Instead of the traditional “Get out your textbooks”, teachers could soon be saying “Get out your tablets!”
The electronic schoolbag, which was a somewhat utopian concept just a few years ago, could soon become the norm, particularly in Belgium where the government has been taking serious steps to being schools into the digital age. A year and a half ago, it announced its decision to revolutionise education and launched a call for project proposal called “What sort of school would you like to teach at in the future?” to teachers all over the country; 170 proposals were submitted, 28 of which received state funding.
One of the projects selected was submitted by schoolteacher Pierrick Petillion. His idea, called TIC TAC (Technologie de l’information et de la communication pour que la Technologie soit Accessible à Chacun: “ICT – technology for everyone”), involved supplying the school’s students with digital touch tablets and experimenting with new teaching methods in a reinvented working space.
“It’s not just a gadget”
So how did the project come about?
The project was driven by a highly motivated team of teachers who were determined to promote digital technologies in school and push back boundaries:
“We’re lucky to have a Head teacher who’s very tech-savvy. He’s always asking us to think outside the box and be innovative,” says Pierrick Petillion.
For Pierrick, the digital schoolbag seemed an obvious choice. He thus chose tablets to engage his students and enable them to work at their own pace, with one goal in mind: academic achievement.
But rolling out tablets at schools involves a number of difficulties and obstacles, not least of which is parents’ reservations. As Pierrick explains, he had to convince parents that tablets aren’t “just for fun” and actually had a number of educational merits:
“They were worried we wouldn’t cover the basic subjects. So we had to explain to them that it wasn’t just a gadget we were playing with, and show them its potential as a teaching tool.”
Another issue associated with deploying tablets in the classroom is of course the technical aspects: teachers have to be completely familiar with the technology so they can troubleshoot, particularly in terms of connection or update problems: “In terms of infrastructure, we need Wi-Fi and a system that can support 26 simultaneous connections!”
The verdict on this experiment was unanimous: students are more attentive and motivated:
“Introducing these tools has changed the way we work. Students are really central to the teaching process, they learn and develop with the help of the tablets. The “fun” aspect is of course key: learning verb conjugations in an exercise book is one thing – some kids take to it, some don’t. But do the same exercise with music on a tablet, and it’s a whole different matter: you get more kids’ attention, even though it’s the same subject. It’s the teachers’ job to adapt their lessons.”
The teacher has a different relationship with the students, and a different position in the classroom – literally: with their tablets, the students are more self-sufficient. Although the tool itself, when used individually, doesn’t require moving all the desks, it does mean the teacher has to come down from his/her usual position at the front of the class and browse from desk to desk:
“Gone are the days when the teacher stood up in front of the class reciting the day’s lesson. You need to be mobile now,” says Pierrick Petillion.
The teacher is now a guide, working side-by-side with the students. But however appealing this may be in theory, it’s another matter actually putting it into practice:
“You have to be happy about this change of approach and role. Some teachers like to have complete control: you need to be able to react quickly now. The role of the teacher has been redefined.”
All inter-connected, and to the interactive whiteboard, the tablets also change the way the students move around the classroom. The teacher can, for example, show one of the students’ interfaces to the rest of the class, without the student having to go up to the whiteboard, which is an advantage for shy students who don’t like getting up in front of the rest of the class.
More individual monitoring of students’ progress
But the adoption of new technologies to transform their teaching approach doesn’t mean teachers have abandoned traditional textbooks and exercise books:
“We try to strike the right balance between the two. The transition has to be gradual,” says Pierrick.
Maths, history, geography, grammar: any subject can be taught using tablets – it’s just the application that changes. A number of start-ups are working on this very subject, developing educational applications to help teachers.
One of the software programs Pierrick uses is Socrative, which enables students to do tests on their tablets. When the test has been completed, a report is emailed to the teacher who can then mark them, wherever he is, on his tablet, using a result analysis tool, and thus monitor each student individually, thereby substantially improving productivity and efficiency.
Pierrick Petillion’s next project will entail setting up a “flipped classroom” whereby students can take their tablets home, a system that has already been widely experimented in the US, in particular. In addition to lightening the school bag, the purpose of the project is to replace traditional homework with videos which students watch on their tablets, followed by a questionnaire. At the beginning of the next class there’s be a debrief of the session they saw on video, which is followed by a workshop during which the teacher explores the subject in greater depth and answers students’ questions.
Using digital technology in the classroom can thus allow more time in class for teacher-student exchanges and ensure more effective progress monitoring.