From the Editor - Racing for gadgets won't make your school a winner

2nd August 2013 at 01:00

Do all your students have a personal tablet computer? Is your school preparing to equip each child with one if not? If it isn't, what's being done about it? Doesn't your school realise that students without tablets are like bedrooms without en suites or countries without royal babies - rather sad and possibly doomed?

The clamour to ensure that every child has a tablet is reaching royal-reporting levels of hysteria. Some schools have made tablets compulsory; some countries have equipped entire education systems with the devices, preloaded with the curriculum. Singapore, the US, France, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are all aiming to join the swelling ranks of the technologically virtuous. Now new research asserts that the UK could be left behind in this gadget arms race if its schools don't follow suit (page 18).

According to the research - sponsored, incidentally, by organisations that stand to benefit from large-scale tablet adoption - the devices promote independent learning and boost student motivation. There is as yet no evidence that they improve exam results.

One does not have to be an Apple, a Samsung or a Microsoft to realise that tablets can aid instruction, much like interactive whiteboards, BBC Micros and school television did before them. And one does not have to be a historian to know that any new technology arrives with overblown promises about what it can achieve. The invention of the crayon was probably accompanied by claims that it would make every child a Michelangelo.

The only extraordinary thing is our continual capacity to be duped. "You know, Gerard," one long-suffering chief sub-editor once said to me, "the word 'gullible' does not appear in any dictionary." "Really?" I unthinkingly responded.

Education seems to be equally and eternally credulous when it comes to technology. Some educators, and most politicians, think appliances can transcend the challenges they were designed to address. Vacuum cleaner manufacturers make incredible claims for their latest products but they stop short of pretending that they have abolished dirt. Car manufacturers bombard consumers with the most technologically advanced models but they don't claim to have done away with the need for travel.

So why the implicit assumption that if schools spend vast sums on the latest gizmo, learning won't merely be helped, its nature will be totally different? Indeed, so transformative might this revolution be that some pundits prophesy that teachers will be airbrushed from the future as students download curriculums and interact in their thousands with a few intercontinental experts.

This is nonsense. It not only inflates the potential of technology but it also misunderstands the nature of learning. Learning is not a monologue, it is a dialogue that technology can aid but cannot replace. Educating children is difficult. It is never going to be quick or easy or cheap. There are no quick fixes, no silver bullets. Tablets will no more change the nature of learning than virtual learning environments or CD-ROMs or slates did. They are not a substitution for good teaching. And any school that thinks they are is fooling itself and shortchanging its students.

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