In Finland the discussion on tablets in schools has reach a new level. It looks like a real hype. Principals, heads of school districts and library directors are feverishly trying to find out cash from their budgets to acquire some of these devices to be used in education.
Those who praise tablets usability in learning have dominated the discussion. There have been some critical comments, like the one made by a City of Helsinki’s early-childhood learning expert saying that there is scientific evidence that walking in a forest is good for learning and to replace that with tablets is very hard.
I have been testing and studying tablets for two year now. I have not myself tried them in a classroom teaching but have studied several cases and think that I have a relatively good picture of the usage.
Tablets are great media devices. They are good for reading, for watching videos, for listen music and other audio. They are also extremely easy to use for taking photos, shooting videos and for doing audio recordings. They are more exciting than any other information and communication technology for playing games. There are tens of good and interesting click-drag-and-drop-drill-and-practice educational games. Children really get excited about them and may also learn something by playing these games.
So why not tablets in schools?
I really do not have any scientific evidence to back this (this is all my intuitions based on my limited understanding of human cognitions) but I think writing and drawing are the most important (meta-)skills in all kind of learning.
What I know for sure is that with tablets writing and drawing is very difficult — mostly painful experience. With the virtual keyboard you may write short messages. Writing a blog post like this is impossible even for an experienced keyboard / tablet writer. Drawing with your fingers is fun, but if you really need to sketch, draw a diagram or a map that is not possible with finger paints. To draw you need a sharper tool and precision grip.
Giving up writing and precision grip is like going backwards in a human evolution. Is that what we really want to do in schools?
So how tablets could be better?
We should have much better virtual keyboards. Or we should have a proper keyboard in a tablet in a way that it is always available for use (does this sound like a laptop?). Microsoft surface is an interesting proposal to this direction. Whatever virtual or mechanical, a tablet for learning should be a powerful writing tool.
In addition to the keyboard we should have a drawing pad that resemble closely paper and can be used with sticks, paintbrush etc. – practically with everything you may want to hold in your hand. Like the keyboard, the paper-like drawing pad should always be available with the tablet.
I know that there are other people promoting same things and even designing and developing things along these lines. To make sure that it will happen, in the research group we have started to design our own (experimental) prototypes of devices, too. Let’s see how it will be.