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Bitter tablets

Are tablet computers the way forward in the classroom, ponders Simon...

Simon Brew

I have children. My children go to school. The schools that my children go to teach ICT. To do so, they need computers. At two of those schools, there’s currently a drive to fund a bunch of iPads. Currently, said schools use a mix of desktop and laptop computers, and each has access to a bunch of interesting software tools that we parents can also get to play around with remotely in some cases. Granted, when one of my children comes home and asks if we can get a copy of said program for home it gets a bit awkward, not least when I check the prices, but there’s something useful, I think, about continuing to develop and teach keyboard and mouse skills.

It seems, though, a humble computer is getting just a little old fashioned.

Of late, there’s been a push towards tablet computers. In fact, iPads. iPads that come locked-in with closed source software, controlled and funnelled through one central company. Inevitably, you don’t just end up teaching about the machines themselves. Schools will enforce the philosophy behind them. Furthermore, Android devices rarely seem to be on the agenda in the schools I’ve visited over the past few months.

Those arguments temporarily aside, I do wonder if the intuitive touchscreen interface of a tablet or mobile device is something that the vast majority of children actually seem to be that alien to. In fact, if anything, we’re going to see – and this may be a good thing – a steady decline in the use of the keyboard and mouse as the main interface with technology.

My concern, is whether education is following a fad or looking towards the best tools for the job. On visiting secondary schools, for instance, I’ve found there to be a push towards laptops over desktops and tablets, and my anecdotal experience is that the status quo isn’t changing any time soon. Laptops appear to be seen as more of a useful tool, tablets more of a distraction.

I’m not sure I fully buy that argument, and certainly education has come a long way since my school had a solitary Link 380Z machine that was shared between classes. But I’d dearly like to see technology deployed to teach things that are harder to learn at home – rudimentary animation, music making, office skills and their ilk. I’m not convinced that a tablet is the right platform for that, and by definition it cuts out the growing number of open source tools that can genuinely teach and nurture creative skills.

Education is already a battleground that Microsoft invests heavily into, knowing that if it gets youngsters using its software, there’s a chance that it’ll be a long term habit forming. Apple, it seems, is playing the same game. But who benefits? And who is standing up against the current ‘in’ thing, to instead switch attention onto areas of technology that people don’t get such easy access to?

It’s easy to throw stones at an already complicated education system – and no country has the perfect answer to this. I just think there’s an incredible opportunity here on several levels– but chequebooks and fads are preventing many schools from taking it.