Talk about bad timing. You wait years for some great pieces of kit for handheld learning - something the pupils will be inspired by - then a whole bus load of them comes along at once. And to cap it all off, schools' ICT budgets are raided to pay for other things.
As with a lot of IT innovations, Apple got there first, with Windows products hot on their heels. The months immediately prior to the BETT show have seen a flurry of Windows or Android touchscreen devices launched to rival the iPad. First, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, then the RM Slate and RM mini-Tablet, swiftly followed by others. But is touch technology really helping to deliver fantastic learning, or is it just a gimmicky way of keeping pupils' attention?
Unfortunately, in terms of the larger "slate" products (as opposed to the smaller iPod Touch types) it's too early to answer this fully, as one of the greatest advantages of the technology - its ability to allow the user to be creative and explore its myriad capabilities - also means the full potential hasn't yet been mapped out. Anecdotal evidence exists of the iPad's ability to engage students with learning, but it's too early to say if there has been a demonstrable impact on results.
But the iPad does already have fans. Barely had the queues disappeared from the Apple stores when some schools had got their hands on class sets of the device. The independent Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock, Scotland, claims to be the first school in the world with one-to-one iPad deployment for its 100 or so pupils.
In late 2009, Fraser Spiers, Cedars' head of computing and IT, identified a need for more computers as demand for the school's laptops was outstripping supply. After seeing reports of schools using iPod Touch and considering it as an option, Mr Spiers rejected it for Cedars as the iPod Touch doesn't have word processing abilities, has a very small keyboard and can't connect to a projector. However, Apple then released details about the iPad and the solution presented itself to Mr Spiers at just the right time.
Tapping into new ideas
Mr Spiers expects pupils to use the calendar app for their homework planning, but there are no restrictions on what the device can be used for. Primary students use iPad applications for learning words, maths and drawing, whereas secondary students use productivity-oriented apps such as iWork for word processing and presentation software.
But although there is progress, it isn't evenly spread across the school, says Mr Spiers, with some teachers simply doing the same activities on the iPad as they had on paper and not tapping into new possibilities. The challenge now is to deploy the best ideas across the school, he says.
Meanwhile, traditional PC and laptop suppliers are taking note of these new developments and believe they can be compelling and complementary alongside existing technologies within the classroom. James Quarles, head of education for Dell, says: "It's less about technology and more about how it's used." Equally as important are the resources available for the devices and the infrastructure around them, he adds.
Despite the lack of widespread evidence for a touchscreen device in teaching, companies producing them are reporting significant interest from schools. Early interest for the RM Slate has been "really strong", with the company receiving lots of loan requests ahead of its shipping date in mid-December from schools eager to try it out in situ.
One area in which the advantages of the larger touch screen are clear, however, is in SEN (see box, below).
Not everyone is convinced by the need for such technology, though. The potential for distraction, disruption and damage is high with technology that can be used for non-educational uses as well as learning, says Margaret Allen, head of global training at Promethean. "Teachers don't need technology to teach well, they need it to be relevant. (But the challenge is) how to incorporate technology every day." When devices are used only on "special occasions", they can create disruption and behaviour issues, but giving each pupil a device specifically designed for learning can reduce this, Ms Allen says. Using devices such as the ActivExpression, she adds, enables the pupils to be involved in the lesson while the teacher remains in control.
Problems don't just come from the devices themselves, though. Without proper planning for the school's wireless network, the new technology could bring the whole system to a standstill, says Mark Howell, regional manager for network specialist Meru. Some of the latest devices do not have an Ethernet port, meaning the only internet access they have is via wi-fi, and as we see an "explosion of use" of handheld devices this has the potential to have a serious impact on a school's network capability, adds Mr Howell.
"Initially, laptops for teachers might mean a spread-out 50-100 devices. That doesn't place much demand on a wireless network." However, when each pupil has a device that needs network access, this is when systems start to creak and pupils don't get the benefit of mobile learning, says Mr Howell. The frustration of not being able to log on can lead to "doodling, hitting the laptop, thumping the desk", he claims. "Most people's experience of wireless is at home, and there is a lack of understanding of wireless network requirements to support true mobile learning", he warns.
Get the network bandwidth right and integrate the technology into lessons and the benefits are already starting to shine through. At Cedars, some of the more experienced teachers are noticing changes in students' learning behaviours, with one remarking that for the first time in her career she has to enforce the word limit on essays, with students also redrafting essays two or three times. Meanwhile, the iPads are capturing the attention of pupils lower down the school, with pupils in P2 (six-year-olds) becoming fans of the Math Bingo app, which encourages them to do many more times the sums they were doing on paper.
Cedars pupils received their iPads in August so it is too early to see the impact on exam results, and with the RM Slate deploying as this supplement goes to press, teachers and commentators will be eagerly awaiting feedback from the early adopters.
FRASER SPIERS' FIVE FAVOURITE APPS FOR iPAD
Mathbingo - a numeracy app for young children.
ABC Pocket Phonics - good for early primary, draw the letter and get immediate feedback.
iWork - Apple's word processing, presentation and spreadsheet programs.
Coursenotes - a note-taking app that allows you to email note-taking sessions to someone else.
Brushes - finger drawing app.
iPAD AND SEN
One of the earliest success stories for educational use of the iPad appears to have been with SEN pupils, but it has happened more by accident than design. A more child-friendly size than an iPod Touch, the iPad is being hailed as a "near-miracle" by some parents of children with autism.
Offering an environment where images are consistent and repeatable, unlike human faces which show a myriad of expressions and nuances, a growing body of people believe the iPad is a near-perfect tool for children with autism. Apps that are particularly designed for SEN children, and even educational apps that aren't, are offering new avenues of communication between adult and child, more consistent and stable visual environments for the child, and learning opportunities to boot.