Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Better reasons for using tablets in Philippine schools

Students using a tablets in school (img src)
In the Philippines now, there's been talk of schools adapting the use of tablets for basic education. Tablets, being the latest "it" device, are seen as having great potential for teaching. After all, students seem to take to it very well. (On the other hand, students take to everything technology-related very well.)

In the media, however, most of the coverage about the device centers around its capacity to reduce the weight of heavy books lugged around by students. (Case in point: this news report about E-tablets replacing bulky books and this blog post about an all girls' school in Metro Manila also exploring the use of tablets to replace their books.) In both of these reports, the tablet seems to be touted as no more than an ebook reader--place all of the textbooks in one light and nifty device. Though I'm sure we all agree that the tablet does do that, I think we need to refocus and see all the other benefits of the tablet, over and above its function as an ebook reader.

At this point, let me clarify that all I intend to talk about for now is the perceived use of the tablet in schools that do propose to use tablets, as shown in media reports. I will not touch on economic issues and digital divide issues, simply because that is topic enough for one very long post.

Full disclosure, too: I work with a publishing house, and though the views here are mine and not the publishing house's, through my work, I have had the opportunity to talk with various educators about their views on the use of tablets in education. It's been refreshing to see how educators really perceive the advantages that can be brought about by these tablets, beyond the lightening of the physical load. I just wish the media reports would focus on these other advantages. Why? Because I feel that by focusing on the tablets capacity as an ereader solely does injustice to the device and to education in general.

img src
Now, let me give you an example: an e-Reading device is something like the Amazon Kindle or the Barnes and Noble Nook. The purpose of these devices is to allow people to carry entire libraries in one handy mobile device. Now, e-readers are very popular with leisure readers, of which I am one. That's why most e-readers have only minimal games, use e-ink (meaning it's not backlit), and have a black and white screen. These features are there because, again, the purpose is to mimic the experience of reading a book.

A student's books can be digitized and placed into an e-reader, but if we're talking about textbooks, there will definitely be limited functionality in a digitized pdf or epub format of a textbook as opposed to a print textbook. For instance, a student cannot write on it. For some formats, he can highlight and annotate, but not for all formats. And, if the teacher wants the students to answer an exercise or drill from the ebook, it'll have to be printed out and submitted.

If the textbook were an interactive textbook, it would definitely be superior to the print book. An interactive textbook allows the student to answer exercises in the book itself, perhaps even listen and view multimedia presentations connected with the text. One such example is the Music textbook below.

An interactive Music textbook via the Inkling-McGraw Hill partnership

Unfortunately, interactive textbooks like these are still currently under development. Meaning as of yet, none are available locally.

So, what the tablet will have are mostly plain ebooks, which might signify that the tablet is just an ebook reader. However, based on a few studies, mere ereading functionality is not necessarily an improvement when it comes to education.

  • In Feb 2010, Princeton released the results of a Kindle study. The study involved the use of the Kindle DX in some of the college courses. Though the data showed that paper use was reduced for the entire semester (good news for the environment), most of the users, professors and students alike, also stated that the device was "ill-suited for class readings." Main complaints were difficulty in page-turning and note-taking on the ebook itself.
  • In May 2011, the University of Washington also released a study involving the Kindle DX. And the results showed that, eventually, users shelved the device for use in class because they considered it detrimental to "cognitive mapping" a technique in which "readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read."

Yes, both of these studies involved the Kindle. Personally, I have nothing against the device. In fact, I am a proud owner of a Kindle and you can bet I'm not giving it up anytime soon because I use it for my own leisure reading. And that is why I mention these studies. The Kindle or any ebook reader, a device which is suited for one type of reading (leisure or extensive reading) may not be suited for another type of reading (intensive reading--the kind we do in school).

You might say, however, that what we intend to distribute in schools are not e-readers like the Kindle, but tablets like the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab. This is true, but the effectiveness of the device is also dependent on how it is used. If the tablet is only looked to as an ereader, I think it won't be very effective, as the two studies above demonstrate.

A Kindle and an iPad (img src)

However, Oklahoma State also released a study about the use of iPads in their classes. This time, the study was a success, with professors and students saying that the device enhanced learning, specifically by "increasing the pace of the course, reaching traditional benchmarks weeks in advance." So, the experiment was a success.

