Tablets in the classroom: A true transformation

Tablets have completely changed the way we interact with tech, bringing in an era of genuine personalisation, says Andrew Howard

For decades in education, there has been an uneasy truce between technology and the classroom. As technology has developed, the classroom has changed; the blackboard replaced with the whiteboard, the whiteboard with the ‘interactive’ whiteboard, for example. I am (unfortunately) old enough to remember, as a student, my school getting it’s first computer – a BBC Micro, which sat in pride of place in the science teacher’s classroom (there were no computing/ICT teachers then!). And I remember teaching with old-school banda masters (or spirit duplicator) And teachers have adapted, changing their practice to match the new invader. But that has always been the issue, in my opinion – the practice has evolved, with a compromise using the technology to do things the way they always have been done, just using the new tool.

But tablet technology has, in my opinion, completely changed the game plan. Tablets have completely changed the way we interact with technology, bringing in an era of genuine personalisation. Whether it’s an iPad, or an Android device, or a Microsoft Surface, they all provide us with a genuine, real-time window into a much wider world. The way we interact with it, touching, tapping, swiping, has changed how we expect to engage with technology. No longer do we need a keyboard or a special something to enable the interaction – we just touch the screen; just like we would point at something in a shop. 

And so, in the hands of students, tablets provide a real alternative to the way things have always been done. The technology now exists for schools to ditch exercise books and replace them with tablets. Just think about the logistics of that; a typical student will have around 10 – 15 exercise books for their work, need to replace them a couple of times in a year due to them getting filled, and then there’s all the photocopying of worksheets an inserts that need to be stuck in to provide a ‘richer’ experience for the student. Replace that with a single device, around the same size and weight as a single A4 exercise book and you have tablet replacement. Over a year, just think about the amount of paper that hasn’t been used – how many trees are saved there? 

There needs to be a clear strategy, with the right tools and supporting programmes, but let’s try to imagine what this future might look like:

A student walks to school with a single device in their bag. A ‘digital’ pen in their pocket replacing the pencil case. They get to school, turn on their device and it pings to tell them that there are emails from their teachers with information, notes and deadlines for them. Their calendar pops up a reminder to warn them that they have to submit an assignment later that day. 

In the lesson, they open up the class shared notebook, where the teacher has a section, there’s a class collaborative area and then there’s their own personal space. They see the teacher has put the lesson’s objectives in the teacher section, so they grab these & copy them into their digital exercise book – all with a tap and swipe motion. Then they get out their digital pen and make a few notes of their own to expand on the lesson. The teacher then engages the class, with discussions, notes, dialogue, etc (i.e. gets on with the job of inspiring and engaging them, helping them to construct the new knowledge and embed it into their understanding). The teacher wants to show them a video clip – the link is added to the digital exercise book, so the student can review the information. Then there’s an activity that requires the students to work together – in the collaborative space, the groups work on planning and developing the activity, with the teacher able to jump in and guide when things seem to be going in the wrong direction.

At the end of the lesson, each student has their own, rich, personalised set of notes, with the teacher’s contributions added to, supplemented and enhanced through the collaborative work and dialogue that went on. There was no robotic copying of teacher’s words, written on a board or flashed up in PowerPoint, slavishly re-written by the student because that’s what has always been done – instead, there’s been movement, discussion, debate and dialogue. Real learning going on through collaborative effort; the teacher guiding and supporting. 

And the student closes their tablet and moves onto the next lesson, to repeat the experience in a different digital exercise book. Or if the student is ill at home, they can log into the lessons as they are going on, see the teacher’s notes and contribute as best they can, without even having to be there. Homework is set by the teacher electronically, with the activity to be completed available for the student in their digital exercise book and a reminder added automatically to the student’s electronic diary. 

This is not the future, however; this is the now, with tablet technology. At Sandymoor School, this is what happens; Microsoft Office 365 provides our ecosystem that supports the vision, OneNote (especially the OneNote Classbook) provides the digital environment for the students and their own tablets are the physical reality of their exercise books. The Microsoft Surface 3, with the digital pen, is then the epitome of this all working together; in the hands of teachers, it streamlines mundane tasks like marking (and in a number of cases, teachers record their voice as marking feedback rather than using the pen – the student then gets to hear the teacher commenting on the work , providing much richer feedback than any pen, whether red or green, can ever provide).

Andrew Howard is Principal of Sandymoor School, a free school that opened in September 2012 in the North West of England. At their first Ofsted Inspection (January 2014), the school was graded ‘Good’ overall, with ‘Outstanding’ Leadership.