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Teaching with tablets: Will our children be using electronic textbooks to learn?

Ever the technology pacesetter, South Korea announced earlier this year that it's committed to replacing paper textbooks with digital versions in classrooms within just three years – and that means tablet computers.

South Korea’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which is sinking over £1.2 billion into the scheme, will create a cloud-based system to allow students to download e-textbooks straight to their government-funded Samsung tablet; beyond that are plans for students to upload essays to the same cloud, which will also chart their academic progress.

There will be no such government-funded scheme in the UK, but that doesn't mean there won't be tablets in classrooms. In fact, the British Education Suppliers Association (BESA) predicts that tablets will make up 22 per cent of ‘pupil facing computers’ by 2016 – and six per cent by the end of this year. Its survey, entitled ‘Future of tablets and apps in schools’, found that 85 per cent of schools were worried about security and management, and 71 per cent about the installation and purchase of apps.

There is clearly caution about the use of tablets (72 per cent of schools want more evidence before adopting), but there is unstoppable enthusiasm; 82 per cent of teachers said their pupils had an interest in using tablets. Whether or not children are familiar with tablets and their touchscreen ilk isn’t doubted. Around 2.8 million children already have a smartphone, including almost a million – that's about a quarter – of eight to 12 year olds.

Even primary school-age children are confident with tablets and touchscreens, but does this new 'second nature' make it a first-rate educational device?

“Portability is a big plus factor for schools as they can often find it difficult to devote space to computer rooms,” says Luke Noonan, Purchasing Director at tablet maker Disgo, who admits that this easy mobility does comes with the risk of theft, loss and damage. “A tablet will be dropped more often than a laptop,” he says.

Nevertheless, it's this space-saving factor that has prompted 'virtual backpack’ initiatives in China, South Korea and the US, where children are encouraged to carry tablets rather than heavy books. “I’m not saying that all text books should be swapped for eBooks and tablet learning, but ... certain activities lend themselves well to tablet use,” says Adrian Simpson, Chief Innovation Officer at mobile technology and cloud computing firm SAP. “There is great potential here to use tablets for student research, tracking grades, managing coursework and even for collaboration with other students.” This collaboration can be out of school, though arguably that’s no different to current laptop-centric models of online and distance learning.

A major advantage of e-textbooks is that they don't go out of date. “Tablets potentially have a longer lifespan than standard textbooks, with dynamic digital updates keeping them current,” says John Howard, Logitech for Business’ director for B2B in EMEA, who nevertheless sees issues around tablet adoption in schools. “Whilst great for an interactive multimedia textbook or multiple choice quiz, more substantial written content creation can be a chore,” he says, adding that tablets should be seen as something that could deliver a different kind of educational experience, and not just for ‘textbook-replacement’. The issue of whether tablets are suitable for word processing won't go away; we’re either looking at fleets of Bluetooth keyboards, or current banks of PCs staying put. Schools also need to think about the need for cloud storage to swerve the inherent memory limitations of tablets, and to connect them over Wi-Fi, which is less secure than LAN.

Before all of that, a school needs to decide on which kind of tablet is most suitable for use in classrooms. There's a presumption that tablets in education equals iPads or its Android-based rivals, but there's also the spectre of Windows 8-based products. For now, the smart money is probably on Android since it provides an adaptable and customisable operating system, the cost of developing apps is low, and the tablets themselves cost as little as £49. However, despite the iPad being more expensive and tricky to customise, its market penetration means that it simply cannot be ignored.

But are we in danger of over-speccing schools? If a school is simply out to take advantage of e-textbooks, the humble, though web-connected eBook reader is a serious candidate, too.

“Schools like E Ink's ePaper display-based eReaders because they don't let the kids download inappropriate content, get distracted by email, text messages, spend time doing something other than reading,” says Sri Peruvemba, CMO of E Ink, the company that produces the displays used in nearly every eBook reader on the market. His company has a vested interest in E Ink's popularity spreading to schools, of course, but these advantages stand. Lighter, thinner and cheaper, eBook readers still permit the downloading of texts from an e-library.

There's also the matter of technology inconsistencies. “Do they standardise on Android, Apple or the about-to-be-available Windows 8?” asks Mike Oliver, Senior Marketing Manager for EMEA at mobile device management company Zenprise. “Will a £100 grey label Android tablet be enough, or does it have to be an iPad 3? And what about the next big thing?”

Though integrating different flavours of tablets into an IT network can be laborious, new institutions are opting for a device-neutral approach. “It is clear that the ‘open book, open library, open World’ resource that tablets give access to within learning is unprecedented, and here to stay,” says Peter Dunne, MD Partnership Education at PTS Consulting, and supporting Hackney University Technical College (UTC), part of the Shoreditch roundabout and TechCity Hackney London. Hackney UTC opened its doors last month with a new curriculum covering GCEs, A Levels and BTEC Extended Diplomas that's been designed to exploit new technology, including tablets. IT is everywhere; the UTC has server rooms and streaming facilities, infrastructure installations for cable, fibre and managed WiFi. “The challenge within the industry is to provide infrastructures which enhance learning, enrich teaching, motivate students and deliver reliability,” says Dunne, “without compromising security and at the same time providing teachers with oversight and interactivity with the learner.”

Although he thinks they represent a “paradigm shift” in teaching and learning, Dunne sees tablets as just the latest classroom tech following in the wake of blackboards, overhead projectors and desktop computers. “The question is how readily education communities will embrace them,” he says.