Now, I don't think it's a matter of Amazon vs. Apple. I think it's a matter of suiting the device for the purpose. If you browse through the Oklahoma State reports, one part highlighted was this: "Faculty were able to explore and recommend course-specific apps (i.e., software) to enhance the learning environment." Emphasis mine on apps. If you browse further down, the report also says that responses were mixed as to using the iPad as an ereader.

A tablet is a powerful computer that can allow students to interact with various types of resources and people.   It also allows teachers to teach with more relevance and flexibility through these resources. And the resources I speak of are not just the plain ebooks but more especially the apps. As early as Dec 2010, there was already news of a school in Scotland that gave iPads to their students. What did they load it with? Educational apps. A quick Google search of schools that use iPads or other tablets tells you that these schools look to the use of apps. And why apps? Because they're interactive. Because they allow students to do things with it and to connect with other people, rather than just be passive receivers of knowledge.

Again, if you Google it, you'll find lists of the best apps for education or for kids. Here are a few lists that you can check out:

There is so much more that the tablet can offer aside from being an ebook reader. From a parent's perspective, the tablet can be used to keep track of my kids' projects, school communications, assignments, etc. From a teacher's perspective, the tablet can be used with a Learning Management System that allows the teacher to create quizzes and assessments, deliver them to the students, and get the scores which will then be automatically recorded on a digital record book. From a student's perspective, the tablet can be used to explore concepts and content via interactive exercises, to discuss ideas with other people around the world in order to build knowledge that doesn't just come from a single source, to create content that exhibits his knowledge and talent.
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This is the exciting thing about having this new technology for teaching and learning. And these are the things that I feel are lacking in the media coverage of the use of tablets in Philippine education. There are so much more to tablets than ereading capability. Neither do I think that the tablet is the Holy Grail of education. In fact, no one who's using it is claiming that it is. But it is a fantastic tool for the kind of learning that we should be fostering in the 21st century--collaborative, creative, and connectivist learning. That is, learning by letting students explore concepts, connect with different materials and people, collaborate towards the creation of meaning, and create something that exhibits their understanding.

According to the NMC Horizon Report: K-12 Edition, a project that identifies emergent technology that will have great impact on teaching and learning, "Digital literacy is less about tools and more about thinking, and thus skills and standards based on tools and platforms have proven to be somewhat ephemeral." Thus, having a tablet is less important than knowing what we can do with it and how it can encourage the kind of thinking that we want our students AND teachers to engage in.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Family Math and Science Day

So impressed by this activity in my son's school. It was a Family Math and Science Day. Sort of like an alternative class day, but for the parent and child and based solely on math and science fun activities.

Three days before, we got the sign up form, and there were something like 30 stations to choose from. Participants could choose up to four. Sadly, I don't have a copy anymore of the paper describing the stations, but I swear to you, they sounded like so much fun! The fantastic thing is that the descriptions also specify the ages for which the activity is appropriate. I think the activities were only for the pre-school to grade school kids, but it seemed the high school kids helped facilitate the sessions. So, everyone was involved.

Anyway, my son immediately chose the Painting with Magnets session, which was exactly that--creating a painting using magnets. He also picked What Do Dinosaurs Do in the Dark?, where they had to listen to a story then pick out shapes from a basket and assemble them to form a dinosaur; an Air project thing, where they looked at how air propels objects with balloons, pinwheels, and toy cars with sails; and the Ruler Scavenger Hunt, where my hubby and my son had to compete with another parent-child team to measure several objects using a ruler. Finally, once the parent-child team finished their four stations, they got to go to the Bubble Room where kids had fun with bubbles. And, boy, did my son love that.

I couldn't go because I had a teacher training gig, so it was just hubby and sonny-boy. Though I really wished I could be there. Still, here are a few of the pics that hubby took; you can see how much sonny enjoyed the entire thing.

Showing off his shape-dinosaur.

Painting with magnets

My son's pterodactyl, from the Painting with Magnets session.
Getting the bubbles ready
A few trial bubbles
Aaand here's the whopper!
And I say again, I am impressed by this activity. It's awesome on so many levels--kids get to choose the sessions they like, they deal with math and science concepts in an uber-fun way, parents get to see what their kids do in school, they get to see how teachers teach and deal with the students, and the parents and kids spend time together in a fun and educational venue. Plus, it gives parents ideas for what they can do with their kids at home.

Because the other amazing thing? The whole activity cost much less than a Starbucks Venti, for both the parent and child. The materials used were just ordinary materials. Fantastic.

And, naturally, I wish we had something like this when we were kids in school.