School Closures and Learning from Home. Are iPads the Obvious Solution?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 12 March 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

As we all come to terms with the implications of the Coronavirus and plan for school closures, the importance of using online learning has suddenly moved to centre stage. Certainly schools in other countries are managing their closures with teachers working from home and interacting with pupils online.  Are we in a position to do the same?

A recent highly critical report into the mandatory use of iPads in a school in the Republic of Ireland, highlighted by The Irish Times, has found that students are frequently distracted by the devices and use them for gaming, shopping and social media instead of class-based work. The study was carried out by a former school principal, Cora Dunne, Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn, (a lecturer in Technical Communication and Instructional Design at UL), and by Dr Carl O Dalaigh, a former Chief Schools' Inspector with the Department of Education. The report was commissioned by Ratoath College, a 1,000-pupil school in Co Meath which recently decided to drop its iPad-only policy and reinstate the use of schoolbooks following concerns expressed by parents.

This is a worrying development as the current circumstances are now putting pressure on schools to introduce the concept of “a paperless classroom”, and online links with home based learning.  Schools here have had to work hard in recent years to overcome the financial and technological management issues of computer networks and the associated procurement and running costs. Those that have persevered will now reap the benefits and more easily adapt to the new distance learning imperatives, but has enough time been devoted to managing the appropriate use of this new learning medium?

Teachers and parents are reporting in the Ratoath survey that monitoring iPad use in class and at home is an ongoing challenge, with “distraction” as a key theme. From the teachers’ perspective, many reported that when they are at the top of the classroom the student ability to switch from class-based work on iPads to recreational activities such as gaming, shopping and engaging with social media was a matter of concern. An additional issue raised by teachers was that parents were messaging their children during classtime.

The review, which recommended that the school abandon its iPad-only policy, also identified problems around affordability and student revision and it advocated a return to the use of conventional printed schoolbooks, with continued but more limited use of technology for learning.

So is there wider evidence to support these findings?  An in-depth research survey carried out in Northern Ireland by Stranmillis College in May 2017 has sharply contrasting findings. The study - Mobile Devices in Early Learning - was carried out over two years and involved about 650 pupils in five Belfast primary schools and five nursery schools in some of the most deprived areas of the city. The BBC reported then that primary school pupil's maths, English and communication skills improved with regular iPad use in the classroom.  Each school was supplied with sets of iPads for nursery, primary one, primary two and primary three classes.  Researchers then assessed how pupils, parents, principals and teachers used them over the course of two years. The key findings were that digital technology has had a positive impact on the development of children's literacy and numeracy skills, children's communication skills were enhanced, boys in particular were more motivated doing written work and overall underachievement generally improved.

Dr Colette Gray one of the study's authors is quoted as saying that;

"It's not a panacea or the Holy Grail, but is another method to reach children who might otherwise underachieve; and that; …....for many children it does seem like a playful learning activity. Children, even if working alone, would talk to each other or talk to the teacher”.

There seems to be a divergence in experience between the primary and secondary school experience with iPads, but perhaps we need to factor in the difference between teenage and younger children’s classroom styles and social experience to help explain the different outcomes. The Ratoath survey also raised particular concerns about the quality of resources prepared by teachers to support the iPad learning.  While they were very effective as a delivery point for the use of high quality digital resources, for some teachers there was little material available. When they were asked to create their own resources instead of using textbooks, this was often done in "a piecemeal manner" and meant students were receiving information "without the context afforded by a textbook”. The review quotes international research which found that where material has not been professionally designed "it offers a poorer learning experience for students and that in the absence of textbooks and professional time and resources teachers have had to resort to synthesizing material from textbooks.”

One of the strong drivers for the Ratoath investigation was complaints from parents around homework and revision at home. They complained in particular that the absence of textbooks had led to problems for pupils in organisation and managing revision and that children were feeling "overwhelmed" by this.

The example was quoted of pupils trying to find notes on a particular topic and having to scroll through pages and pages of Powerpoint presentations to find relevant information. The review also noted that recent international studies on memory and recall have found that it is easier for students to retain information that has been handwritten compared to material typed up on keyboards.

Good news from the investigation was that the use of iPads to access inappropriate content was not a major concern for the majority of parents. Equally only a small number of parents commented that their children had problems with cyber bullying on their iPads.

Back in 2016 ATL were expressing concerns to government in Northern Ireland about a range of issues around growing iPad use in schools highlighted by a report by Dr Liz Fawcett – Tablets in School: How Useful are They?

The report highlighted similar problems to those in the Ratoath study around distraction for pupils and inappropriate use of the devices with gaming and messaging.  It was based on the results of an online survey which canvassed the views of 376 teaching staff and parents across Northern Ireland, most of whom had educational tablet experience.

So there have been problems with tablets in school for some time and the Ratoath report confirms that they have not gone away, particularly in secondary schools. In the context of this new public health emergency while the online learning looks like an obvious solution, we should be careful in the longer term before moving away completely from traditional learning approaches.

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This article is correct at 12/03/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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