Taking Tablets: Addressing The Symptoms or The Problem?

This post is a variation of an article I was asked to write for and published in Education Matters Yearbook 2014.

I have been using computers for over 36 years. I am an advocate of the utility of ICT in education. I teach ICT modules and run a Code Club in my school. Two years ago I suggested that 2014 would see a tipping point in the adoption of tablets in the classroom (Lydon, 2012). This hasn’t happened just yet but each year more and more schools, often misguidedly, adopt tablet programmes. 

There are several companies that will sell your school a tablet programme of one sort or another. Each of these companies will profess as their motivation the success of your school, your pupils’ success and even what is beneficial for Ireland in the 21century. These are all undoubtedly laudably-held beliefs. 

But before deciding to buy into a tablet programme, it is important to remember every company’s first and foremost reason for existing is to make money. This is ok. In fact, it is a good and necessary thing. But it is important that these companys’ ‘sell’ stacks up. 

The hard sell to schools has been on the basis of how tablets help improve student learning. None of these companies bother to actually define what they mean by ‘learning’ and some skirt the issue by referring to ‘achievement’. Again, this is never defined. 

The hard sell is wrong and for a very simple reason. There is nocontrolled research that shows using one technology or another in the classroom can improve attainment as a result of using that technology. None. You may have been given something to read or read something doing the rounds on CESI-list or on some Facebook page or other. So just to restate it 

– there is nocontrolled research that shows using one technology or another in the classroom can improve attainment as a result of using that technology

One non-peer reviewed [1], school origin ‘study’ (actually another hard sell to a school board) showed better grade attainment among non-tablet users. Further, there is evidence from the heartland of IT – Silicon Valley – that iPads negatively affect learning and parents there are sending their children to computer-free schools (Goldbach, 2012). So any company that tells you otherwise is, literally and figuratively, trying to sell you something. 

However, I still think that there is a place for tablets in student learning. The issue is how do we best use these devices. I think this is a debate has been the elephant in the room. With tablets, specifically with iPads, the focus has been on there being ‘an app for that’. Whatever it is you want to do,there is a convenient little application that does it. 

Again, the marketeers have produced a convincing blurb that will tell you their programme includes hands-on examples of ‘pedagogy’ (a nice buzz word but usually poorly understood) [2] to train teachers in using tablets in their classrooms. What this is, in reality, is instruction in the technical use of the device rather than coherent, holistic, methodological approach to implementing a syllabus within the classroom. 

(Book publishers focus has been on their eBooks, many of which are really little more than simplified PDFs, and whose only advantage in the classroom over paper textbooks is weight.)

There may well be ‘an app for that’ but a rhethoritican will tell you the most compelling thing about this is not the app but the alliteration. It just sounds so good! But all we are doing with apps is putting patches on a leaky system. They may be good, even enjoyable patches, but they are not an education. 

Some of the hard sell of technology has focused on how tablets can help address ‘21st century skills’ as if using tablets was the only way to do this. This also often ignores that many teachers are not competent in 21st century skills and are poorly placed to deliver them in the classroom. But within this argument is a broader issue. What sort of education do we want our children to experience? This debate exsits on two levels – societal and school. 

Societal Level

The single most important issue in Ireland today is education. Every problem we face is the result of the education system we have, for whatever reason we have it. The sustainable solution to these problems can only be effected through an education system that addresses the underlying origin of these problems. We are 40 years behind Finland in this (see Sahlberg, 2010). 

The reformed Junior Cycle seems to be our answer to this challenge yet it has many flaws.[3] However, the single biggest flaw has been the failure of the State to engage every education stakeholder in a debate about what sort of Ireland we want. In fact, to some commentators, it would appear there was a deliberate effort to exclude some stakeholders. 

And my language is deliberate; I did not say ‘education partners’ because it is clear that education in Ireland is not a partnership. The consequence is the on-going patch-up of a pre-indepedence education system. In this system, teachers at school level will always be trying make do the best they can, always trying to patch up their pedagogy in the hope of staying current. 

The Junior Cycle reforms included 24 Statements of Learning. These had to be hastily redrafted after someone pointed out that schools could get out of teaching science[4]. The only compulsory subjects will be English, Irish and Mathematics. I believe a serious mistake has been made by not developing and seeking to implement a compulsory course in ICT

There is a short course in Coding, but coding only appeals to a small cohort of students and fewer still will ever be good enough at it to make it a career. The Digital Media Literacy short course was a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough and again, it is optional. Imagine that we will not even require students to leave school being able to touch-type! 