That paradigm shift has already happened at ACS Hillingdon International School, which has recently integrated iPads into the curriculum. In fact, all students over the age of eight years old use an iPad, giving them access to interactive books and other content. “The iPads are being leased by the school over a two year period,” Linda LaPine, Head of School at Hillingdon, tells me. “It's a cost-efficient option that enables the school to determine the useful life of this type of technology and manage the costs of the equipment.” Crucially, this arrangement allows the school to upgrade to future models, but there are other challenges. LaPine talks about students “engaging with their work on a deeper level” thanks to the iPad, but insists that doing so requires careful planning and teacher training. Hillingdon has also held workshops with parents, “to dispel any concerns families may have about the new technology.”

State schools have even bigger challenges. “While I certainly see tablet devices becoming more prominent ... it is simply not possible for UK schools to do so as instantaneously,” says Peter Johansson, CEO at C Technologies, which specialises in assistive technology in education. Calling it a “lengthy, uncertain procedure”, Johansson thinks that until the necessary IT infrastructure – such as cloud computing – is in place to support fully digitised learning, schools will need to use a combination of traditional and tech-driven teaching methods. “At the moment it is important for schools to ensure that they operate with these devices in mind, rather than targeting their lessons entirely to these tools,” he says.

It’s largely a question of cash. “Schools are under budget constraints and often rely on outside funding for 'above and beyond' student services,” says Oliver. “While £500 might buy a single tablet, it would buy multiple PCs and even more books or sporting equipment.”

Besides, even if schools invest in a fleet of tablets, will students take proper care when using them? “Less care is taken when the device has been supplied on loan,” says John Kent, president at intelligent access management company Traka, who thinks that schools need to consider automated systems to secure in an individual locker that can only be accessed with a PIN or smartcard.

There are already products that make sure tablets aren't hidden in satchels and taken home. Zenprise's MobileManager 7.0 software includes 'geo-fencing', a tech that effectively chains a tablet to school premises. “Organisations can take action in the event that a device enters or is removed from a specific location – such as a school – by sounding an alarm, sending a message, disabling an application or even deleting data,” says Chris Gabriel, VP of Solutions Management at Logicalis Group. Geo-fencing tech is still evolving, but could allow a tablet that's removed from school grounds to be instantly wiped and/or deactivated.

“The hardware market is about to change very significantly,” says Gareth Davies, MD of Frog, whose Frog4OS learning platform is specifically designed for tablets, “but tablet technology still has some way to go in the UK before it’s in a position to provide everything that a school requires. Frog4OS, which runs across all mobile devices, has been adopted by the Malaysian government for use in its 10,000 state schools. “Schools should make it a priority to implement the appropriate infrastructure to embrace this technology and allow pupils to bring their personal devices into the classroom,” says Davies.

However, exactly how a tablet gets to school in the first place is perhaps the most controversial issue of all. Can schools really expect students or their parents to fork-out for a tablet – particularly a £399 iPad 3 – during a recession? “Schools must try to create a level playing field for those students with or without these devices,” says Johansson. Caroline Wright, BESA director, does think that the BESA research raises questions about the models of tablet provision, asking: “does the trend of the reducing cost of tablets raise the potential for tablets to become a pupil-provided item?” “Perhaps the school should be responsible only for the provision of the content and apps,” she adds.

For institutions looking for a cheap tablet, one option is a US$100, 8in tablet called the XO 3.0, which looks like an exercise book. With a self-stated mission is to empower the world’s poorest children through education, the Marvell-made XO is being distributed by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) charity. The brainchild of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC started in 2007 and has since put over 2.5 million laptops into the hands of children and teachers in Latin America and Africa, though it’s about equipping children across the globe, not just in developing countries.

Thanks to OLPC, Uruguay has become the first major country in the world to provide every elementary school child – all 510,00 of them – with a laptop, while over 900,000 students in Peru have also benefitted. Students in Gaza (4,000), Iraq (9,150), Afghanistan (5,000), Haiti (15,000), Ethiopia (6,000) and Rwanda (110,000) now have a laptop, while China (1,000) and Mongolia (with a stunning 14,500) have also taken advantage. So have the US and Mexico, with a stunning 95,100 and 53,000 apiece.

Equipped with a huge battery, solar cell and hand-crank (one minute of cranking earns 10 minutes of use), the XO has a multi-touch screen for several children to operate simultaneously; unlike the highly personal, high maintenance and pricey iPad, this one’s for sharing.

Schools choosing to leave it to individual students to provide their own device instantly puts them at the mercy of the same Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) craze currently vexing IT departments in corporate offices the globe over. “A major challenge will be device security and management,” says Kent. “Right now very few schools are equipped to safely store and manage hundreds of tablets.”

Johansson agrees, saying: “Most schools cannot support every child having their own tablet in every class, whether in terms of the IT infrastructure required or practical concerns such as budget. It is up to schools to use existing technologies to incorporate the influx of new devices and ensure no new IT practices are put in place which are either restrictive or unachievable.”

A surge of interest in using new tech in schools can only mean one thing: more work for IT support staff managing the assets on networks. “IT staff will still have to update machines and patch applications, control their software licenses and keep systems secure,” says Seann Gardiner at Dell KACE. “What will change with the advent of tablet computers is the variety of asset types in use as well an expansion in the range of applications requested – and all must be supported and managed to ensure a safe and productive IT operation.” Gardiner thinks that centralising the control and management for all these devices on the network – regardless of form factor, brand or usage – will be the only way to manage IT teams' increased workload. “Issuing users with the device is just the start,” says Simpson, who thinks that the choice of software school IT departments should pre-load onto tablets will be crucial. “This could mean choosing a password application that activates a barrier on all confidential information, or a software programme that blocks all data if the device is stolen or lost,” he says.

The momentum behind tablets as the next big thing in classrooms might seem unstoppable, but whether teachers and students will benefit from them is unclear. Before the thorny issues of purchase, network integration and security are sorted, schools need to answer one question: do we just want digital textbooks, or a completely new, interactive way of learning? Hands-up if you know the answer.