PRODUCTIVITY SPECTATOR: A tablet to ease back to school blues

While issues around costs still persist, one school's experience of tablet computer takeup in place of textbooks suggests the positives will outweigh the negatives in the digital learning revolution.

Productivity Spectator

The principal of Melbourne's Albert Park College, Steve Cook, believes textbooks won’t exist in five years.

He isn’t waiting to find out at his school, however. Each of the 300 students across years seven, eight and nine already carries an iPad and uses the device to perform the majority of classroom tasks.

Albert Park College is at the forefront of the digital education revolution, one that is only just unfolding across the nation’s schools. Recently the Victorian government completed a trial of 700 iPads in primary and secondary schools, to test whether they improve education outcomes. The results seem overwhelmingly positive. Here is an excerpt from the Department of Education website;

– 90 per cent of students said that learning was more fun when using the iPads.
– 85 per cent of primary teachers and 90 per cent of special school teachers thought that students were more motivated and engaged in learning, versus 32 per cent in secondary schools.
– 67 per cent of teachers said that use of the iPad had improved their effectiveness as teachers.
– 83 per cent of primary teachers and 67 per cent of special school teachers thought that using the iPad had improved students’ literacy outcomes, vs 16 per cent in secondary schools.

At Albert Park College, you certainly get a sense that the students naturally take to using iPads. See the video above for a demonstration. They work on their curriculum and conduct research real time on topics assigned by their teacher.

Mr Cook says his students love using the devices. "You’ve got the world at your fingertips, so if you’re studying history or geography, you’ve Google Earth, it’s highly interactive, it’s personalised and when it comes to producing content, you’re not just looking at traditional writing but now you can incorporate still photos and video. The trick is to just let students run with the technology.”

The amount of teachers attending the Slide2Learn conference hosted at Albert Park College over the school holidays certainly suggest there is a huge appetite for bringing smart devices into the classroom.

Over 500 educators attended the two-day workshop on how to create apps for students, how to set interactive tasks, and techniques for digital storytelling. The teachers were passionate and dedicated and almost all were using their own devices in the classroom to support their students.

But a shift to expensive technology does raise issues about whether children from poorer families will be left behind. Some of the teachers from lower socio-economic school districts said that many families could not afford the $500 cost of iPads, and even with subsidies, an extra $100 added to the book list was too much to bear. It will certainly become an issue for governments to deal with because those students who are not expert in the latest technology will face a more difficult future.

Steve Cook and the co-organiser of the Slide2Learn conference, Jonathan Nalder, believe these devices will ultimately pay for themselves. At Albert Park College, the cost of the booklist has dropped by half, as most textbooks can be downloaded, or accessed online. It almost offsets the cost of the iPad in the first year alone, and most students will be expected to use the device for two to three years. Jonathan Nalder points to the elimination of opportunity costs created by disruptions in the classroom. One of his colleagues in the non-profit Slide2Learn team found that a well-implemented iPod Touch program prevented kids from getting bored. Incidents of children mucking up in class dropped to zero within months.

Finally, it appears that a previously unwieldy management problem might be tackled using such devices. Cook says that there are huge variations in the performance of classes and that there is as much variation between classes as there is between schools. His hope is that digital devices will help uncover why those variations are so large, and give good educators a chance to work out what needs to be fixed. Consistently delivering the highest educational standards to every student is his goal and perfecting the curricula that are delivered to students is a great place to start. Instead of waiting for a new textbook to be released every few years, now his teachers can change them in real time.

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