Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Tablets in Learning

I'm reaching that most difficult biannual event... It's time to upgrade my mobile phone.

It took a single covetous glance around the offerings available in my local O2 store to convince me that I had an immediate problem. There are some features and functions that are only available in Windows Phones, and other apps that I rely on that are not available within the Windows store. So which do I choose?

And why is this relevant to my title?

You can almost guarantee that students coming into FE will already have exposure to tablet devices. In this sense they will have a preferred device, and applications of their own that they rely on. As an educational institute we need to be prepared for a huge variety of devices. Logically, we also need to avoid relying on apps that aren't available on all devices.

So what is the alternative? Many people seem to think that the apps available are the be all and end all of tablet devices. In reality, you can get a massive amount of use from a tablet without installing anything onto it by taking advantage of a browser and cloud products.

So from a technical point of view an educational institute can offer an infrastructure which allows students to use their preferred device.

But how does using any device benefit learning? There are three key factors in learning which are enhanced by tablet or mobile devices:

  • Communication
  • Participation
  • Enjoyment


I chose this image (left) as it illustrates a very clear memory I have of being a student. The phrase "Please be quiet, you're here to learn" cropped up more than once. At the time, I bought into it as a self evident truth, that for me to absorb information, I had to shut up and let the teacher talk.

That isn't actually an ideal circumstance for learning. Communication of information is essential for the learning process - if you never see any new information you will never need to learn anything new - but it is equally important that a teacher knows that their students are able to keep up with the lesson. We need a two way communication channel, and tablets are ideal facilitators of that.

I had to "shut up and learn" because the class was large and the teacher couldn't reasonably facilitate a discussion where every member made a contribution without significant disruption. However, if you consider a circumstance where each student has access to a tablet/ mobile device, you can quite easily have an open communication channel where students post questions and thoughts, which the teacher can follow up appropriately without causing any significant disruption (via twitter, VLE forums, mentimeter, etc). In fact, the anonymity of such feedback has been found to encourage students to admit they do not understand.

While information communication is one of the first stages in the learning process, experience or application of the information is required to cement it. In other words, active participation. In the traditional classroom, students are given exercises to work through. If these are printed out, everyone receives the same problem, and everyone reaches the same solution. This is ideal for the teacher as they can immediately pinpoint who has failed the exercise, but it is not good for the students, who maybe copied their neighbours answer, or need to experience the same problem three or four times with different variables before they can understand how it works.

Here there are various websites or tools that can be embedded within a VLE to generate random problems for students and grade them all immediately. This still gives the teacher the information they need - who has answered correctly, but it requires the student to work alone, and gives those who need it the opportunity to experience the problem repeatedly.

Lastly, enjoyment. I remember my physics GCSE very clearly. For the five minutes before the lesson we stood outside the lab, waiting to be allowed in and my friends and I ate an entire packet of Polo mints between the four of us. The sugar rush was the only thing that kept us awake. I don't remember the content of most of my physics lessons, but I do remember the plot lines and characters from the hundreds of books that I read at the time. (Sadly, I am very bad with titles and authors, so tracking these books down to read them over again is a little tricky.) Humans in general respond to challenges. Most people, especially younger people, have a degree of curiosity which drives them to ask questions, seek solutions and earn rewards. The whole gaming industry is built on this premise and we can employ similar tactics in improving their learning experience.

In summary: any implementation of tablet devices to improve learning must be carried out with the specific intention of targeting the learning process. Simply having tablet devices is not enough. Since we have to be able to respond to changes in use over time, and the trends that young people adopt, confining ourselves to a specific device is not the ideal solution. We want to create a situation where the technology can evolve, the gadgets can change, but the tools we use stay consistent.[1]

To ensure that the tools we use improve learning, we need to apply good pedagogy to their implementation. Therefore, I recommend developing methods and processes where tablet devices are used in a teaching environment to enhance communication, allow participation and foster enjoyment of the learning process.

Alicia

[1]This blog, for instance, is being written on a Mac. No one would ever have known that, if I had kept it to myself. Usually it is written on a Windows laptop, and occasionally on a Samsung S3. The device isn't the important thing. What matters is the tool, in this case Blogger, and how I use it.