Making e-learning work in schools tablets

We consider how technology can enhance the learning experience

Integration: First year pupils in Coláiste Bhaile Chláir, Co Galway, using tablets during a maths lesson PHOTO: ANDREW DOWNES

Meadhbh McGrath

Technological advances have transformed the education landscape. However, a recent report from the OECD warned that devices are no substitute for good teaching. The Paris-based think tank, which conducts regular reviews of education systems around the developed world, said schools needed to find better ways to integrate technology.

Last week, the Department of Education and Skills launched a €210m five-year digital strategy to help pupils develop information and communications technology (ICT) skills.

Coláiste Bhaile Chláir (CBC), a post-primary school in Claregalway, Co Galway, has taken a unique approach to digital technologies. There are no printed textbooks or e-books; instead, teachers and pupils use Microsoft Surface tablets and work together to generate resources in each subject.

Principal Alan Mongey previously worked as education officer for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), where he was ­responsible for the implementation of the T4 technology subjects.

He says his vision for CBC was the result of an investigation into what kind of learning can best prepare pupils for the future outside of school.

"Schools that use tablets as an e-reader aren't really changing teaching and learning - it's still the same teaching approach, except instead of having a printed textbook in front of them, they have a digital textbook.

"We wanted something that would engage the students in the process of learning, where students could gather their own knowledge and present that to their teachers and peers."

CBC was founded in 2012. There are now 580 students between first, second and third year who use the note-taking app OneNote in class, to complete homework and for revision.

Alan Mongey says that the ability to create their own resources allows teachers to provide students with the most up-to-date information, rather than relying on a textbook that may have been written several years ago.

However, the time required to develop those resources can be a challenge, particularly for content-heavy subjects like the sciences and maths. He emphasises that the school will be very cautious about how they use tablets in senior cycle.

"In junior cycle, we created our own content, but that's a much bigger undertaking when you're progressing into senior cycle. I certainly won't be rushing into it.

"We will probably have a mixed approach in terms of textbooks and teacher-created content until we have produced enough of our own quality content. It could take us another three or four years."

He says one of the biggest mistakes he sees schools make is rolling out tablets to students before teachers are confident using them themselves.

"If you just drop tablets into schools and teachers don't know how to integrate them into the classroom, it doesn't tend to be successful. It's only when a teacher is very comfortable with it and how to utilise it in their own teaching that you get the full benefit of the tablet."

For the past three years, Keith Young, a PhD candidate in the School of Education at NUI Maynooth, has been working with St Mary's CBS Secondary School, Portlaoise, Co Laois, to research the impact of using iPads in the classroom. He says training for teachers is crucial.

"Teachers can be really afraid that students are going to know more than them. That's a big shift from even 10 years ago, when teachers would have been the only source of knowledge."

He also believes that schools should offer training for parents.

"The technology can become a barrier. Before, a parent could look at some of the solved equations in a maths textbook, and then go help their son or daughter. Now, it's more difficult, because there's a technological layer in the middle."

He argues that schools should take advantage of the more creative uses of the iPad, as those kind of skills help prepare pupils for college, work or further education.

"If you use the iPad only as an e-reader, it will be a very expensive tool. Instead, students could use it to collaborate with each other on projects, whether that's in the same room or over the internet. That allows them more creativity and autonomy."

Mr Young was "a bit disappointed" by the digital strategy: "If this were written four years ago, it would have been cutting-edge. That's the pace of technology. I would imagine a school principal would read this and think: 'I don't really know what this means for me yet.' Some parts are quite vague."

He commends the strategy for recognising that a "one-size-fits-all" plan wouldn't work, as schools are at different points on their digital journey.

Students at Kinsale Community School, Co Cork, don't use any devices in class. Outside of first and transition years, pupils do not have any scheduled computer time. Deputy Principal Kathleen O'Brien says: "We did consider (introducing tablets) very seriously, but we didn't feel that it would benefit us."

The school, which has produced six BT Young Scientist winners, runs a book-rental scheme, and she says they felt that asking parents to buy a tablet as well would impose an "elitist system". They also worried about tablets being broken, students communicating via instant message during class time and cyberbullying.

Key points in the digital strategy

  • Dedicated multi-annual funding for schools. The first €30m of the €210m investment will be made available to schools in 2016/2017.
  • Plans to improve Wi-Fi availability in schools.
  • Promotion of technology-supported assessment.
  • Develop opportunities for students to take an in-depth ICT course as part of the Leaving Cert.
  • Promotion of the use of ePortfolios for primary and post-primary students.
  • Work with cultural, educational and sporting bodies to provide enhanced digital content to schools.
  • Embed ICT skills into initial teacher education and ongoing training for teachers.
  • Promote safe and responsible use of the internet and social media.
  • Provide additional learning resources to schools to better prevent and raise awareness of cyberbullying.