Take your tablets and let's begin the lesson

Children sit in rows working on handheld devices. It seems a futuristic vision but we've seen it all before - hundreds of years ago

Children sit in a line, working on tablets. They are concentrating hard and they don't notice the "monitor" on his tall stool at the end of their row, checking to see who is off-task or in need of help. Behind them are hundreds more rows of hunched children, staring, thinking and working. The question is: are we in 1830 or 2030?

In 1798, Joseph Lancaster, the son of a shopkeeper, opened a school in the poor streets of South London, England. To keep the school cost-free, Lancaster based it on the factory system - a concept much in vogue at this early stage of the Industrial Revolution. In his one-room school, students sat 10 to a bench, writing on their own slate tablets and overseen by an older student known as the monitor. Rows extended across the room - at any time about 1,000 students could be scribbling away.

From a stage at the front of the room, the headmaster used a semaphore telegraph to communicate with the students en masse. The telegraph was operated by a complex system of pulleys, which turned six blocks held aloft in the classroom. Each block was engraved with an instruction - for example, S.S. meant "show slates" and T.S. meant "turn slates". Throughout the day, at times specified by a "teacher's manual", the headmaster rang a sharp-sounding bell before pulling levers to flip a block and reveal the latest instruction. On command, the students would show their slates. On the second command, they would put them down and resume working.

Silvia Muller, a doctoral student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, US, who is studying the Lancasterian system, says: "Back then, this system looked new, different, like an engine or a factory, and in the 19th century that was a great thing. To people at the time, this looked like the future and it made them more willing to pay for a national system of education."

Learn from the past

Parallels with modern teaching are apparent to Muller, who is helping teachers to integrate new technologies into their classrooms. At present, several US schools are trialling 1:1 tablet teaching, although this time the tablets are made of plastic rather than slate. With 1:1 tablet teaching, each student has their own tablet computer, accessed solely by them. They are even allowed to take the tablet home. Some schools permit their students to use the tablets in all lessons but this is not always the case.

From September, education technology company Amplify will provide middle schools in North Carolina with 21,215 Android tablet computers preloaded with apps that support teachers in delivering the curriculum and monitoring student progress (see bit.lyAmplifySchools and bit.lyTabTimes).

Computerised tablet teaching is expected to deliver personalised instruction that develops each child's abilities by getting them to perform tasks slightly above their current level of understanding. If used well, the technology could lead to better learning, but Muller is concerned that the benefits of tablets are being overplayed.

"Like the Lancasterians, we seem to believe that if we get the 'system' right then everything else will fall into place," she says. "So if we just give x number of tablets to y number of students and then train the teachers to 'manage the telegraph pole', then there will be a wonderful outcome. But that's not how things work."

The problem with the Lancasterian system was that it didn't adapt to the needs of different contexts and students. In addition, the quality of monitors and masters varied greatly as the idea spread across the world. So although the system appeared to be effective and efficient, the autonomy of teachers who changed the system to suit their own needs meant that the schools moved further and further away from the original idea. Once Lancaster died, the system almost died with him.

The same problems are not likely to befall tablets, given that they allow for personalisation. But, as Muller points out, personalisation will only happen if teachers can use the tablets properly and can do so alongside other types of teaching when necessary. "The problem of the Lancasterian system was that it focused on the mechanics of the system, not the teachers," she says. "If teachers don't have the skills to use the tablets in a personalised way, or if they feel that learning is easier through face-to-face interactions, then they are likely to reject the technology."

An additional danger with tablet computers is that the role of the teacher could be diminished. If students need merely a supervisor who ensures on-task behaviour and rings lunch bells, governments trying to lessen the financial load of schooling may be seduced into returning to a system of young, unqualified "monitors". But what happens if a student puts down their tablet and refuses to learn? In the world of 1830, naughty children had to wear sacks and were raised up in baskets to sit above the classroom and feel the ridicule of their classmates. The mind boggles at what the equivalent punishment might be in 2030.

Laura McInerney is a PhD student at the University of Missouri, US, a Fulbright Award recipient and a former teacher in East London, England.

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