In our rapidly evolving world where technology is becoming a huge part of life, both at home and in the workplace, many schools have got a drive to modernise teaching and learning using new technology, which they believe has the ability to revolutionise the standard classroom. As an example, the introduction of iPads into schools has become very popular in London, UK.
This trend started a few years ago with one school in London that managed to successfully use iPads in the school environment. There are multiple reasons for why this could be a good idea: iPads have the advantage of being lighter than textbooks and can make lessons more interactive and allow students to work at their own pace. Communication between students could also become easier as everyone gains access to iMessage and email, ensuring that students could be contacted and kept up to date, including students from less affluent economic backgrounds and students who live far away from school. This highlights some of the ways in which digital technology can be usefully incorporated in a school to support students, at least in theory.
However, this does not always work out in practice.
In light of the recent successes by some schools in using digital technology, my school decided to try for themselves. As is appropriate, the school first conducted a pilot implementation by providing iPads to my class only, an all-girls class from ages 12-13, to assess how it impacted on teaching and learning. As a bunch of 12-13 year old girls, getting a brand new iPad of our own was obviously exciting! In the first few weeks, it is fair to say that many lessons were disrupted by students playing games, listening to music, messaging each other and taking photos – however, this was to be expected. After a few weeks, the iPad was no longer a novelty and so no longer a distraction, which was deemed a success by the school and resulted in iPads being distributed to the other classes. This was where the problems began.
Over time, the school became increasingly restrictive of what websites students could access, or the apps they could download, out of fear that they would be harmed or waste their time. However, this reduced the utility of having iPads in the first place, as the restrictions inadvertently extended to useful websites
As it turned out, our school had not laid the necessary foundation to ensure a successful roll-out. When 100 new devices attempting to connect to the school’s Wi-Fi, the system crashed. Some classes went off the rails when they got the iPads (which should have been expected, given the pilot study results) which was disruptive to learning. Every week, iPads were confiscated, forgotten at home, brought to school uncharged, lost or broken, leaving some students without iPads, which meant that teachers were unable to always incorporate them in their lessons. Beside these practical issues, teachers had not been trained in how to use iPads themselves, so much so that an iPad mentoring programme was set up where students would teach the teachers how to use the devices. While this may constitute an interesting case of informal learning, it was hardly what the school intended!
Over time, the school became increasingly restrictive of what websites students could access, or the apps they could download, out of fear that they would be harmed or waste their time. However, this reduced the utility of having iPads in the first place, as the restrictions inadvertently extended to useful websites (like dictionaries, which were blocked as they contained bad words!). This begs the question of whether it is worth having iPads in schools, if you cannot use them to their full potential? In the latest Spiderman movie, when Spiderman enlists his friend to hack his suit and remove the restricting protocols, a whole world of opportunities opens up to him and enables him to fully use his powers. The restrictions on iPads imposed by the school – intended to reduce the risk that the internet poses to students – has not only reduced the opportunities available, but also increased the risks, as kids who are tech savvy find ways of bypassing the system via VPN’s or other such (slightly) illegal methods. The consequence of using a VPN is that students bypass all filters and gain access to absolutely everything, including potentially harmful websites and popups. A balanced approach would be more effective, where the truly harmful materials are restricted but students otherwise have access to the full range of opportunities that technology offers to them.
In my experience, it is debatable whether having access to an iPad is actually useful for education. There are a few good examples, however, that have come out of this ongoing process. Although in most subjects we have barely used the iPads, the Biology department created a great learning tool called BioTutor, which is a private repository containing all the biology lessons for each year group, condensed into 30 minute videos which can be watched individually whilst completing a matching work sheet. BioTutor is a good example of where digital technology can be used to great effect in teaching and learning. Catching up on missed work no longer involves copying notes off of your friend, but actually taking the lesson and understanding the topic, just online. The fact that the video lessons can be paused allows students to work at their own pace, or to ask the teacher questions if the videos are used in class. It also enables students to complete the lesson planned for them even if the teacher is absent.
So what do schools who want to use digital technology in teaching and learning need to think about before implementation? Drawing on my experiences, I would suggest a few key points:
- Pilot programmes should be conducted with different groups of students and teachers, not only with one class. What works well for one group may not work so well for others depending on group dynamics, individual characteristics, or a teacher’s skill with new technology.
- There should be a plan in place for how to actually use technology in class in a way that benefits students. BioTutor is an excellent example of where technology was used successfully, but this is very different from just using technology to replace books or as a writing tool.
- The school might wish to invest in a high-speed Wi-Fi-connection that can handle a great number of devices simultaneously accessing the internet, to avoid slow speeds or crashes which may interfere with classes.
- Teachers must be trained both in the basics of how to use digital technology, but also how to incorporate it in their lessons. We cannot expect teachers to tackle these challenges on their own and in their own time – it must be supported by the school.
It seems as though many schools are interested in the potential of digital technology, but few have cracked how to really benefit from it. Experiments are being conducted in some schools that are entirely tech based, not using books, paper or pens. This is of course unlikely to become the norm any time soon, but perhaps there is something to be learned from these experiences that may benefit other schools in the future.
Our guest blogger, Miranda Cook, is a 16 year old secondary school student living in London. UNICEF Innocenti conducts research on the impact of ICTs and child rights in the digital age. Explore the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue for new publications. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter and sign up for e-newsletters on any page of the UNICEF Innocenti website.