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iLearn, uLearn: portable tablet devices in the classroom

Charley Rogers reports on recent research from Stranmillis on the effect of iPads on Early Years learning and edtech benefits

Posted by Rianna Newman | August 17, 2017 | Teaching

Published in May of this year, Stranmillis University College research regarding the use of iPads in the classroom for Early Years teaching and learning made quite a splash in the edtech world. The first research of its kind, the ‘Developing the use of portable devices in early years learning’ project was run by a group of academics from Stranmillis University in Northern Ireland, and trialled among five Northern Ireland primary schools located within the Belfast Education and Library Board 1 (BELB) area, and associated feeder nursery/pre-schools. 

The overall response from the project was a positive one, with the majority of teachers reporting that the use of iPads had a positive influence on the children’s literacy and numeracy skills, and that ‘contrary to initial expectations, principals and teachers report that the use of iPads in the classroom enhanced children’s communication skills.’ This initial concern for the children’s ability to concentrate and communicate effectively with peers and teachers was put to rest, as the trial found that the children’s confidence and their interest in the learning process were increased, as well as positive improvements found in their creativity and technical skills. 

Talking exclusively to ET, Dr. Colette Gray, specialist in Early Childhood Studies and researcher on the project, said, “In contrast to the received wisdom, our research suggests that children’s communication skills are enhanced through shared activities using digital technology. Informed practitioners encourage children to work in dyads, small groups, and as a whole class, on a range of activities that engage their interest, extend their learning and motivate them to share and compare their ideas. The portability of edtech also enables children to take pictures and recordings whilst on nature walks which are stored on the device and later used to inform and enhance storytelling.” 

The pilot project consisted of three main phases, carried out over two academic years (2013–14 and 2014–15). The first phase included allocating two sets of iPads to two schools – one for Primary 1 and one for Primary 2 – and maintaining these as sets to be used for specific lessons or purposes only, being shared between pupils. Three other schools were allocated personal iPads for each pupil across Primary 1 and Primary 2. Each teacher participating in the project was also allocated an iPad to use for monitoring and recording pupil progress, and any other professional usage. 

The second phase included allocating five iPads to each of the five feeder nursery and pre-schools involved in the project. The third phase extended the project slightly, with a further class set of iPads being issued to each of the five participating schools, for children from Primary 1 to Primary 4. 

Despite an overwhelmingly positive response from both teachers and senior management, the issues surrounding teacher training and the implementation of high-quality and ongoing guidance were raised, and the evaluation of the project includes recommendations for the future, such as for teachers to ‘closely monitor the choice of app and the level of difficulty where applicable’ to reduce the chance of children becoming bored or frustrated with apps they find too easy or far too difficult. The report also indicated that the implementation of this project full-time would require a redefinition of the ICT coordinator’s role to ensure that ‘portable devices deliver maximum benefits and that their full potential is realised by teachers in early years classrooms and settings.’ 

An article in the journal Family, Kids and Youth from 2014 reported that 68% or primary schools and 69% of secondary schools in the UK were already using tablet devices in a variety of ways. The report also noted that in 9% of schools, children had their own portable tablet device, and that there appears to be an underlying trend of schools wanting to use the devices more, with 45% of schools reporting that they would be introducing tablets soon. 

One of the main issues for educators following the trial appeared to be the balance between new technologies and traditional teaching strategies and methods. Will Keown, Vice-Principal of Campbell College in Belfast, told The Belfast Telegraph: “It’s important for teaching to keep pace with the world around us, but also vital that we achieve a good balance – combining traditional approaches with new methods and technologies so that we can truly engage pupils.” The responsibility for the children’s use of the devices was also highlighted, and Michael McKnight, Principal of Lough View Integrated Primary School in Castlereagh, commented to the paper that: “Where tablets are used in school, they should be used very selectively with close supervision.”  

Despite these reservations, the trial did uncover some interesting effects of iPad usage on teacher workload. As well as being a useful tool for helping pupils to learn and expand their communication skills, the iPads also had a positive impact on teachers’ motivation and enthusiasm, as well as the recording and monitoring of children’s progress directly onto a tablet device ‘proving beneficial’ to teacher workload. However, for many administrators, the key issue in the implementation of the iPad project was cost. Purchasing an iPad for each child requires a large budget, and questions were raised as to whether shared devices were as effective in improving performance and understanding. 

There is also the question of novelty. The project was rolled out across disadvantaged areas, where it was less likely that children would have access to tablet devices at home. Is there the possibility therefore, that the introduction of iPads would not be as effective in the long term across various demographics? As soon as the devices are not unique or special to this particular environment, might they lose some of their appeal? This, of course, is speculation, but further research into a prolonged exposure across various demographics may provide more insight on this issue. Commenting on the study’s contribution to the world of edtech, Ty Goddard, CEO of Edtech UK said, “This five-school study is a useful contribution to debate around the impact of technology to support teaching and develop learning. There are good points made about enthusiasm, motivation for learning, and leaders seeing change in their school. This is a useful snapshot of the challenge of implementation, coherence across an institution, and the need for rigour.”

The keen reception of this report will hopefully increase interest in producing further similar projects across the education spectrum, and with a variety of different technologies. The study, then, is without a doubt a positive step for the world of education technology.  

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