Schools should provide books, not require iPads

A young white boy wearing a bright red school jumper with a school emblem consisting of a cross inside a diamond with the letters S, A, S and M around the cross. He is holding an iPad and a young child wearing a light grey and white baby suit is sitting looking at it.Back to school bill: pencil case, pens, rubber … and a £785 iPad (from today’s Guardian)

This is about how state schools (private schools have been doing this for a while) have started asking parents to send children into school equipped with an iPad “as a result of a lack of proper government funding for technology equipment”. The schools involved justify the policy by saying such things as “embedding technology in the classroom, alongside traditional learning, has been shown to enhance learning”, which is a dubious claim when applied to iPads, but the devices are being sold for up to £785 in installments when basic iPads are available from £219 from Apple. There are a whole host of reasons why pressuring parents to pay for this device is a bad idea.

First, they are expensive and easy to break. School textbooks may be bulky, but a torn page can just be taped back together and a book dropped in a puddle can be dried out; a broken screen has to be repaired professionally, if it even can be, and a phone or tablet immersed in water could be rendered useless. There are so many ways such devices can get broken in a school — if a child holding one trips and falls, or if someone knocks it out of someone’s hands by accident or as a prank, or if someone who is angry throws it at someone, for example — that are less of a problem in a home or office. They are easy to steal, and children walking to or from school alone would be an easy target.

Second, they are unnecessary. Generations of children learned without each having a tablet or computer to themselves; we learned from books or from the teacher, and sometimes from a presentation on an overhead projector (they got more sophisticated; more recently they are linked to computers rather then relying on slides) or from a TV programme. In fact, computers can be a distraction, even in a computer science class, as I found when I went back to college (unsuccessfully) in 2003; people could, and did, do things on them during the class that had nothing to do with the class, or any other class, like watching videos like this:

Third, as they are expensive, they produce a divide between those who can afford them (and afford high-end, expensive ones) and those who can’t. Kids will always notice who’s borrowing an iPad from the teacher or from someone else, much as they notice who is on free school meals unless the school manages to hide it (they don’t always), and in an affluent area this could lead to the child whose parents are unable to provide the devices being stigmatised or even bullied. Less well-off parents will consider this expense when choosing a secondary school (if there’s a choice), making this a means of subtly discriminating against their children. Schools often justify uniforms on the basis that they mask social divisions, so making learning dependent on expensive tablets supplied by parents rather defeats the object.

(Private schools have been doing this for some time, as noted in a BBC Four programme about a girl who won a scholarship to the local private grammar school in Leeds and found that the school required pupils to have their own tablets, which she had to borrow from another girl. Because this and other factors made her feel “like an outsider”, she left after just one year, despite the debts her mother had ran up to get her in.)

In the particular case of iPads, their educational value is compromised because they do not allow you to program them, making them only useful for receiving information and using existing services such as email and social media. A recent criticism of school IT lessons is that they teach how to use popular applications like Microsoft Word but do not touch on programming, but all programming of tablets is done through PCs (Macs, in the case of iPads). In addition, programs have to be supplied through the App Store (except on jailbroken devices) and this adds expense and difficulty for the developers (and thus the user); for Android devices, it is fairly simple to allow the installation of non-Store programs; it requires no change at all on most PCs. So these devices are either to be used for browsing electronic textbooks or for some custom educational software that delivers information that could just as easily be projected onto a single screen, except for those with visual impairments. The devices could easily be used to give demonstrations of things (particularly in science) that avoid doing them in practice, making lessons ‘safer’ and more sedentary but less hands-on and, frankly, less interesting.

However much the schools (and the schemes they participate in) sweeten the pill with instalment paying and hardship schemes, this potentially puts the onus on parents to provide the delivery method for both books and lessons. It’s a money spinner for the developers of the software, who will sell site licences to schools to allow pupils to use them on their devices. And it raises the cost of state school education for parents by hundreds of pounds per year, which of course is multiplied by the number of children they have. It assumes, of course, that parents will buy these devices anyway, but not all parents have the money to buy even one, let alone more, and let alone allow their children to take them to school. It’s unnecessary, it’s of limited educational benefit, it’s expensive, it’s discriminatory. It should be banned in all state schools.

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