iLiteracy: Why the media shouldn't be too quick to support the tablet revolution

8th June 2013 at 21:16


Fans of optimism and speculative futurism wouldn't have been disappointed if they read the news this week on the BBC.

'Swansea computer tablet project boosts reading' was the far from neutral headline. Like anyone, I'm keen to find ways to get kids reading and reading better. According to the article, Seaview Primary in Swansea had been working with Casllwchwr Primary on a literacy program developed in the former. 'Year six children saw average reading ages leap from nine to thirteen,' the feature said about children at Casllwchwr.


To quote Welsh Education minister Leighton Andrews, the 'experience was rolled out' to Seaview. Andrews is enthusiastic about the project. '"They [teachers] need to see it at first hand to understand the really transformational potential of what Casllwchwr has achieved,"


I'd love to say that I thought this was true, but lying is a sin. What is the program, and what evidence is there to suggest that it should be rolled out?


The program is called Life, which stands for Learning Intergenerational Furthering Learning, and I'm not even sure that makes sense. It was developed by Casllwchwr and Swansea Council in partnership. Simon Pridham, executive head at Casllwchwr developed it, along with Jeremy Stephens. In 2010, Swansea council published this case study as an example of good practice for raising literacy through digital technologies. It's an enthusiastic read, with the Head claiming that, "by using motivating digital devices, we are equipping our pupils with the skills they need for the 21st century."


Are digital devices intrinsically motivating? I'd dispute that, along with the claim that new skills are needed to thrive in the 21st century. I mean we're a good way in, and the required skill set remains fairly stable. So far, so groovy. The report mentions several threads to their literacy approach that all sound hearty and edifying; a reassuring focus on the importance of literacy, and a conscious effort to promote it throughout the school and curriculum. Only a lunatic could find fault with that. I can even turn a blind eye to the mention of De Bono's Thinking Hats, that unproven, untested, untestable dogma of contemporary orthodoxy.


Then, because we've been waiting patiently, the IT. iPods and eReader, iPads, the lot.


'The school library has become a stimulating learning and media pod, with a range of technology such as eBooks to engage pupils’ interest. Pupils use the technology to make their own books as well as complete book reviews. The use of different technologies provides pupils with opportunities to choose how to present their learning.'


And the impact of all this?


'A wide range of pupil performance data shows that the school has been successful in improving standards over time. In particular:

  • pupils’ performance in English in key stage 2 has improved significantly over the past four years;
  • the proportion of pupils achieving level 4 in writing in key stage 2 has increased from 71% in 2008 to 90% in 2011, while the performance of the family of schools has remained at 76%; and
  • pupils have improved their ability to learn independently.'

Impressive claims. But should we all be selling our textbooks and investing in iPads and beanbags? Should this model be adopted across Cymru? Suites of notebooks and tablets are expensive, require costly maintenance, insurance, and updating. They're also very nickable in the way that, for example, exercise books aren't. In other words, what's the evidence to suggest that digitalising the classroom is the next step in education? 


Every time I read a study that claims reading, or numeracy, or attendance, or self-goddamn esteem, has been improved by the adoption of smart tech, I am frequently struck by how rarely the research is particularly good, objective, or conclusive. By 'good' I mean the hypothesis is usually tested so poorly that one often suspects the authors have little idea how to conduct an experiment; by 'objective' I mean that research is often conducted by, or in the name of, digital suppliers or techno-enthusiasts; by 'conclusive' I mean that what data is generated very rarely supports the excited conclusions the papers come to.


In my investigations, I've found that research in  '21st century learning' is often distinctly medieval: authors refer to their own previous papers as sources, or websites, or testimonials, or surveys. I'm not a Luddite; I use tech myself, but spectacular claims require spectacular justification, and the irony is that when it comes to the allegedly revolutionary properties of digitalisation, the evidence is usually frustratingly thin.


This is not an attack on the school, the creators of the program, or anyone involved in its execution; the schools mentioned sound terrific, as do the staff. My issue is with the unquestioning acceptance that the best way to get kids reading is to stick a tablet in their hands. Every activity on a computer that improves literacy can be boiled down into four things: writing and reading, speaking and listening. All of these have been facilitated without expensive tech for almost all of our history. There are no short cuts to being literate; it's mostly reading and writing.


Read what the Life Program does for yourself here. I wish it all the best. But all we have here is a couple of schools, and a couple of case studies. There's nothing here that remotely resembles a real experiment, which means nothing could be published, or peer-reviewed, or assessed. Unless we follow these procedures, all we have is a whole bunch of interventions, a set of outcomes, and speculation about the mechanisms that may or may not link the two.


Perhaps the Life program is responsible for the literacy improvements. Perhaps it was the whole other raft of strategies, excellent teaching, great teachers, that the pupils enjoyed. Maybe it was the novelty of having shiny tablets for a while. Who knows? That's the point. No one knows. Every Saturday morning I wake up with a sore head. Conclusion: Saturday mornings give me headaches? Or maybe it's the empty bottle of Talisker sitting guiltily in my shattered Tantalus Cabinet. Correlation, causation; necessary connection or contingent?


There was nothing to indicate that those conducting this project tested it in any way against itself, ie checked to see if their theory was wrong. The designers of the program were also the ones who rolled it out, conducted it, and then drew their conclusions. No blind, no control, no methodological restraint. Just pots of cash spent at the Apple Store and thumbs-up all round.


Leighton Andrews, assuredly an honourable man, is in a position of influence. His job is to raise educational standards, and also to deliver value for money to constituents. But there's no evidence that the tablets do either, and a big possibility that actually they don't. It's vital that money isn't wasted until we know for sure that things work. That, or let schools experiment and teach as they will, but don't suddenly scale it up to a national level because you believe it worked once, somewhere. That's how we got Brain Gym, and Voodoo.


Just say No to bandwagons. Especially ones that need to be recharged a lot.