Tablets - putting the personal into computing

13th June 2003 at 01:00
Tablet PCs are making a real impact in schools at all levels. Jack Kenny went to Birmingham to find out how

"It's the enthusiasm that surprises me. The pupils see the Tablet PCs as positive. They have failed with paper and enjoy the work on the tablets and working on screen."

So says Maurice McLoone of Queensbury Special School, who requested 10 tablets to boost literacy among pupils in school and at home. His local authority, Birmingham, put RM Tablet PCs into schools to test their robustness and curriculum potential. Mike Farmer, a consultant with the authority's professional development group Education IT Services (EdIT), oversaw the centrally financed project. "We were interested in seeing a variety of approaches," he says. "Bishop Vesey has one class moving around the school with the PCs, one English class has been equipped at Dame Elizabeth Cadbury Technology College and science is covered at Swanshurst.

At Frankley Community High School, children with behaviour problems are targeted and at Queensbury Special School it's pupils with learning difficulties."

McLoone says: "It's too early to draw conclusions, but the first group all showed an improvement in reading ability. I am now using them with a group who are better readers to see if there is a comparable effect."

All teachers notice improved concentration and sharper focus from using the PCs. McLoone says: "There seems to be an insulation around pupils and they focus on the screen in a way they don't do with a desktop or even a laptop." Farmer agrees: "The way students interact with the software on the machine is more intimate. When you work with a laptop it is distanced, two feet away. With a tablet you are in touch with the screen and that promotes concentration."

And Linda Blakemore, ICT teacher at Bishop Vesey Grammar School, says: "The body language is different - they are more involved. My sixth-form group all preferred the tablets to PCs and laptops. They said writing on screen felt more natural and the work looks like their usual work; most held the tablets close, more as a part of them."

The use of a stylus is important. Di Selwood, an English teacher at Dame Elizabeth Cadbury, says her A-level students, all adept keyboard users, have "an almost emotional relationship with the process of handwriting and when really thinking or being creative this is their mode of choice".

And it's not only creativity that is enhanced - Eamonn Duffy of Frankley Community College identifies marking too. He says pupils often feel resentful when teachers write on their work; many students feel it has been ruined. Marking on-screen means comments can be kept on a different "layer", so instead of work being destroyed it can be preserved as the author intended. Students just implement the teachers' suggestions then clean them off, leaving pristine work they are proud of. Duffy has also used the machines to explore the paint programs and says his students find drawing and painting much easier with a stylus.

Kath Powell at Swanshurst uses 30 Tablet PCs for science and ICT revision.

One project involves the learning site. This has enabled Year 11 students to take the machines home and log on to the school's wireless network (students pay 5p per call) to go into their personal work areas.

Any work they have done on the computer is synchronised with the network drive. This way of working has enabled online marking for staff and sharing of work between students because can make files available to a restricted or a wide group.

Of course, there have been some technical problems. One group in Bishop Vesey uses the tablets for all lessons and Blakemore says: "I tell the students that if there is a problem with the tablet in a lesson, the teacher will probably not be equipped to deal with the technicalities; distracting the teacher from the lesson will not achieve anything. So they just switch off, partner up with someone whose machine is working and seek help from the IT department later."

The results, so far, have been positive. So what next? Farmer says: "If we are going to have complete inclusion in ICT, these are superb tools to move that along. I can see the tablet going halfway to the PDA and they will meet in the middle to create a portable computing and communication device for every child. The really exciting part of the tablet is the Microsoft Ink (handwriting recognition) software. When the expanded PDAs get to operate that, wow!"


* They increase focus and concentration and are motivating among boys

* Creativity and thinking is promoted by using a stylus rather than a keyboard

* Tablets allow better access to painting and graphics

* The size and weight and easy connectivity to networks and the internet aids homeschool working

* Cross-curriculum ICT is made easier, particularly by built-in wireless networking

* Movement around the school is easier

* Online marking is less destructive to the students' original work.

Teachers' red-penned observations can be attended to and marks then removed to leave students with pristine work Iand cons

* New technology inevitably creates new problems

* Poor network set-up can cause problems, which highlights the importance of first-class technical back-up

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