Tablets: What is left when the novelty is gone?

Spencer Riley is a Secondary History and Mathematics Teacher, Computer Science Developer and Entrepreneur. He uses tablets and apps in the classroom and is known amongst his students as the “iPad Man”! In this post, he writes about his experiences with mobile learning technologies and how to make the most of the apps in the classroom. 

Novelty is an almost certain way to get a child’s attention.   When interactive whiteboards were introduced classes of children were enthralled with the content displayed on them.  Fast forward a few years and ubiquity has robbed them of their novelty.   I remember training courses which promised guaranteed enthrallment of any class lucky enough to have a room with an IWB.  Those of us lucky enough to be the teacher who first introduced a class to an IWB saw this to be true. True at first anyway.  The truth is, of course, that the strength of any new technology is in what is left when its newness has gone and it is commonplace.  IWBs can now be evaluated purely by what they intrinsically offer without any added bonus of novelty.  Those short but glorious days when young, eager eyes would light up in the white reflected light of the IWB, just because there was an IWB, have gone.

The use of tablets in a classroom is still a major beneficiary of their newness with most primary aged children only having had limited exposure to them in an educational setting.  Most schools share a few between all of their children.  Use of them for most children is unusual and not routine.  Mostly, we haven’t yet the experience to separate the impact of tablets in a classroom setting from their novelty.  What can we expect to remain when their novelty has gone and their use become routine?

For the last 2 years I have been running maths booster lessons with a few primary schools using 1 to 1 allocation of iPads as a routine part of the lessons.  The same small groups of children have spent up to 2 hours per week with me.  My intention has been to build underlying understanding of mathematical concepts through discussion, experimentation and by practising applying the understanding that they have built.  I knew they would be a hit with the children at first, but I couldn’t know if their usefulness would outlast their novelty.

I was happy to be the beneficiary of the novelty of using an iPad.  When first told they would be joining me for extra maths the children were not happy.  Then they saw the iPads and they were happy.  I became known to some as the iPad man and they excitedly greeted me each week with enquiries about what they would be doing on the iPad that day.   I don’t think they really cared; they just wanted confirmation that iPad time would be forthcoming.  It would be easy at this point to dismiss the benefits of using tablets, attributing them to this enthusiasm on the part of the children just to use something new.  In fact I wondered myself whether the tablets were a foolish investment that would offer only this short lived enthusiasm.

It took about 2 months for the use of the iPads to become less of a novelty and the children’s attitude to doing these extra maths sessions more neutral.

I say more neutral, not negative. These children, who have over their school careers, found maths to be a chore found themselves missing a subject they like such as art or PE (the unfortunate lot of any child who needs more help in a core subject) to do one they disliked.  Yet they remain enthusiastic and interested individuals when doing the maths.

Some of this, I like to think, is because of my skills as a teacher, but I know that a large part is also due to the benefits that the iPad brings.

I have been fortunate to be the beneficiary of the intrinsic benefits of using an iPad unclouded by the false friend of novelty.  These are some of the long-lasting  benefits that I have experienced over the course of running these groups that suggest to me that novelty isn’t required.

There are many Maths Apps to help children with their learning.
There are many Maths Apps to help children with their learning.

Instant feedback and supported learning

M-learning might well provide, in the future, a different basis for learning to take place but in the current system children have been conditioned to the more traditional classroom environment and to the fact that they will have to show their learning in an exam.  Preparation for these will inevitably be question sheets and writing answers into an exercise book.  Any teacher has to acknowledge the system within which they work.   Well-made practice apps with their supportive hints and guides follow this model but with certain distinct advantages.

Children don’t get to the end of ten questions and then have their pride destroyed by a misconception that means all of them are wrong.

They can use the support of the app to find out where they went wrong as soon as they go wrong.  As well as learning the task at hand they start to develop independent learning skills.  In future this may mean that they are better prepared to help themselves learn using their own devices without relying on a teacher.

