A growing number of schools across Northern Ireland are using iPads or other tablets in the classroom, but their use is dividing opinion among parents and teachers, writes Dr Liz Fawcett.
For the past eight months, my teenage son has been required to use an iPad for some schoolwork and much of his homework. And it seems he's not the only one; tablets are now commonplace in schools and some schools are starting to insist all pupils have one.
But there's been little debate about this new development. And that's why the ATL teaching union commissioned a major survey on tablets in the classroom.
A total of 376 parents and teachers from across Northern Ireland responded and there was a clear consensus on a number of issues.
Most (78%) believed tablets do have at least some educational value in the classroom, but there was widespread concern about certain significant potential drawbacks.
Some 82% of respondents were worried about the 'distraction factor' if pupils were expected to use tablets for homework; will children diligently do their homework when they can check messages or play games on the same devices?
But perhaps the most alarming finding related to child protection; 64% of teaching staff who had educational experience of using tablets felt there was a risk that pupils might access inappropriate material when the devices were used in the classroom.
Some schools are starting to ask or require parents to pay for tablets or other digital devices. Most respondents (71%) firmly opposed any move to make parents pay on the grounds that not all families can afford the cost.
Indeed, a large majority of respondents (81%) wanted official guidance on the use of tablets in schools - so perhaps that can be one of the first tasks for our incoming Education Minister.
So where do parents and schools stand?
'We used to ban them - now we're starting to embrace them'
With its imposing Victorian buildings and its long list of respected alumni, Campbell College in east Belfast is generally associated with traditional educational values.
In keeping with that traditional approach, the College had prohibited pupils from switching on tablets or mobiles in class.
However, all that's starting to change; not only are teachers starting to make use of tablets in lessons, but Campbell is also exploring ways to enable pupils to use their own mobile devices in a controlled and monitored way in class for specific projects and for homework.
The College decided to try out an innovative online platform for setting, submitting and marking homework and vice principal, Will Keown, says they're pleased with the results so far.
"It's important for teaching to keep pace with the world around us, but also vital that we achieve a good balance - combining traditional approaches with new methods and technologies so that we can truly engage pupils," he says.
"Most of our teachers are now regularly setting homework online and parents, pupils and teachers are very positive about the system.
"It's a 'win win' for all concerned; teachers are in control of the information students receive, students get access to all the resources they need and parents can be more involved in their child's learning."
One parent who's very satisfied with the new system is Karyn Maguire. "The use of online homework-setting allows me greater access to my son's work and I feel much more involved in his education as a result," she explains.
"I can see where my son is delivering and identify areas where he needs help - all at the push of a button."
Not all families in Northern Ireland are as satisfied with digital homework. East Belfast teenager Niamh Dawson (14) has been required to use an iPad for nearly three years at her grammar school. But, although it can make schoolwork more interesting, Niamh says she's finding the device badly affects her concentration.
"The iPad's a really big distraction since it always has to be monitored," she says. "Having it in front of you, it's a massive temptation to do anything but schoolwork."
Niamh's mother, Jane Dawson, is extremely frustrated by the adverse impact which she believes the device is having on her daughter.
"We were delighted when Niamh got into grammar school," explains Jane. "But now we're really concerned that the opportunities opened up by grammar school are going to be lost because the iPad has had such a negative effect on her concentration and on her work."
Both Jane and Niamh feel the two biggest drawbacks of the iPad are its messaging functions, which facilitate social messaging, and the ease with which children can access computer games when they're meant to be working.
"We've had to remove games from the iPad," explains Jane. "But we can't prevent Niamh from reinstalling them and that's what she does." One of Jane's main concerns is the extent to which iPads are being used for copying homework.
"With the iPad, a child can take a photo of their completed homework and send it, via iMessage, to another child within a matter of seconds.
"I've seen evidence that this happens - but, of course, children can also quickly delete the evidence as soon as they've sent the photo.
"You can't blame children for doing this when it's so easy to do - the real problem lies in making them do homework on a device which facilities this sharing in the first place."
‘One for each child too expensive’
Another school which has elected not to go down the ‘one tablet for each child’ route is Rathcoole Primary School in Newtownabbey.
Acting principal Emma Quinn agrees that tablets do have significant educational benefits.
“Children love the iPads which we have in school because they can get instant results on them, they can reach information that they wouldn’t be able to find otherwise, and they can share what they’ve done with their peers immediately,” she says.
“But I can’t envisage rolling out iPads on a one-to-one basis for each child.
“Safeguarding while using digital devices is a major concern and one that has regularly brought cyber-bullying, sexualised behaviour and language into the school.
“We use the Department of Education’s recommended internet system which is controlled by its filters and that does safeguard our children in school.
“But if you begin to introduce online homework and research, I feel that that is putting things out of our control in school.
“There’s also the problem of cost — we don’t have the budget to give one tablet to each child and we would never expect parents to pay for them.
“Many of our families are from socially deprived areas and they simply couldn’t afford tablets.”
'Good in moderation'
Lough View Integrated Primary School in Castlereagh uses iPads with every year group from Year 1 right up to Year 7. But principal Michael McKnight says that staff only bring out the devices where they enable pupils to carry out an activity which wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
“For example, our Year 6s recently used iPads to make videos about Finn McCool. That wouldn’t have been possible before we had the iPads,” he says.
“We do have a conventional video camera, but iPads are more user-friendly and allow every child to try their hand at digital film-making.
“The Year 2s also recently used iBook to make their own books. They then used the iPads to film each other presenting the stories to each other. That was great because you’re developing their creative skills and their literacy.”
However, Michael believes traditional methods of teaching are still vital.
“I can’t see tablets ever replacing the more traditional approaches to learning,” he says.
“I think it’s important for schools to strike the right balance to ensure that they’re only using tablets to enhance learning, rather than the tablet becoming something which gets used just because it’s there, whether it’s the most appropriate tool or not.
“I also think schools need to be careful to take full responsibility for the way in which tablets are used. You can’t rely on children to create that healthy balance between valuable and responsible use on the one hand, and irresponsible and distracting use on the other. Where tablets are used in school, they should be used very selectively with close supervision.”
‘Writing skills worse, child safety at risk’
Rachel Neeson, who lives in Toomebridge, has two children who are expected to use different digital devices at their respective post-primary schools.
Her 13-year-old son has been using a tablet at his school for more than a year. Meanwhile, her 12-year old daughter, who attends a different school, uses a mini-laptop.
“The difference between the two is stark,” she says. “When my daughter uses the laptop, she focuses on the task in hand and, once she’s finished, she simply puts the laptop away — she sees it as a purely work-related device.
“However, for my son, his school iPad is a leisure-based device with many other possible uses besides schoolwork.
“If he uses it for homework, he’s distracted by constant messages from his friends and he’ll play games on it when he’s meant to be working.”
In addition, Rachel says the quality of her son’s writing has deteriorated. “Before he used an iPad, there was no issue with his handwriting,” she says. “Now, it’s illegible.
“Previously, there was no issue with his spelling or grammar. Now both his spelling and his grammar have deteriorated dramatically.”
But, for Rachel, one of the most alarming problems has been the ease with which inappropriate material can be shared on school iPads.
“What I discovered was that some other children were sending and accessing sexually explicit messages and suggestive pictures of themselves via a social networking site,” she says.
“Some of this activity involved school iPads. I was really shocked — these were 12 and 13-year-olds.
“The problem is that it’s so easy to hide this sort of activity on the iPad and, because the device encourages group messaging, it’s also very easy for other children to be exposed to this type of material as it gets passed round.”