How can we make learning with laptops & tablets work?

Posted on 18-04-2020

When I was studying for GCSE history, there was a sudden class panic about revision guides. I think a job lot of guides had arrived at the library and were available to buy for about £2, but a rumour went round that they were selling out.

Suddenly, students who weren’t even studying history were worrying about the undersupply. Even though it was only a revision guide, and it was only summarising what we’d studied over the past two years, it assumed an outsize importance in relation to those two years of study. As Ulysses warned, ‘all with one consent praise new-born gawds, / Though they are made and moulded of things past.’

It seemed as though if you didn’t have the revision guide, you couldn’t do well, regardless of how much else you had studied. And even if you hadn’t done any study, it could become the talisman that rescued you at the last moment. It had become both a necessary and sufficient cause of exam success.

One of my history teachers got fed up with all the panic, and suggested that if we had all put as much work into studying as we were into worrying about buying revision guides, we wouldn’t need the revision guide in the first place. She also said, in a phrase as pithy as Ulysses’s and that I have remembered ever since: ‘you can buy all the books you want, what are you going to do – sleep with them under your pillow?’

I was reminded of this story when researching my book Teachers vs Tech, because the history of policymakers investing in ed tech hardware has a lot in common with our teenage scramble to buy revision guides. It is remarkable how unsuccessful a lot of these big hardware investments have been, and how they have been unsuccessful in exactly the same ways. Bill Gates himself has said that ‘just putting devices in classrooms has a really lousy record’. One major meta-analysis of technology access programmes concluded that they ‘show few positive effects on academic achievement’.

OECD research shows that there are ‘no appreciable improvements’ in achievement in countries that have invested heavily in technology.  One of the world’s largest hardware investment programmes, the One Laptop Per Child programme, has had minimal impact. Some evaluations show that one to one device programmes might actually increase inequality. All of this has led one observer to say that investing in hardware and expecting it to be transformative is a ‘classic example of worst practice in ICT use in education.’

Now, of course, we are in a world where students cannot attend school, doesn’t that render all this prior research to be pretty irrelevant? In many ways, yes. Students are using devices in different ways to the past. A lot of this previous research is comparing students with a teacher to students with a computer. Now, students generally need a computer or phone just to be able to contact their teacher, so there are clearly much stronger arguments for investing in hardware even without a robust accompanying educational plan.  Focussing on getting every family a connected device has significant non-educational value. And education may not be our first priority at the moment – the health and well-being of students and teachers is more important, and we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish educationally at such a time.

But in some ways, our current dependence on devices makes this prior research all the more important. These previous failures often wasted large sums of money, but at least students still had access to more effective classroom teaching. Now that we are so much more dependent on devices, it is even more important that we get it right and avoid the mistakes of the past.

And despite this history of past failures, it is possible to use devices effectively. When my history teacher was criticising our revision guide panic, she wasn’t denying the value of revision guides, books or libraries in general. She was pointing out that you have to engage with a book, not just own it, and that the quality of the book matters too. Those two simple points are good guides to device usage too. How do you expect students to use them, and what’s the quality of the resources they’ll be using? When you do this, you realise there are some incredibly powerful ed tech resources out there, many of which simply could not work in any other medium. I write about some in this blog post, and in Teachers vs Tech. But if all we are doing is sleeping with iPads under our pillow, they aren’t going to make a difference.