Why tablets are a hard pill to swallow for some pupils

13th November 2015 at 00:00
Research into primary maths lessons finds that not all children respond well to learning on mobile devices

Giving pupils tablet computers does not automatically make them more interested in school subjects, and some children still work better offline, a study suggests.

A researcher looking at the use of tablets in P6-7 maths classes argues that the impact is mixed, with some pupils saying the devices improve lessons and others finding them frustrating.

Khristin Fabian, a learning technologist at the University of Dundee, had anticipated that pupils would be more positive about maths afterwards, but the study found there was no significant change.

Ms Fabian gave small Android tablets of various brands – costing less than £100 each – to 48 pupils in P6-7 at two schools. The pupils then worked in pairs on geometry and data-handling tasks.

‘I used to hate maths’

Some pupils felt that the approach was more interactive and allowed them to visualise mathematical concepts such as perimeter. “I’ve always hated maths but now I quite like it,” one said.

Most described the activities in the short project – part of a larger, ongoing study – as more fun than their usual work. One child who was not confident in maths found the new approach challenging, enjoyable and preferable to “just sitting down and writing and boring stuff”.

But generally confident pupils who weren’t adept with technology and preferred working with books had a different view.

“I’m finding it reasonably hard because I’m not a fan of tablets,” one said. “I find it hard scanning stuff and then finding shapes with a computer. I’d rather just do it myself.”

In her report, Ms Fabian writes: “Not all students are confident with handling technology and some students work better offline.”

Teachers should therefore avoid giving pupils identical activities when using mobile devices, she adds.

The project finds that technical problems can get in the way of learning and frustrate pupils, deterring them from participating: one child became so demotivated by technical problems that they refused to finish an activity.

The tablets were hooked up to a wireless 4G network rather than the school wi-fi and the signal would sometimes drop. On occasion apps failed to work, often because the pupils were not familiar with them.

The frustration was summed up in one pupil’s complaint: “A couple of the tablets won’t link. I can’t send it to the teacher. I’m sitting next to him and I can’t send it.”

Overall, however, pupils were happy with the flow of activities and had a positive view of the use of the technology for learning. Their experience matches a 2014 review of 32 research papers, which finds that students have positive perceptions of mobile technology used in maths (“Math and Mobile Technologies: a systematic review”, presented at the European Conference on Technology in the Classroom in Brighton in July).

High-tech teachers

Ms Fabian’s research comes as mobile technology is increasingly making inroads into classrooms around the globe. In Turkey, for example, there has been a move to give tablet computers to every pupil in the last eight years of school.

She will present her work at the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association (Sera) in Aberdeen next week.

Teachers who lack confidence with technology are a bigger hurdle than pupils, according to Andrew Jewell, a Scottish teacher of 17 years’ experience who now works with the iTeach programme to help schools get the most out of iPads.

“The design and delivery of the learning experience is still key, and the teacher therefore is still the central criterion for the success of lessons and programmes that use technology,” he said.

Mr Jewell added that Ms Fabian’s research echoed the stance supported by many such studies from across the globe – namely that appropriate use of technology in learning and teaching enhanced student engagement.

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