Thursday, April 11, 2013

Keep on taking the tablets: 7 reasons why this is lousy advice

Purveyors of the metaphor ‘Keep taking the tablets’ often fail to realise its downside. Like much over-prescribed medication, it can be pushed by aggressive sales, lack adequate investigation and diagnosis, be too narrow a treatment, lack evidence other than placebo effects and have some nasty side-effects.
I’ve written about tablets in two previous posts 1) Too cool for school: 7 reasons why tablets should NOT be used in education, 2) Tablets: 7 researched ways they can INHIBIT learning This final piece in the triad looks at the bigger picture with seven reasons  for  being wary of the tablet bandwagon.
1. Aggressive vendors
In an interesting lunch with someone who works for a tablet manufacturer, and has a great deal of experience and expertise in education and technology, someone I respect, I encountered some horror stories that do not appear in the ‘research’. He, like me, despairs of the mad rush towards 1:1 tablets in schools. Both of us own and use tablets and both of us have spent a lifetime trying to get technology used in education but this latest bandwagon effect, is worrying. Vendors are too close to Gove and government, with freebies and special meetings. Beware also the shadowy figures, connected to government, who have an eye on the low hanging fruit of government contracts. Witness Rachel Wolf’s rapid rise from Gove researcher to Newscorp tablet salesperson.
2. Naïve funders
Keep taking the tablets’ was the title of the E-learning Foundations Conference. This lack of objectivity by a funding body is simply bandwagon behaviour. A few of the Trustees are no doubt proud of their ability to look at their Board papers on their new iPad – note that they rarely take notes, annotate or do anything productive on their screens and often have the printed papers out at the side. A little technology is a dangerous thing!
3. Poor diagnosis
Procurement is not just a few columns in a spread-sheet. It involves the calculation, or at least best effort approximation, of risk. These risks come in all sorts of shapes – fiscal (purchase, insurance, maintenance etc.), technical (bandwidth, networking, printing, storage, security, technical support etc.), adoption (teacher use in classroom, collection from leavers, illicit use etc.) and change management (governance, leadership issues, parent reactions, teacher CPD etc.). Few do a really thorough job on this and fewer still demand an evaluative approach that builds-in quantitative measures on the evaluation of attainment.
Governors of schools and colleges tend to be older, not particularly tech savvy and certainly not capable of doing the necessary governance checks on procurement. With schools breaking free from being overseen by Local Authorities, that layer of procurement expertise has gone. To be fair, it was never that good, but its disappearance has led to a lot of idiosyncratic buying.
Have all of these tablet taking projects really completed a cost-benefit analysis against  a) Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategy, b) Notebooks/laptops strategy or c) Flip technology out of the classroom? Have lost-opportunity costs been taken into account? I doubt it.
4. Narrow treatment
Pedagogy matters. Failure to plan and cost teacher training can lead to technology slowing down and not accelerating learning, as hoped. For example, my respected educational technologists witnessed iPads being collected in by a teacher at the end of the class ‘for marking’. There are cases of tablets being distributed to students only and not teachers! Without an implementation plan that involves teachers, before the tablets are distributed, you are simply creating more problems than you solve.
Learning needs are very different horizontally across subjects and vertically through age and increasing complexity. The failure to see the need for long-form writing in English, History and other subjects, detailed editing in coding, need to have pixel accurate control in graphics packages and so on renders tablet use literally useless as one moves across the curriculum. Similarly with increasing demands on productive tasks on learning. The further up the educational attainment ladder the learner climbs the less use tablets become.
5. Placebo research
Why do the well-known, negative disasters and negative findings rarely appear in the research. Medicine is built upon randomised double-blind trials with rigorous research, education is not. Even I  the oft-quoted Hull report, one disaster, where iPads were given out yet wifi was only installed months later, was treated as a mere blip. Most of the research is akin to the placebo effects one sees in homeopathic medicine. It’s qualitative, survey-monkey-level research that merely confirms the known fact that if you give kids and teacher a free iPad they like them. This is the allure of consumer electronics, attention not proven attainment.
6. Nasty side-effects
Idiosyncratic tablet projects are pregnant with problems. The technology may bite back as teachers struggle with connectivity, printing, storage and so on. Teachers can come out in a rash of negativity when their practical and training needs are ignored. Students may spend huge amounts of time on relatively shallow learning or other distracting activities
7. Groupthink
This is an old story in education and technology – the over-prescription of untried ttechnology as if it were a wonder-drug. Something new and shiny comes along and before long it’s become a bandwagon, we jump aboard without thinking too much about where it’s taking us, then the wheels start to fall off. Even when the wheels have fallen off you don’t get to hear the bad news, as there’s been so much invested.
I’m not against the use of tablets in schools, I just think that turning it into a ‘movement’ is a mistake and that too many of these projects are poorly planned, badly procured and lack proper evaluation.

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