Why should Scotland's schools keep taking tablets?

More students than ever before are using high-tech devices in the classroom, but what effects these have on learning has remained uncertain. Now, an expert in emerging technologies has published a blog that offers the clearest insight yet

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Like some kind of Victorian adventurer, Derek Robertson took six months to explore a great unknown - only his wasn't a quest for the source of the Nile but something closer to home: he was determined to discover whether the mushrooming number of mobile IT devices in Scottish schools were actually doing any good.

Mr Robertson, who goes by the title of Education Scotland's national adviser in emerging technologies and learning, is now sharing his findings from his months of discovery. Rather than a traditional academic report, he has published a blog with dozens of entries that draw no conclusions but provide the clearest picture yet of how mobile devices may - or may not - transform school education.

What is clear is that more and more schools and local authorities are finding ways to buy tablets, They are also warming to the idea of letting students use their own smartphones in class, a trend that was catalysed in March, when the Scottish government gave IT services provider XMA the go- ahead to offer schools, colleges and universities a range of devices at attractive prices.

Inevitably, there have been many irritating technical issues. A fantastic app may not be available across all platforms; iPods cannot play Flash games; moving children's work to and from devices has proved to be tricky; and inexpensive apps may actually be a drain on finances once devices have been configured.

One school recalled the laborious process of buying 150 iTunes cards, then scratching to reveal each 15-digit code, each of which had to be keyed in. Another had to email work back and forth, then tried the file-sharing website Dropbox but found that this too was cumbersome.

But these can almost all be characterised as glitches and such challenges are fading away as schools, education authorities and IT corporations find more efficient ways of sharing information and technology. Indeed, earlier this year, the Scottish government's ICT in Education Excellence Group found "no significant technical barriers" to schools introducing "bring your own device" policies.

Teachers are being promised that with Glow, the online community for Scottish schools, migrating to Microsoft Office 365, shared storage will stretch across the Android, iOS and Windows platforms.

A bigger challenge may be persuading schools and local authorities to cede control to young people - a move that expert consensus deems necessary for digital technology to stand any chance of bringing about radical change.

Bellshill Academy in North Lanarkshire, where about 150 iPads were given to students in a trial, embraced this idea. "Rather than worrying about the unfortunate things that might happen to the device, the school decided to trust their learners and allow the devices to go home," Mr Robertson says. Bellshill students had to sign up to an "acceptable use policy"; few broke its terms and only one iPad went missing, in a burglary.

And in East Lothian, where a small, unfiltered network was created to allow a trial of Google Chromebooks at Preston Lodge High, a learning technology specialist in the authority, David Gilmour, says there have been no reports of abuse. West Lothian Council, meanwhile, is clear that learning should not be "straitjacketed by a school that wants to be overly controlling". The council has set up an "anywhere, anytime learning" channel designed to allow children to bring in their own devices.

Interestingly, the question of whether to allow young people to use their own devices is fast becoming obsolete. West Lothian officials "had wrestled with the fact that learners were journeying on their learning by accessing the internet via the wi-fi on the local bus or in fast-food burger shops but not, alas, in school". Cedars School of Excellence, in Greenock, was ahead of the curve in 2010, when each of its 105 students was given an iPad. Computing teacher Fraser Speirs says that life at the independent school is now much like life outside it, as students used digital technology without having to make any adjustments or compromises.

There is increasing acceptance among schools that digital technology will transform education only if more control is given to young people, but this does not mean a free-for-all. Dalreoch Primary in Dumbarton, West Dunbartonshire, uses iPads for specific literacy and numeracy tasks in the morning, before less structured interdisciplinary work in the afternoon. In this way, the new and the old are still present.

Dalreoch headteacher Sat Bance thinks it "particularly powerful" that the devices help children to make informed decisions about how to respond to tasks, and that they, rather than teachers, decided what to do. At Bellshill Academy - where 87 per cent of staff felt that their students were more interested in learning as a result of the iPad trial introduced in January 2012 - headteacher Anne Munro describes students' growing confidence and how they impressed at an event they hosted for senior education managers.

"It was not only the young people's ability to use the technology that caught the eye but the confidence with which they delivered the workshop and how they responded to questions," Mr Robertson writes. "She saw these S2 learners becoming the teachers and the facilitators for the adults in the room."

At Sciennes Primary in Edinburgh, which was involved in an Education Scotland trial that provided a class of 32 P5s with iPads, class teacher Wendy French says that heightened confidence was matched by greater creativity.

A number of schools found that the sheer joy of learning had been unshackled by mobile devices. One Sciennes child says: "When I used to write on paper, I would write maybe 100 words, but now I am writing 1,000 words and my writing's really improved because I'm writing more. I'm writing at home and before I was more reluctant to edit it because you have to rub it all out and it just makes a mess, but with this it takes two seconds and you've got a good piece of work."

Other children seem less aware of the impact on their learning; their utter absorption in a task distances it from what they would consider learning. One P7 boy at Linnvale Primary in Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, where children were using iPads and iPod Touches, was working on a complex animation.

"When we asked him what he thought he was learning by creating these animations, his response was `nothing'," writes Mr Robertson on his blog. "We attempted to tease this out with him but he was . totally focused on his creation."

Staff, too, often felt liberated. One teacher, who confessed to struggling with email and found the prospect of working with tablets daunting, said it was the first of many ICT initiatives over the years that made her feel confident that technology would improve learning.

Mobile devices have helped to strengthen schools' links with parents. Sciennes depute head Lucy Gallagher argues that because of the access devices allow children to their work, parents are much more aware of the wider school experience, as opposed to merely homework. She describes parents' increased involvement as a "joyful experience".

But there are differing views on whether every child in a class needs a device. Mrs Gallagher pointed to greater collaboration, discussion, sharing and a "willingness to independently support each other" when each child had an iPad. But Linnvale head Lindsay Thomas does not feel her school was disadvantaged by not having a device for each child. She says the sharing of devices helps to encourage collaboration.

Mr Robertson, who will soon take up a post at the University of Dundee, manages a fine balancing act - he is a technology enthusiast but not an evangelist and retains a healthy scepticism and a wary eye for tokenistic use of mobile devices. For example, he is happy to record meeting children who preferred to learn with paper and pencil, or at least felt that mobile devices should be used only for particular tasks.

Even go-ahead West Lothian Council was wary of the "hype" around technology and voiced "concerns that school leaders would be persuaded by the pervasive message that the device route was the way to go". Schools are allowed to use mobile devices only after creating, with the council's help, a learning strategy showing how they will improve young people's learning.

As Mr Robertson records: "They were of the opinion that without such thinking (and once the effect of the new `shiny, shiny' tech in school had worn off) any new initiative would more than likely end in schools continuing to do what they have always done."

Not quite the source of the Nile, but a crucial observation no less.



Earlier this year, the Scottish government's ICT in Education Excellence Group's report set out questions that schools should ask when implementing a "bring your own device" policy:

1. What are the criteria for lending a device to students? Are (devices) simply made available on demand or is there some requirement students must meet?

2. What about students who forget to bring their device? Do they have a lower priority for a pool device than students who don't own one?

3. What are the responsibilities of students who use school devices - can they take them home? What happens if they forget to bring them or lose them? Are there insurance issues?

4. Will the technology stimulate competition so that students are subjected to peer pressure to update their technology?

5. Will there be a stigma associated with using school devices for those students who do not own their own technology?

Original headline: Why should Scotland's schools keep taking the tablets?

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