iPads and similar tablet devices can be customised to suit individual needs.
After all, iPads and other tablet devices are geared up towards the individual. Educationalists often talk about the four C’s of 21st century education: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation. Tablet devices are certainly good at engaging individual students in critical thinking and creativity; they are, after all, consumer products, designed to be used by one person at a time, not necessarily by teams of students.
But what role does the iPad have in aiding collaboration?
Henderson and Yeow’s 2012 research into iPad use in a New Zealand primary school classroom showed that the iPad provided learners with “much better opportunities for collaboration than were possible in the past”. They found that the finger-driven interface allows students to interact with the device at the same time and with the same object, enhancing and stimulating simultaneous opportunities for face-to-face social interaction in ways that desktop, laptop and even netbook computing with a mouse-driven screen, ‘individual’ peripherals, fixed location, weight, and overall design do not.
Collaboration with 1:1 devices
The networked nature of the iPad also allowed students to collaborate or compete using shared apps. This is particularly possible in settings where students have access to 1:1 devices. An article recently published in the THE Journal by David Raths illustrates how collaboration can be fostered in this way. Jennie Magiera, a digital learning coordinator for a network of 25 Chicago public schools, says that certain apps like Schoology, a learning management/social media system, can transform learning. She gives the example of a maths class in which students are shown a picture of a crowded room with 40 people and three pizzas each divided into eight slices. The teacher then asks ‘What does this picture make you wonder?’ and rather than wait for students to start shouting out answers, teachers use Schoology as a back-channel chat room in which students can start raising questions, such as: ‘how many slices per person?’ and ‘how big is the diameter of the pizza?’ They then vote on each other’s suggestions and approaches to solving the problem.
“This also allows the teacher to record and see the types of questions and answers all the students are offering,” Magiera explains.
“You could walk around 30 students and try to assess that, but Schoology records it and it levels the playing field for the teacher, who can see the wallflowers as well as the children who are yelling over the other kids.”
Of course, this can easily be replicated when everyone has an iPad, but if we return to shared devices, how is such collaboration to be mastered?
Certain apps are ideal for situations when a class might have several iPads for sharing among its students. The THE Journal article makes reference to several, including Scribble Press, an app that allows students to work in groups to create their own e-books, including text and illustrations. It can then be posted in iBooks for teachers and other students to read. Popplet, a graphic organiser that allows a teacher to project images from an iPad to a whiteboard, is another app that allows students to work in groups and organise their ideas into ‘webs’. They can incorporate photos they take or add freehand drawings as well as text.
Henderson and Yeow’s study showed that as a collaborative learning tool, teachers generally found the tablet’s portability and ability to be passed from peer to peer more use than the multi-touch facility, which, while a technical reality, didn’t work well in practice as the device was too small for more than one student to manipulate the touch-screen at one time.
However, technology companies are coming up with solutions everyday to enhance the collaborative nature of tablet devices. Tablet accessory industry leader, Belkin International, has recently developed a range of products designed specifically for the modern classroom, including the Belkin Tablet Stage, a stand that turns any tablet into an interactive presentation tool. The tablet stage and accompanying app enables teachers and students to share documents. The document camera mode makes it easy to capture images and live video for display or projection, and the accompanying app enables educators to sketch, annotate, and capture live video for the recording of engaging tutorials for future use or sharing.
“As today’s schools embrace the interactive power of tablets, they seek to make it less of an individual device and more of a collaborative tool. As such, the use of tablets in the classroom is growing at an amazing rate as educators integrate these marvelous innovations into their curriculum,” explains Daniel Hall, product marketing manager for Belkin ANZ.
The Belkin Tablet Stage is now available in New Zealand via Exeed and Ingram Micro; resellers also include Cyclone and TTS. It has a recommended retail price of $314.95.
Teacher trumps technology
Regardless of the device:student ratio, or the device itself, or the accessories, experts generally agree that the teacher interaction is still king when it comes to children’s learning. Siraj-Blatchford and Siraj-Blatchford (2006) suggest that while ICTs work well in supporting communication, collaboration, creativity, and meta-cognition, achieving quality adult interactions is more important than the tools themselves. Hatherly, Ham & Evans reached similar conclusions in their 2009 report summarising practitioner research in sixty
New Zealand early childhood centres.
The teacher’s challenge when it comes to tablets and other ICTs in the classroom is to find ways of using them that support both individual learning and collaboration. While tablets are fast becoming ubiquitous and the reality of 1:1 is getting closer, there will always
be some new and expensive device that may require a rostered approach ─ just like the single lonely Apple computer in the 80s classroom ─ while the teacher figures out how to make it work for the benefit of all students’ learning.