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Digital reboot: School hits the restart button on tech learning

A report into a dispute over Ratoath College's iPad policy is leading to big changes, writes Katherine Donnelly

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News that a second-level school is to abandon the practice of requiring pupils to buy an iPad may have set alarm bells ringing about whether technology in education is really a good idea after all.

That it comes on the recommendation of an expert group report engaged to review the school's use of tablet devices will have compounded concerns.

Anyone would be worried reading in the report that, iPad in hand, it was all too easy for students to get distracted in class. If the teacher was at the top of the classroom, the review group heard how pupils often switched from class-based work to activities such as gaming, shopping and engaging in social media.

That was one of many concerns reported to the group appointed to sort out a row that was raging between parents and the 1,069-pupil Ratoath College, Co Meath, over its iPad policy.

The group comprised Cora Dunne, a former principal of Boyne Community School, Co Meath, Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn, a lecturer in Technical Communications and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick, and Dr Carl O'Dalaigh, a former deputy chief inspector with the Department of Education.

When it comes to educational technology, schools have a choice of systems and devices, and many happily use Apple's iPads. Many others work with providers such as Microsoft or HP.

Arising from the report, big changes are being introduced in Ratoath, but it doesn't mean that everyone had a negative view.

A number of teachers in areas, including languages, Classics, Maths, Science and Construction Studies found the use of iPads "indispensable", while some parents reported great learning experiences for their children.

A key issue at Ratoath was that the switch to iPads was accompanied by a decision not also to have a textbook for each subject. Where they did, they relied on a class set of legacy books that did not fully meet the requirements of the new Junior Cycle curriculum.

While hard copy textbooks are not as commonplace as they were, it is widespread practice to upload an electronic version, an ebook, on to a student's device.

In Ratoath, there were ebooks only for Maths and Irish for second and third-year students and workbooks for some subjects.

So there was a big burden on teachers to devise their own resources, which turned into a piecemeal exercise, with the use of material that did not have the context of a textbook. Copious amounts of photocopies and notes were also handed out.

Add to that the removal of some materials from the school's virtual-learning environment when individual teachers left to take up employment elsewhere and students were floundering.

Some parents expressed strong concern that a lack of textbooks was an issue when it came to revision for exams. One reported on how her generally very organised daughter "found it stressful trying to figure out how to organise her vast array of notes." when preparing for exams.

It is still early days in the technology in education journey but, for now at least, a combination of technology and books seems to suit best.

According to the Irish Educational Publishers Association (IEPA), international research continues to point firmly to the fact that blended learning provides the best possible outcome for students.

"The two must coexist in the best interest of teachers and students. The challenge facing all stakeholders is to understand how this will happen," said a spokesman.

Creating teaching materials is a skill, and where teachers synthesise their own, as they did in Ratoath, it carries risks.

Dr Marcus-Quinn's expertise in instructional design - the practice of creating learning experiences and materials, whether digital or physical that work - was very valuable.

Her own research has found that the only way to guarantee high-quality digital material was to recognise the professional expertise necessary to develop it.

The report also refers to the Stavanger Declaration on the future of reading in the era of digitisation, which states that when introducing digital resources, teachers should be made aware that a rapid and indiscriminate move away from paper is not without negative consequences.

Another problem at Ratoath that had nothing to do with the choice of hardware was internet connectivity, which, the review group found, was not sufficient across the school building,

So complete reliance on technology could leave a class, or some pupils, without access to necessary materials. One teacher reported: "Wi-Fi problems!!! There is always a student who cannot connect to Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi is not fast enough for all 30 iPads in the class."

Nor could the choice of the digital device be blamed for a lack of ICT skills among teachers. In this case, the report found teacher training on the use of the iPad was inadequate.

No two schools are at the same level of skill around the use of ICT in teaching, but studies show that many teachers don't have the same level of comfort using technology as they do with textbooks, and that training is an ongoing issue. The review group looked at the use of iPads in four other schools and found experience was mixed.

Cost was another bugbear and, according to the report, "there were comments on the high cost of the iPad", with some students arguing they could get the same functionality on a less expensive device.

Among other issues raised was the iPad's virtual keyboard versus a conventional keyboard

The report's recommendations include a switch to a Microsoft system, with the school phasing in its Surface Go devices from September, initially buying two sets of 30. It notes that using a traditional keyboard would also facilitate the development of critical keyboard skills.

It says that the school should also consider exploring using the Raspberry Pi as an alternative to the Surface Go.

Text books are to return, and incoming first years will buy a full set with a view to integrating them into a school-book rental scheme in three years' time.

The report says teachers should not have to pay for their device. If they use one, they should use ebooks and also make themselves aware of what is available in terms of training and resources.

Irish Independent