A class at Sciennes Primary has got a new student, and the teacher is doing all she can to keep a lid on the excitement. In fact, there are over a dozen visitors in the class – school administrators, photographers, cameramen, journalists and Scottish Government staffers – but only one remembered to bring his iPad. The technophile Cabinet Secretary for Education, Michael Russell, is joining Sciennes pupils to see for himself how the school, which is participating in a pilot programme taking in 20 schools across ten local authorities, is putting the Apple tablets to use.
In between several premieres of home-made horror films by budding Hitchcocks, the students demonstrated how the devices let them receive and submit homework using email and blogs; collect their work using a school ‘wiki’ page; and access the complete digital collection of the City of Edinburgh Central Library over the internet. “I think it was obvious that they were deeply engaged in their learning, and that’s a key issue,” says Russell. “What we want to do is enhance the involvement in learning, enhance the challenging nature of learning, encourage young people to explore and find things out. I saw all of those things around me,” says Russell.
“I think we’ll learn a lot from [the pilot]; I think that can be useful to other schools. I was impressed and I thought it was going in the right direction.” Education Scotland will evaluate the pilots to establish what can be learned from the experience at schools like Sciennes Primary.
Russell states readily that there is “no resource identified” for a national roll-out of iPads in schools, however, he does say that it’s “not an impossibility in future times.” Asked what he hopes to have gleaned upon completion of the pilot programme, Russell adds: “Our goal is – if I may quote Robert Louis Stevenson – ‘to travel hopefully’, and if you travel hopefully, then eventually you will arrive. We need to learn how this works, to embed good practice, to see where the opportunities are, to identify any pitfalls, to recognise the involvement in Curriculum for Excellence that this gives, and also to begin to think about the issue of, ‘do we do this on a broader scale’. This is part of the process of thinking about how we would do it.” Education Scotland won’t be the only organisation examining the iPad trials closely.
Researchers from the University of Hull are conducting what they believe is the only independent academic research into what impact iPads in the classroom have on education, and will be collecting data from every participating school in Scotland. Kevin Burden, the director of postgraduate professional development in the Faculty of Education who is leading the project, hopes to publish an evaluation of the pilots by September. “One of the intentions is to try and draw up a framework with a list of recommendations for further investigations, and also in terms of rolling out a larger programme,” Burden says.
Even at this early stage, Burden reveals that the research is producing early signs that the devices are having an impact, increasing parental engagement with their child’s studies. “In those schools in the pilot that have let the devices go home, there are indicators of greater parental involvement,” he says. “We’ve done a baseline survey of parents, so that at the end of the project we can go back and ask them whether or not they’ve been more engaged, for example, in homework. In one of the surveys we conducted, one question was simply asked of them, do they think the device helps their children’s learning, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.” The way teachers approach a lesson is also being influenced by the presence of iPads in class, Burden suggests. “You can see some schools where teachers are using it to a limited extent: maybe as a replacement for what they’ve already got, for example, to use in a demonstration or to show something on the whiteboard. Other schools are moving to a more student-centred approach; Sciennes are very much an example of this. They’ve only been using [iPads in class] since about March, but they seem to have already embraced the idea that it’s a very much a student-centred device.
Students have it all the time; they can get it out whenever they want to, so the pedagogy is starting to change.
“What we’re seeing in classrooms, particularly where students are using these on a one-to-one basis, is that the internet is always available.
There is evidence that teachers are beginning to recognise that fact, and perhaps ask the low-level content questions less often, because students can find the answers to those much quicker.
That does challenge how teachers teach, but it’s an opportunity as well,” Burden says.
Creative elements are now far easier to incorporate into lessons, he adds: “In the past, if teachers wanted to do something creative such as make a movie, it was quite a complex operation.
I saw a lesson where students were making their own news stories using a simple app; they did the whole thing, outputted it, and were able to share it with the class at the end of the lesson, in a way that would have taken far more time previously, to the extent that the teacher just wouldn’t do it. That’s what I think is beginning to become the real game-changer.” While those involved in the pilot programmes are eager to share their enthusiasm, others have expressed their concerns about those being left out. Jenny Lang, education convener at Labour-led Aberdeen City Council, warned that without greater commitment from central government, devices in class could become the preserve of the wealthiest local authorities. “We can see that there may well be benefits, but what we don’t want is a two-tier education system where schools in more affluent areas are able to finance these projects,” said Lang. “That would be uppermost in our minds. It’s all very well the Scottish Government saying it’s keen to see these types of project, but we need to see finance coming from central government.” Aberdeen has several schools participating in the pilot, including early adopter Hazelhead Primary, which secured its devices using corporate sponsorship, but a plan at Kingswells Primary to ask parents to ‘lease’ devices at a cost of just over £13 a month was scrapped following a media storm.
Lang’s worries are echoed by Laurie O’Donnell, a former director of learning and technology at Learning & Teaching Scotland and one of the early architects of Scotland’s educational intranet, Glow. While he welcomes the opportunity for teachers to “personalise the educational experience down to the personal level”, O’Donnell believes that one of the great aspirations of any teacher is to personalise the educational experience down to the individual level.
“We all learn better if we’re learning things we’re interested in, that motivate us, set at just exactly the right level for us – not too easy and not too difficult. Portable devices strike me as being very important in delivering that, getting to the point where every learner has an education customised to best meet their needs.
“The challenge is scaling it. The danger of portable devices is that it works in one class, or for one part of the school, or for one age group within the school – how do you scale it across the whole system and how do you sustain it? If we think portable devices help children to learn better, then surely we get to the point where we say, ‘That’s something that everyone should have access to?’” While he concedes “there have been issues about access in one of the earlier pilots”, Russell is adamant that Lang’s concerns won’t be realised, and calls on local education chiefs to embrace the opportunities available. “I don’t want that to happen, but I was a little bit surprised at the reaction from Aberdeen. I would like willing participation in the discussion, but not, frankly, just a girn from a convener of education. What we need to be doing is working together in moving this forward, and that’s what I’ll try and do.”