Classroom

More kids than ever set off for school with a tablet in their bag this week. Do they need it?

My son started Grade 5 this week. Let's call him Mars, the codename we use when we don't want him to know we're talking about him. Mars was very excited to have an iPad on this year's book list, although I'm not so thrilled about it.

I'm trying to make it clear to Mars that the iPad is just another tool, like a calculator or a ruler, and the real focus is on learning. 

When you're a thirty-something like me it's very easy to go off on a "when I was a boy" rant as soon as people mention new technology. I try to be a bit more open-minded than that. Mars goes to a state school and there are already desktop and notebook computers in every classroom, along with electronic interactive whiteboards. That's fine, but I don't like to see the introduction of new technology simply for the sake of it. Arguing that tablets are "the future" might be valid for kids in senior high school, but it doesn't win me over when Mars is probably 10 years away from joining the workforce.

This is the first year our school has introduced iPads and I am comforted by the fact that the school council has given the project considerable thought. They've also called in a consultant who has run an iPad program at another primary school, so they're not stumbling around in the dark. Even so, the parent information night didn't change my opinion of iPads in primary school classrooms. It focused on all the cool things you can do with tablets, but not how Mars will come out the other end better educated than if he'd stuck with the classroom PCs.

Passionate supporters of tablets in the classroom will happily talk about all the cool apps that students can use both in the classroom and while doing their homework. Kids can make movies, create music, design interactive flowcharts and dabble in all kinds of new ideas when working on school assignments. Mars can be a little obsessive, like his Dad, and he's already driving us crazy with talk of all the amazing things his iPad can do. Along with Star Wars, we've declared his iPad another discussion topic which is banned from the dinner table.

Knowing Mars, he'll spend more time fiddling with the iPad and apps than actually working on the project at hand. Just like those kids I went to school with who spent more time drawing fancy bubble headings than actually thinking about the content of their assignments. I'm trying to make it clear to Mars that the iPad is just another tool, like a calculator or a ruler, and the real focus is on learning.

At the parent information night the consultant talked about one kid who had spent his evenings working on a stop-motion movie for a school assignment – time which could have been spent learning about the topic rather than learning about video editing software. Every example put forward was the same, painting the iPad as the bubble heading generator of the 21st century.

Mars is very bright, as is his little sister Venus. They're avid readers and keen students, so I have no concerns about their academic progress. I know you could hand them a slate and piece of chalk and they'd still do well. Of course not all kids are that keen on school, and that's where I admit an iPad could really make a difference. I also know there are different kinds of learning styles and that an iPad might help cater to different needs in the classroom.

If an iPad gets reluctant students more interested in what's happening in the classroom then that's certainly a good thing. It would be close-minded of me to declare "my kids don't need an iPad in the classroom, so therefore no kid needs one". I'll be interested to see if there are any solid metrics at the end of the year to indicate whether the iPads have helped the stragglers catch up.

Personally I still think it's too early to introduce tablets in primary school. I don't think Mars needs an iPad in Grade 5 and talk of other schools issuing iPads to Preps is foolish. Year 7 seems like a more logical point to introduce this kind of technology. For all we know, when Mars gets to high school they might not use iPads and he'll have to start again with something different.

Do your kids need to bring their own tech into the classroom? Are they actually benefitting from it?