Keep taking the tablets

13th February 2009 at 00:00
Quick, clean and efficient technology enables lecturers and students to access assignments and write assessments easily without all the paperwork. Douglas Blane reports

Tony Brown freely admits he is a "bit of a dinosaur" when it comes to computers: "At one time I had 453 emails I hadn't opened. I think it's a record."

So there must be obvious benefits to any technology that the South Lanarkshire College lecturer in construction has adopted with enthusiasm. "Our department got the PC tablets for assessment. But I've started using them for guidance too. I've got five filing cabinets full of student interviews - three for each of them every year. Multiply that by the total number of classes in the college and it's an enormous amount of paperwork. The tablet does away with all that."

Saving space, time and paper is what the award-winning project is all about, says James Martin, curriculum manager in the construction faculty. "Assessment tends to be about checklists, tick-boxes and loads of paper - particularly in vocational areas. Staff were having to prepare a portfolio for all the students every year. They'd print off reams of paper for every learner - 1,200 in construction alone."

PC tablet technology, which lets users write directly on screen without needing keyboard skills, seemed a likely solution. So a small number were purchased two years ago and two lecturers in the department - David McLaren and Alan Shearer - began using them for the previously paper-intensive continuous assessment of students' work.

In one of the workshops, a variety of low brick walls are taking shape under the hands of a dozen students and the expert eyes of the lecturers. It's a tough environment for sophisticated electronics. But, although the original PC tablet's screen is slightly scuffed, it still functions.

"I open a file like this," says Alan, tapping an on-screen icon with the stylus to show a photograph of one of the students. "That's so I know who I'm talking to. Then every assessment they do, I take a photograph of their work. That's his scaffolding and that's the cavity wall he built and the setting-out he's doing now," he says, scrolling through the photographic evidence of all the student's achievements.

"Look at the written side now. Once he's built his wall, I tell him we're going to assess it. He'll then check the length, the corner for square and so on. He'll make all the measurements and I'll record them on the tablet. Then I'll write an overall comment on screen, with what he needs to do to improve. All that goes straight into the file. Then the student writes his comments. We do that every week for every assessment - and it's all in here."

The ease with which students can interact with lecturers and play a central role in their own assessments is a key benefit of the new technology that wasn't anticipated at the start, says James Martin.

"Feedback at first was based on discussions between lecturer and student - but only the lecturer used the tablet. Last September, our college HMI, Janet Gardner, suggested students could be using the tablet as part of reflective learner practice. From then on, we've been encouraging all our students to do so."

As with the lecturers, this was an easy sell to those who had grown up with modern technology. "I like it because you're using a computer," says Chris Liddell, 18. "It's easier and you don't have lots of bits of paper."

But it wasn't too hard even with the mature students. "I can see the benefits," says James McCarroll. "And I'm getting happier using it as time goes on. The pictures are there and it's easy access to all your stuff."

Initially, the students are more comfortable with the technology than the lecturers were, says David McLaren. "They're the digital natives - we're the tourists. I've got the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence), so I was able to help out at the start with anybody who wasn't confident. But these things are very easy for everybody.

"This is still a pilot, so we're going to see even more benefits when we're using them throughout the faculty - and when students have more access to them. We're using them for assessment and guidance but they have tremendous potential in learning and teaching, especially if we get an IT suite of PC tablets, a possibility for the future."

Throughout the college there are 40 tablet PCs, with one computer between two members of staff in construction, says Mr Martin. "As David and Alan were piloting them, other members of staff saw how useful they were and wanted to take part. We didn't tell anybody they had to use them. The other two faculties in the college - care and business - now have a number of tablet PCs too and are starting to use them in their assessments.

"The next stage is to get away from student files stored on separate computers and to have them on a server connected to the tablets through Wi-Fi. That's going ahead in the next few months. It will be more secure and will give students access to their portfolios from anywhere in the college."

External organisations have been taking a keen interest in South Lanarkshire College's PC tablet project, says Mr Martin. "We've had about a dozen other colleges in for demonstrations, and I got a phone call from Construction Skills - the old CITB - wondering if the technology could be used on construction sites, which is where they do a lot of their assessments.

"We found out there's a military version of the tablet, which is drop-proof, water-proof and maybe bullet-proof. So they're going to use that model. This one is fit for our purpose. We don't need bullet-proof computers in college."

South Lanarkshire College's PC tablet project won the award for professional learning enhancement at Scotland's Colleges Annual Awards 2008.

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