The point of all this is that as a society, our approach to education has been piecemeal and politically and economically driven rather than educationally driven. Into this mix, schools are throwing tablets in the vain hope it will achieve something. The only likely improvements will be in PISA-focused literacy and numeracy efforts because these lend themselves will to drill (see Willingham, 2009). How ironic is that! 

School Level 

20 years ago or so educators in Ireland began to promote ‘child centred education’. But we never had this, and we still don’t have it. What we have is ‘child centred teaching’. It is looking like the adoption of tablets will not change this. 

There are several issues affecting tablet implementation at school level. This first and foremost is that even today, pre-service teachers are not required to take a compulsory ICT course as part of their training, never mind take a course in how to effectively use ICT in the classroom. References to ‘digital natives’ are hollow (Bennett & Maton, 2010). 

However, an even greater issue is the absence of a researched, proven pedagogy that enables effective use of tablets in the delivery the curriculum. Many teachers using tablets in the classroom have not actually changed their practice in any way compared to when they were using paper textbooks. The question that arises from this is why bother with tablets in the first place if all you are doing is the same as before. 

Some of the more ‘hip and with it’ teachers pat themselves on the back because they have stopped being the ‘Sage on the Stage’ and have become the ‘Guide on the Side’. But both the sage and the guide are still the centre of attention. Teachers need to become what McWilliam calls the ‘Meddler-in-The-Middle’, someone who is “mutually involved in assembling and dis-assembling cultural products’ with students (McWilliam, 2008). 

The idea sold to teachers by iPad-peddling companies is that the tablet will enable them to produce more attractive and engaging material for their students. This really gets me going! Instead of using tablets to teach students content, students should be producing the content themselves and in so doing learn. This should be a relief to teachers. No longer do students need eBooks. Nor do they need apps. Everything students need to learn is on the internet. All students need (in general) is a teacher well enough versed in 21st century skills, meta-cognition, assessment, capable in helping students find what the need to meet curriculum requirements and who has the wisdom to help students make sense of what they are being asked to learn. 

A good starting point for teachers is Google’s Search Education. It may sound easy to ask a student to google something but ‘Search’ is not as easy as it sounds. Computers are dumb and unless you ask the right question in the right way, you are unlikely to make much progress in finding the ‘best fit’ answer. Google’s Search Education is a good step towards helping teachers use technology effectively in the classroom. [5] 

This is just a beginning. Educate Together, in their new (and first) second level school, plans to implement the entire Junior Cycle curriculum and all it’s content through an integrated curriculum using pedagogies such as Problem Based Learning. I will be watching this avidly and I think that this approach is something that could lend itself well to tablet use in the classroom. 


Much of current tablet use in classrooms is simply addressing symptoms of a less-than effective education system. We need to cure the problem. I do not have all the answers, or even many of the answers to the education-technology interface in Irish education. I do know that progress can only be achieved cooperatively. The education system should be reconceived, not an a sectoral basis but on an all-through basis. There should be an Education Bill of Rights for children. We should have an Education Council of Ireland composed of members of each education level, teacher-educators, teachers, parents, principals, the DOES, the unions etc. which would reform not just our Junior Cycle but our entire system so as to make the best use of all available resources and tools to produce the best education we agree as a society we need for our children and their future.

[1] http://www.minnetonka.k12.mn.us/administration/Board/BoardReports/2011/iPad%20Expansion%20Proposal.pdf
For a full discussion, see Alexander, R. (2013). Essays on pedagogy Routledge.

There are many good points to it also!

Bennett, S., & Maton, K., (2010) Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2010) 26, 321-331

Lydon, P., (2012) Tablets in the Classroom: Towards a New Pedagogy http://peterlydon.ie/tablets-in-the-classroom-towards-a-new-pedagogy/

McWilliam, E., Unlearning How To Teach Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 45, No. 3, August 2008, 263-269

Sahlberg, P., (2010) Finish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?, Teachers College Press, New York

Willingham, D., (2009) Why Don’t Students Live Schools? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works And What It Means For The Classoom, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

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