The jury’s out on the use of tablet technology in the classroom. Here are some science teachers’ pros and cons

Many schools have started using tablets in the classroom to support pupils’ learning, and to increase engagement and motivation. This can range from a class set of tablets shared between teachers in a department, to whole cohorts of pupils in a local authority being issued with their own devices. These devices are being used for a variety of reasons, as David Paterson, head of digital learning and a teacher of chemistry at Aldenham School, told me recently. 

‘Digital technology is opening up significant opportunities for our chemistry students,’ explains David. ’Basic tasks like distribution and use of worksheets becomes simple and quick; and no more cutting and sticking. Learning can be augmented for the students, with them individually investigating chemical concepts using simulations such as those from PhET. Our students can now document their skills development more easily, recording photo and video clips of their practical work. And they can interrogate primary chemical data in lessons using databases from [sources like] the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre.’

Many schools have started using tablets in the classroom to support pupils’ learning, and to increase engagement and motivation. This can range from a class set of tablets shared between teachers in a department, to whole cohorts of pupils in a local authority being issued with their own devices. These devices are being used for a variety of reasons, as David Paterson, head of digital learning and a teacher of chemistry at Aldenham School, told me recently.

‘Digital technology is opening up significant opportunities for our chemistry students,’ explains David. ’Basic tasks like distribution and use of worksheets becomes simple and quick; and no more cutting and sticking. Learning can be augmented for the students, with them individually investigating chemical concepts using simulations such as those from PhET. Our students can now document their skills development more easily, recording photo and video clips of their practical work. And they can interrogate primary chemical data in lessons using databases from [sources like] the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre.’

Worth the effort?

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published a guidance report on using digital technology to improve learning. It offers good examples of how technology can be used in schools, such as using simulations in science, making marking and feedback more efficient and improving the use of retrieval practice to help pupils retain key knowledge. The report also includes key advice for introducing digital tools into the classroom, for example ensure the technology is being introduced to respond to an identified need.

Annotating on-screen is useful for supporting pupils in the classroom, says Angela Stewart of Ulidia Integrated College in Carrickfergus: ‘… if I notice common errors while circulating my class, I can instantly share and correct a pupil’s work on the screen to reteach the concept that is causing an issue or model an answer on the board.’ Kirstie Carvalho of Peebles High School in the Scottish Borders says that tablets can be used for retrieval activities in lessons with applications such as Kahoot and Quizizz, without worry about the digital divide caused when pupils are expected to use their own device.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published a guidance report on using digital technology to improve learning (bit.ly/3To9B2q). It offers good examples of how technology can be used in schools, such as using simulations in science, making marking and feedback more efficient and improving the use of retrieval practice to help pupils retain key knowledge. The report also includes key advice for introducing digital tools into the classroom, for example ensure the technology is being introduced to respond to an identified need.

Annotating on-screen is useful for supporting pupils in the classroom, says Angela Stewart of Ulidia Integrated College in Carrickfergus: ‘… if I notice common errors while circulating my class, I can instantly share and correct a pupil’s work on the screen to reteach the concept that is causing an issue or model an answer on the board.’ Kirstie Carvalho of Peebles High School in the Scottish Borders says that tablets can be used for retrieval activities in lessons with applications such as Kahoot and Quizizz, without worry about the digital divide caused when pupils are expected to use their own device.

Worth the money?

However, the tablets, their maintenance and appropriate CPD for staff doesn’t come cheap. Do the learning benefits justify the costs? As yet, research detailing the impact of the widespread introduction of tablets to pupils in the UK is difficult to find. Examples are the rollout of 52,000 iPads to pupils and staff in Glasgow City Council schools as part of a £300 million project or the provision of iPads for pupils in Edinburgh as part of a £17.6 million initiative.

Anyone looking for a warning about the potential issues can look across the Atlantic, where a rollout of iPads and a digital curriculum to pupils at a Los Angeles school cost almost $1.3 billion and was less than successful. Money spent on purchasing and maintaining tablets is money that cannot be spent on something else to support the learning of pupils in the classroom. How many teachers could be educated and employed with the millions being invested in digital technologies?

However, the tablets, their maintenance and appropriate CPD for staff doesn’t come cheap. Do the learning benefits justify the costs? As yet, research detailing the impact of the widespread introduction of tablets to pupils in the UK is difficult to find. Examples are the rollout of 52,000 iPads to pupils and staff in Glasgow City Council schools as part of a £300 million project or the rollout of iPads to pupils in Edinburgh as part of a £17.6 million initiative.

Anyone looking for a warning about the potential issues can look across the Atlantic, where a rollout of iPads and a digital curriculum to pupils at a Los Angeles school cost almost $1.3 billion and was less than successful. Money spent on purchasing and maintaining tablets is money that cannot be spent on something else to support the learning of pupils in the classroom. How many teachers could be educated and employed with the millions being invested in digital technologies?

‘All in all, I don’t think I could be without it now’

The presence of tablets in a classroom can lead to off-task behaviours – the lure of playing games can become irresistible, for example. Unfortunately, this is more likely to happen with pupils who need the most support in regulating their own learning. Other ineffective uses of tablets in the classroom include treating them as expensive mini whiteboards, and teachers falling into the trap of letting pupils carry out more research tasks to fuel their own learning. Angela points out pupils’ inappropriate use of tablets coupled with inadequate staff training can hamper their successful use. Pupils might access content unrelated to the lesson, and staff might not receive adequate preparation for using the technology effectively in their own subject area. Kirstie agrees: ‘Observe an iPad lesson from the back of the classroom and you’ll see just how many kids are off-task at some point in the lesson.’

How to successfully use tablets in your classroom

The Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition (SAMR) model can help schools incorporate technology effectively to enhance learning.

The Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition (SAMR) model (edut.to/3G3OxeE) can help schools incorporate technology effectively to enhance learning.

  • Substitution phase: technology directly replaces a task that was previously paper-based, eg replacing a paper worksheet with a digital one
  • Augmentation phase: using technology as a replacement but with improved functionality, eg replacing a paper quiz with Kahoot or Quizizz
  • Modification phase: using technology for a task redesign, eg Google Classroom for setting tasks, giving feedback, messaging pupils, etc
  • Redefinition phase: previously impossible tasks are now possible with technology, eg field trips via virtual reality

To be effective, schools need to ensure tablet technology meets a specific need, and that staff have the skills to use it effectively and manage off-task behaviours. In our PGDE programme at Edinburgh Napier University, we demonstrate different technologies for the classroom, but emphasise to our student teachers that their use should enhance the desired learning in the classroom.

Worth trying?

There’s no doubt that using tablets can enhance the learning of scientific concepts, improve the use of quizzing and feedback to support learning, develop pupils’ skills in data analysis and make learning accessible to all pupils. They also help staff prepare and deliver lessons. Angela Stewart concludes, ‘All in all, I don’t think I could be without it now’.

Colin McGill is a lecturer in education on the PGDE programmes at Edinburgh Napier University