Improved traditional resources.

Skeumorphic apps (those that attempt to use the same design and interface as a physical object) can be surprisingly effective.  Despite my fondness of technology I strongly believe that it cannot replace everything.  Sometimes technology can only provide a simulation that, without its tactile aspects, lessens the experience.  I expected this to be the case when as a group we started to discuss the properties of shapes using a physical geoboard.  Many children have not had the practical experience of manipulating small objects that we might expect.  One child, on the autistic spectrum and who has a quite literal view on many things, became confused by the fact that single, straight lines formed by elastic bands on a geo board are made of double lines.

Switching to a geoboard app the children could extrapolate what it represented from the physical item but were not suffering from bands pinging off.  The developers had also been wise enough to only take the skeumorphism  so far.  The elastic bands, when stretched between 2 points, formed only a single line but could be opened up to be pulled into a triangle.  The tactile aspect of a physical geoboard is not crucial to its use but the improvements technology can add to its usability can make quite a difference.  It became second nature for the students to manipulate shapes and give examples to make their points in the discussion.  The fact that each had a tool to visualise their ideas and show to each other, without adding a cognitive load that broke their flow, created one of the most productive discussions I have been part of with children.

I have had similar findings using other tablet versions of traditional resources such as number squares and number lines.

Teacher responsiveness

Being able to switch apps almost instantaneously allows teachers to refer back to past learning seamlessly.  If a child has used one app to master fractions but is struggling with percentages it is easy to link the two areas by switching back to the previous app as part of the conversation.  Or, if the child is struggling with an aspect of shapes, the teacher can switch to  the geoboard app to quickly aid their explanation.

Everything is to hand.  Teachers do not have to rely on quickly made up and sketched examples.

Not dominant.

Unlike with a laptop or desktop computer, a tablet allows the learning to take place at a desk that does not have the technology take on supreme dominance.   A lesson in a room with computer desks is all about the computers.  The desk space is hogged by the computers; the monitors become the natural focus point.  Using the technology becomes the purpose, not the task of learning.

The tablets become part of the learning kit – not all of it.  The suggestion to bring in ordinary mini whiteboards for quick sketches and calculations was made by the groups themselves, to help them with their current problem on the tablet.  They use methods comfortable to them without the feeling that everything should be done using the technology.  A typical child’s desk in my groups has an iPad, a mini whiteboard and pen, some counters and any other maths paraphernalia useful to the lesson.  This all works together.


Children who have taken an interest in a particular subject area or whose parents wish to provide extra subject support can easily get the app that the child is familiar with to help them.  Some students have returned the following week with complete mastery of a subject because, by their own initiative, they have borrowed a parent’s iPad and downloaded the same app we were using in class.  Obviously this creates a division between those whose parents can afford a tablet and those who can’t, but it does demonstrate how m-learning can create opportunities for learning that in the past were not there.

None of these benefits are dependent on the novelty of using a tablet.  They are dependent on the natural characteristics of using tablets.  The ease and naturalness within which they slot into, and support,  an individual’s learning are their key strengths but these do need to be taken as a whole.  Any computer can provide some of the benefits but this key naturalness depends on the form factor that tablets offer.  Neither are the benefits I have listed original, but seen in the light of this experience they can now  be decoupled from the dependence on novelty.

There is one other key dependency.  The use of tablets in the classroom needs to be planned and integrated properly and not treated as a magic add on.  Bringing in some tablets to play maths games on as a treat will not yield dramatic results.  In the short term it will be popular with the children but it will tail off and the tablets will be classed as a failure exciting to neither teacher nor child.  When, in actual fact, it will be a missed opportunity.

The speed with which tablets are finding their way into education means that novelty will not be on their side for long.  In the post-novelty age tablets will still offer a great deal to education, the question is how to implement our learnings and make the technologies and pedagogical implementation even better.

What do you think? Are you a teacher or parent? What are your experiences with children and the usage of tablets and apps? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section below! 

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