Technology - Governments seek tablets for all as takeover continues
They have become the must-have gadget, promising internet access for students while also helping teachers to organise their lives.
The US aims to provide every student with a personal tablet computer within three years, while other countries, including Singapore and Turkey, have adopted similar targets for equipping their own students with the devices.
Take-up in England has been more sporadic, but the author of new research believes the shift towards personal tablets elsewhere could have a knock- on effect for students in the country.
Barbie Clarke, managing director of social research company Family, Kids and Youth, which has been studying the effect of personal tablets in schools for the past three years, said that decisions made by other governments would play an important role in England.
"It is not feasible to say when every student will have their own device, but what is interesting is what is happening in other countries," Dr Clarke said. "Every state in the US aims to give one-to-one access by 2016. Turkey has adopted a similar policy, as has Singapore, and even Jamaica has recently announced the same thing. France, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are looking into it as well.
"I think if there was any sense that the UK could be left behind that might have an impact (on every student being given a tablet)."
For her research, Dr Clarke is tracking nine schools and monitoring the impact of using different tablets, such as Apple's iPad or Samsung's Galaxy Tab. The Department for Education asked Family, Kids and Youth to host a seminar last week and is understood to be interested in the results.
Findings so far have revealed that the devices promote independent learning and boost motivation among students. The pedagogical impact develops over time as teachers become more comfortable using tablets, according to Dr Clarke.
But her research also showed that there are still significant barriers to using tablets effectively, particularly when it comes to having suitable wi-ficonnectivity for so many devices. The report also showed that breakages were a problem and that insuring tablets was expensive.
The findings follow controversy over state-funded schools in England asking parents to either buy their children a tablet outright or pay up to pound;30 a month for access to a device. Teaching unions have complained that this risks stigmatising children who cannot afford the technology.
But while the expansion of digital technology in schools shows no signs of slowing, the questions of whether tablets represent good value for money or have a lasting impact on learning remain unanswered.
Dr Clarke's research was commissioned by the Tablets for Schools initiative, which includes leading figures from industry - including Carphone Warehouse and Dixons Retail - that could stand to gain financially from any increase in the use of tablets. But the organisation is adamant that the research is an attempt to see what works for schools, and says that any findings will be peer-reviewed to ensure they are robust.
Similar studies into the benefits of one-to-one access to tablets are being undertaken by the British Educational Suppliers Association and the information and communications technology (ICT) subject association Naace.
Miles Berry, former chair of Naace and subject leader in ICT education at the University of Roehampton, said there was little evidence that increasing the use of tablets had a significant impact on test scores.
"That said, encouraging schools to allow pupils to use their own devices and making funding available, perhaps via an enhanced pupil premium, for pupils (from deprived backgrounds) who don't have such technology might be a more realistic, and economically viable, ambition." Mr Berry added.
The DfE said that schools were best placed to decide how to use their resources. A spokesperson added: "Tablets for Schools is a unique collaboration between industry, schools and the voluntary sector. We are keen to hear the outcomes of their pilot and any insight this may offer."
Battle for schools
Apple's iPad continues to dominate the global tablet market in schools, particularly in the US. According to the National Survey on Mobile Technology for K-12 Education, 81 per cent of US school districts said they had adopted or planned to adopt iPad technology.
But Microsoft has hit back with the launch of its Surface tablet. Earlier this summer it announced that it would give away 10,000 of the devices to teachers attending the International Society for Technology in Education conference in Texas.
It has offered to cut the price of the tablet for schools and colleges around the world, making them available for as little as $199 (pound;130), less than half the normal retail price.