The campaign pledge of the Pheu Thai Party to provide primary school students with tablet computers has stirred considerable controversy, with critics abounding.
Dr. Olarn Chaipravat, chief economic strategist of the party, insists the new government will go ahead with its promise to provide Android tablet computers to 800,000 to 1 million middle-school children nationwide in 2012. Party officials say the primary school computer handout will be followed by distribution of more powerful devices to students in the higher grades. Dr. Olarn says the program is “aimed at solving the issue of the lack of skills in both foreign languages and mathematics among our children” – undoubtedly a good objective.
Kenan Foundation Asia’s years of experience in the use of computers in Thai schools and recent research in other countries indicate that tablets can help. Let me list the ways:
- An intuitive interface and the use of an electronic pen make tablets easy for even very young students to use
- Tablets help students organize notes, presentations and texts for more efficient learning
- Journal diagrams can easily be drawn, annotated and shared
- Teachers can mark, comment on and return students’ electronic documents more efficiently
- Pupils find tablet computers fun to use, so they are motivated to do school work on them
- Working in groups is more efficient because work files can be easily shared
- Easy wireless links allow in-school communication as well as access to the Internet.
- Tablets can be used both in school and at home
- Tablets eliminate the need for a “computer room” filled with desktop PCs where little subject learning takes place
- Books can be read on screen, replacing heavy paper books and cutting costs for printing and distributing them
- Assignment dates can be transmitted to tablets, reminding children of work due
- Educational videos and other visual materials can be used that research shows enable children to learn more effectively
- Numerous “learning apps” are available and the number is growing
- Children can learn at their own pace with materials based on individual learning needs
- “Parent Portals” can be set up that allow parents to see their children’s schedules, teacher contact information, grades and information on helping their children learn
To reduce concerns about access to inappropriate web sites, technology such as the “Kineo” tablet could be used. This allows school officials to control the books and lessons that appear on each student’s Kineo. Another possibility is “SafeStart,” a controlled interface that allows children to access only approved applications and websites.
There are, of course, some downsides to use of tablets in schools. These include :
• High initial cost that takes money away from other important needs like better salaries for teachers
• Time needed for initial set-up, including the loading of appropriate content
• Need for good technical support and fast wireless access
• Short battery life that may require in-school re-charging
• Low screen illumination
• Electronic pens are easily lost
• Wireless networks can be slow, frustrating downloads of some media
The latest tablets, however, have been improved to deal with some of the technical problems cited in earlier studies at much lower costs. But hardware selection is not the critical issue.
A recent study published in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education focused on the use of tablets for children aged three to six. It concluded that there was high child interest and quick learning on the tablets. “Although technical issues in learning this new technology were encountered, children were interested and persisted without frustration,” the authors wrote. “What seems to matter for children’s learning is the ways teachers choose to implement this technology.”
Although international experience with tablets in the classroom has generally been positive, how best should the devices be introduced and managed in Thailand? In my next blog I will suggest the ten things that should be done before the new Thai government distributes tablet computers to schools. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.