Tablets and Mobile Learning; Why has it taken this long?
Although tablets themselves have been around for a relatively short time, it has still been two years since they entered mainstream use. Mobile learning itself has existed as a concept for at least thirty years. With so much potential to revolutionise education as we know at, why have we been so slow on the uptake?
Technology itself is of course no stranger to the classroom environment, however the various incarnations of computers used in the school room, from desktop PCs and laptops to smart white boards, impact on the ways the software available can be used.
One reason that the mobile learning associated with tablet technology in education has been so slow to take off since its inception is the devices themselves. The nature of computers in the past has restricted them to the role of occasional aid rather than the ubiquitous tool they had the potential to be. Even laptops didn’t do much to solve the situation; both the hardware and the software of a laptop are more expensive to buy and to maintain than that of a tablet. They are also heavier and lack the battery power necessary to become educational work horses. Laptops are also not designed in the same way as tablet screens, and so are not optimised for the best of reading experiences. Therefore, although experiments in arming legions of students with laptops showed great windows of opportunity, there were no practical applications. Simply put, even though the equivalent software to educational apps and to e-readers did exist, the medium available to use them (the laptop) was not suitable and unable to exploit their full potential.
Tablets in education retain all of the advantages of laptops, but also offer some significant improvements. They are smaller, no harder to cart around than your average textbook (and much lighter and less obtrusive in some cases!), and although much more breakable than textbooks, they can withstand more punishment than the laptop. Crucially, by their very design tablets are also more secure against the threat of viruses that so many laptops and personal computers fall prey to. The range of environments open to tablet PCs is also much broader than that of a laptop; lightweight and compact designs coupled with long battery lives and high durability makes them an ideal addition to any field trip, for example, or a part of a workshop.
Of course, there is a human side to all this as well. Tablets come under suspicion of facilitating cheating and classroom distractions, and the upfront costs of supplying a school can seem staggering. However, as technology in education becomes more widespread, ways are being developed to tackle this darker side to tablet technology and teaching methods are evolving to both incorporate tablets in lessons and to limit their negative capacities. As for the monetary aspects, tablets can actually become part of a money saving regimen at a school. For example, the costs of reprinting and repurchasing out of date textbooks as opposed to downloading digital costs represents a massive saving in and of itself, and educational grants exist to minimise upfront costs in the first place. Educating the teachers themselves in an often overlooked aspect of integrating tablet technology into education, so focused are people on potential advances and pitfalls, and the futuristic glamour of the devices themselves. Whereas picking up technology is second nature to most children, teachers need more help immersing themselves in it. The purpose of technology in education is to assist the teachers, not to take over from them, so if pupils are to fully benefit then teachers must be fully involved from the outset.
One thing is certain. Advances in tablet technology are set to escalate and tablets in education will follow on. New hardware, new applications, new and innovative uses, and ultimately lower costs will yet make one tablet per child an achievable goal, although it will be up to teachers and education ministers to see that they are best utilised. From this point on, change will come quicker than ever before and staying on the vanguard is a challenge that we must ultimately meet.