The silver bullet for ICT in education?


Are iPads the next thing that will transform education, or yet another over-hyped technology that will be misused? Neil Atkins offers his thoughts, and an effective lesson strategy using the devices.

Computers in the late 80s were going to change everything, but then we realised they couldn’t do very much that was really different. 

In the 1990s, CDs with encyclopedias such as Encarta appeared which were going to kill the textbook, but that never really happened. 

Microsoft put out the “Where do you want to go today?” adverts in the 1990s, but we didn’t really seem to go anywhere.

And then it was interactive whiteboards which were the next big thing, with England among those who were very keen to adopt. Used well they can be highly effective, but the majority are used as little more than a white blackboard.

Headteachers would proudly show prospective parents their gleaming computer rooms and point out that every classroom had an interactive whiteboard with no-one asking: “How has this impacted on learning?”

We are very keen to jump onto a new technology platform with many seeing it as the silver bullet that will transform and improve education. This blind faith has certainly appeared for the iPad. 

We constantly seem to try to solve complex problems with over simple solutions. I think iPads are stunning as they are fast, reliable, intuitive and don’t give the barriers to learning that slow unreliable laptops often present.

Yes, the iPad is a phenomenal tool, but it is only a tool. If used well it can turn students from consumers of information into creators, collaborating and communicating in ways that were not possible or even imaginable a few years ago.

But you cannot just give these devices to a class without seriously considering what value it adds to a lesson.

In some schools teachers have found they are being forced to integrate iPads with little training and no real understanding of the capabilities. Apple provides free training, but which shows only how to use the device and not how to use it effectively in the classroom.

One major problem is that teachers have a tendency to carry on teaching as they always have done and to simply add on the technology to enhance their delivery. With technology that kept the teacher at the centre of the learning experience as the deliverer of knowledge, this could be quite effective.

However, iPads and other mobile devices put the student at the centre of the learning, removing restrictions on progress and offering for the first time a truly personalised learning experience, often in conflict with the traditional approach.

As in all things, a balanced approach is needed. Students may be very motivated to create a video showing their understanding, but if they do this in every lesson the novelty will soon wear off. 

Direct instruction still has a place and a carefully crafted tech-free lesson will always be more effective than a poorly thought-out one using the latest tech. A simple rule of thumb that I use is “if it can be done as effectively without the technology, then do not use the technology”.

Consider this lesson I taught using iPads on forces to a year 9 group:

  • Learning objectives: To create a video performing your understanding of forces (to show me any misconceptions that can be discussed).

  • Task: How many ways can you think of to make a tea bag fly (a divergent thinking task). Use popplet to show your ideas.

  • Questions delivered with Socrative (Assessment for Learning so I can demonstrate progress): What are forces? What are they measured in? How might you know a force is acting? How confident are you with your knowledge of forces?

  • Show them how to make a teabag fly without touching it – you need to come on my course to find out how! They video the demonstration, then create a quick film explaining their ideas using iMovie.

  • Demonstrate the teabag flying again, but this time explain it to them. They film it, but then have to delete my voice and create their own voiceover (some students repeatedly played the clip before they were ready to do this).

  • Insert the image from Popplet, then upload their films that have their original ideas and final thinking to a school YouTube account. Questions again delivered with Socrative.

So for this lesson I had a simple set of questions that allowed me to know what they knew when they came into my lesson and that could be directly compared to what they knew when they left.

The film gave them the opportunity to explain their views orally and again I was able to see if progress had been made. It also included their Popplet so I had an indication of their divergent thinking. Outstanding progress was clearly shown from the results in a lesson where I actively taught for less than five minutes. The iPads were used to do what would be nearly impossible without them.

The iPad and other mobile technology will be a game-changer in that control of learning can be given to the learner. In order for this to happen the learner has to know what to do with this control. A superb read is Richard Watson’s book Future Minds, which outlines the dangers of digital learning and why we should not embrace technology without wariness. 

A great deal of thought needs to be given to what our classrooms should look like. The pedagogy must come first, not the technology.

  • Neil Atkin has taught for 20 years. He specialised as an advanced skills teacher in science and IT. His company exScites explores ways of using exciting activities to teach science. Neil is a teaching and learning coach for the Institute of Physics and a teacher trainer with Dragonfly Training. Follow him at @natkin

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