Half a Cheer for Tablets in the Classroom

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

The high school I attended, decades ago, was considered cutting edge technologically.  The internet had just been born, and my school (a new one), was going to have six desktop computers in every classroom.  I do not know if the effects of this policy were ever measured, but I can say anecdotally that students at my school logged a lot of time playing Oregon Trail and Hot Dog Stand.  (While neither of those games were as addictive as, say, Facebook, both at least had some educational value).

It’s easy to criticize plans for computer use from a time when we had no idea what they might be useful for in the classroom.  Having said that, we seem to have been in this state of not quite knowing what educational technology was good for almost continually over the past 20 or so years, as computers have constantly and rapidly evolved in form and in power.  Hopefully our years of experience with computers in the classroom have finally given us some knowledge about how to be more targeted with our applications of technology for students, and have given us some idea about how to approach the adoption of new technologies (or at least tempered our expectations).

Besides being more methodical with our adoption of new devices and software, one major difference today is that, because of decreases in size and cost, we have more examples from around the world of people experimenting with using computers and the internet to facilitate learning.  For example, the hugely popular soccer team FC Barcelona recentlyannounced their participation in a program to help raise the funds to donate 1 million e-books to students in sub-Saharan Africa.  The Indian government has been working to develop an extremely low-cost tablet ($35) for use in their schools and universities.  Though the Aakash tablet has had problems with quality and performance, a pilot study may be on the horizon using the device in Philadelphia public schools.

Closer to home, Georgia schools have been experimenting with tablet devices as well.  Several Catholic schools in the Atlanta Archdiocese have been working to replace textbooks with iPads, and the program is expanding.  HB 706, passed in this year’s legislative session, cleared the way for greater use of electronic devices in Georgia public school classrooms.  One new high school, Coahulla Creek High School, in Whitfield County, had already adopted tablets for their students, after having them donated by a local business last year.  This enables Coahulla Creek High School to offer, for example, a page on their website where students can download books to their tablets.  And in what may be the one of the most significant moves in the country because of its size, Gwinnett County has announced a move to phase in some completely digital classes, citing explicitly both educational and financial reasons.

As any school with a laser disc player in a closet somewhere can attest, it is always wise to have some caution in buying in to new technologies.  One aspect all of the examples above have in common is that they are new (or have yet to be implemented).  We need more evidence regarding how to use tablets most effectively for learning, and that research will necessarily have to be ongoing, as computing power and devices continue to rapidly evolve.  Ultimately, while we shouldn’t overpromise the student achievement gains we may see with greater use of tablets in the classroom, we should be taking steps to use them as effectively as we can with what know now.

As a former high school teacher and current college-level teacher, I have considered cell phone, tablets, and laptops both a blessing and a curse for a long time.  And while we don’t want to worry excessively about having stacks of useless tablets in a back room closet five years from now, made obsolete by some new device, we shouldn’t miss out on the possibilities they afford in terms of potential access to more books, audio and video, and maybe, some cost-savings that are possible today.

(Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education.  Previously he was Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.)