Take your tablets and let's begin the lesson

Schools where children sit in rows working on handheld computers may seem futuristic, but it all harks back to the 18th century

Laura McInerney

A line of children sit working on tablet computers. Concentrating hard on their work, they don't notice the "monitor" sitting on his tall stool at the end of their row, checking to see who is off-task or in need of extra help. Behind them are hundreds of similar rows, replete with hunched children staring, thinking, working. The question is: does this room belong in 1830 or 2030? Really, it could be either.

In 1798, Joseph Lancaster, the son of a shopkeeper, opened a school in the then grubby streets of South London. To keep the school cost-free, Lancaster created his school based on principles of "the factory" - a most vogue invention of the time. In his one-room school, students sat, 10 to a bench, each writing on their own slate tablet, overseen by an older student known as the monitor. Rows extended across the place, meaning that at any time about 1,000 students could be seen scribbling away.

Standing on 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 pullies that turned six blocks held aloft the classroom. Each block was engraved with the initials of an instruction - for example, S.S. meant "show slates" and T.S. meant "turn slates". At times throughout the day, specified by a "teacher's manual", the headmaster rang a sharp-sounding bell before pulling levers that flipped a block revealing the latest instruction. On command, the students would show their slates and then, on the second command, put them down and begin working again.

Silvia Muller, a doctoral student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, US, who is studying the 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."

Parallels with modern teaching are also 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 silicon rather than slate. With 1:1 tablet teaching, each student has their own tablet, accessed solely by them, all year long at school. They are even allowed to take the tablet home. Some teachers allow students to use the tablets in all lessons, but this is not always the case.

The Androids are coming

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

Computerised tablet teaching is expected to deliver personalised instruction that pushes each child's abilities by getting them to perform tasks just above their current level of understanding. If done 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 allow for adaptation to the needs of different contexts and students. The quality of monitors and masters also varied greatly as the scheme spread across the world. Hence, while 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, and once Lancaster died the system almost completely died with him.

Tablets likely won't befall the same problems, given that they allow for personalisation but, as Muller points out, this will happen only if teachers can use the tablets properly and do so alongside other types of teaching when necessary. "The problem of the Lancasterian system was it focused on the mechanics of the system, not the teachers. 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."

There is also an additional danger with computer tablets - that the role of the teacher becomes diminished. If students merely need a supervisor who ensures on-task behaviour and rings lunch bells, then governments trying to lessen the financial load of schooling may be seduced into moving back to a system of young, unqualified "monitors". If so, 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 fellow classmates. The mind can only boggle at what the 2030 virtual punishment equivalent might be.

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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