T is for … Tablets

T is for … Tablets

I think all sweeping generalisations are bad, including the one I am about to make. But you know what? I think I’ll make it anyway, and here it is:

A school that says they are implementing a tablet programme is doomed to failure.

You can substitute “ipad”, “Bring your own device” or some other similar kind of term for “tablet”, the result is the same.

An early kind of tablet... Photo by Leonardo http://www.flickr.com/photos/queulat00/

Now, I don’t fully go along with the familiar mantra, “It’s not about the technology”. Of course it is! If you went to a doctor who didn’t know about MRI scans or even x-rays, and tried to reassure you by saying that it’s not about the technology, you’d change doctor. At least, you would if you had any sense.

Crispin Weston, in his post, “It’s the technology, stupid”, makes an important point:

Does Tescos [a British supermarket chain] buy the what—a new logistics system, say—at a cost of millions of pounds, install it, and then ask themselves, “I wonder how we are going to use this kit?”. Of course not. How the technology is going to be used is one of the first questions that is asked before the technology is even created. It is what a requirements analysis is all about.

Yet that Tescos question is one I hear quite often. Depending on what the latest technology is, a headteacher will say to me:

“We’re really pleased. We’ve just bought/been given a set of ipads/3d printer/wireless access point/something else. We’re not sure what we’re going to do with it, but we think it will be transformative.”

I would much prefer to hear a sentence like:

“We’re really pleased. We’ve just bought/been given a set of ipads/3d printer/wireless access point/something else. We’re going to be experimenting with it to see how it can enable us to achieve our vision of X.”

or even:

“We’re really pleased. We’ve just been promised a set of ipads/3d printer/wireless access point/something else, but we asked for the money instead because we have a better idea of how we can achieve our vision of X.”

It’s not a matter of technology rather than pedagogy, or pedagogy rather than technology. You need to have both, in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

An example of what can happen when technology is prioritised over pedagogy is the “modem in cupboards scheme”. It wasn’t called that, of course. Twenty or so years ago the Government of the day decided to send every school in the country a modem, to enable them to get connected to the internet. Consequently, whenever a new Head of ICT or ICT Co-ordinator joined a school, the first thing they would do is rummage around in the cupboards, and discover a modem – often still in the box it came in. Why? Because not many people could think of why or how they might use such a thing.

The thinking that the very presence of a technology will transform practice is enticing, but not borne out by experience. Despite this, there are calls to give a Raspberry Pi/tablet/mobile device to every school in the country, if not every pupil. I have not done the research to determine if this is true or not, but I should not be surprised if such initiatives actually did more harm than good. Just being given more “stuff”, without any discussion or suggestions about how it might be used, is ridiculous. It would be like buying your partner a new set of kitchen scales in the hope that it would encourage them to be more adventurous in their cooking.

A much better approach, in my opinion, would be to encourage schools to adopt an innovative mindset. For example, rather than give every school in the country some new technology, how about giving them, or expecting them to set up themselves, an “innovation fund”: a sum of money to be used to fund experimenting with new technology or new approaches. I discussed the advantages of such a fund in N is for … New Technology: 5 Reasons You Should Buy It. I’d even go so far as to say that a school that didn’t try new things, if only in a very limited way, does not deserve to be awarded the “Outstanding” grade by Ofsted. And please note that I said “try” new things, not “adopt” new things. In my opinion, experimentation is important, and rejecting a technology or practice after considering in detail is fine. What I object to is blindly adopting something or blindly rejecting it. Neither position inspires me with confidence.

To summarise: it’s true that the technology should not drive what we do. But to either dismiss it completely, as in “It’s not the technology”, or to give it pride of place in our thinking, as in “We’re implementing an ipad programme”, are equally misguided. They are, in fact, opposite ends of the same spectrum, and this is an area in which any “either/or” approach is ultimately doomed to fail because it is, to quote Mr Spock in Star Trek, simply not logical.

cross-posted at www.ictineducation.org

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT consultant with over 35 years of experience in education. He publishes the ICT in Education website and the newsletter “Digital Education."