Tablets in education

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tablets: the cure for what ails education?
tablets: the cure for
what ails education?

While it can sometimes be difficult to understand just what exactly the related question or challenge is, in many education systems around the world, the 'answer' or 'solution' put forward is increasing the same:


Indeed, it seems that, over the past few years, not a week has gone by without some sort of high profile announcement about a new educational tablet initiative somewhere -- or about changes to an existing such project.

Excitement about the promise and potential of information and communication technology (ICT) devices for use in teaching and learning has been around for a few decades, but only recently has this been translated into large scale purchases of such devices for use in schools outside of industrialized, 'highly developed' countries. What's happening where, you ask?

Here are some random, but fairly representative, reports from recent years about this undeniable trend:

Not all the news is about tablets going *out* to schools; devices can flow in the reverse direction as well:

It's true that not everything that is announced actually comes to pass. Timelines are often a moving target, and the scope and/or scale of a project as initially conceived can change radically. But the trend is clear.

Why are educational policymakers authorizing the purchases of so many tablets in so many education systems around the world?

Here are the five most common answers I get when asking this question:

  1. As one education official put it to me earlier this spring (I am only slightly paraphrasing), tablets 'are what people use today for learning. They used to use desktop computers, and then laptops. Now they use tablets.'
  2. Like other education technology devices, tablets are seen by some as powerful and iconic symbols of modernity within an education system. As such, their purchase and use within schools is seen to be representative of a forward-looking, modern educational system, and their existence and use can play a key role (both political and functional) in helping to introduce and advance a specific educational reform process within an education system.
  3. A decision has been made to buy lots of new equipment, and tablets are thought to be easier for kids to use than laptops or desktop PCs (the other choices considered).
  4. The shape and size (or what technology folks often call the 'form factor') of the device is like a book -- and books are what education systems are used to buying.
  5. Tablets have been shown to promote more learning. (I'll note parenthetically that the 'evidence' used to support this contention is often rather weak; more on this below.)
  6. Specific software applications or learning content to be used for teaching and learning are only available (or only thought to be available) on a tablet.

One reason that is not often openly stated by a ministry of education official, but which may in fact be an important part of the equation in certain countries, is that government wishes to jumpstart the fortunes of a local ICT industry, and figures that buying lots of tablets can help in this regard -- especially where there might be a local company that assembles tablets (while most of the parts may come from China, the final product may not: countries as diverse as e.g. Cote d'Ivoire and Haiti, Zambia and Morocco all have local tablet companies).

You may or may not consider these to be compelling reasons, but they are, for what it's worth, the most common ones I hear.


That's all well and good, you might say, but, taking a slight step backward, you might be inclined to ask:

What makes a device a tablet?

There are lots of definitions of a 'tablet', and it can be easy to get lost in the weeds or debate specific characteristics. In my work with education systems around the world, four basic characteristics pretty much define the product category:

  1. A student can hold it easily in two hands.
  2. It's portable.
  3. It's bigger than a 'phone'.
  4. It's primarily operated using a touch (screen) interface.

When it comes to 'tablets', certain definitions can allow for grey area which can confuse things, especially when it comes to procurement. If you attach a keyboard to a tablet, does that make it something other than a tablet? How about if a laptop screen is detachable and features a touch screen interface? Difficulties with definitions has led some education systems to consider the use of functional vs. technical specs in their procurement documents. 

OK, like Potter Stewart said in another context, even if I have trouble coming up with a very specific, useful definition, when it comes to a tablet, I know it when I see it.


What makes something an 'educational' tablet?

Once it's been decided that a certain device qualifies as a tablet, there is then a further question about what constitutes an 'educational' tablet. 'Educational' tablets typically display one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. They come preloaded with specific 'educational' software and content (and the user interface may sport a specific 'skin' or 'operating environment' designed for student users).
  2. They come in funky colors (the device casings themselves, or a special rubbery sleeve that fits snuggly around the device, may be blue, or green or red, or some other color thought to be 'appropriate' for children).
  3. The device may ruggedized in some way (to protect it from falls, rough handling, etc.).
    and, perhaps most fundamentally:
  4. The device is specifically labelled and/or marketed as an 'educational tablet'.

With these definitions out of the way (in ways that may or may not be entirely satisfactory), we can then turn to two broader questions that might be of more fundamental interest or relevance for policymakers:

What do we know about large tablet initiatives in schools?

What do we know about the related evidence that
they are (or are not) having an impact on student learning?

In order to help answer the first question, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL is an intragovernmental organization whose members are the ministries of education of over 50 countries that belong to what was previously known as the British Commonwealth of Nations) published a short report earlier this year that looked at a number of national efforts around the world. Large-Scale, Government-Supported Educational Tablet Initiatives notes that:

"A growing number of countries are embarking on large-scale, government-supported initiatives to distribute tablet devices to students in the K–12 schooling sector. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that by simply putting this technology in the hands of students, educational access issues will be resolved and educational transformation will occur. In this research project, a systematic review of current government-supported tablet initiatives around the world was conducted to understand their origins, underlying principles, financial and organisational models, and expected outcomes. An extensive literature search and data extracted from identified documents showed that 11 countries have launched government-led tablet initiatives. The review concluded that the majority of these initiatives have been driven by the tablet hype rather than by educational frameworks or research-based evidence."

This report was the result of a desk study sponsored by COL and drew largely on media mentions of government-supported educational tablet projects around the world. It paid particular attention to large-scale, government-supported tablet initiatives in eleven countries: Antigua & Barbuda, Australia, Brazil, India, Iran, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

pointing the way to the promised land?
pointing the way to
the promised land?

Considering this and other programs, COL found that "none of the identified initiatives was supported by a rationale or evidence for why tablets in general would help achieve the articulated objectives, let alone be supported by the reasons for selecting a particular brand or type of tablet."

Now, just because a ministry of education hasn't articulated exactly how exactly a particular initiative will help meet certain specific objectives doesn't mean that such objectives won't be met as a result of a given project. It certainly doesn't make such an achievement more likely, of course, but it doesn't rule it out either. With that in mind, and whether or not a ministry has decided to buy lots of 'educational tablets' for the 'right' or the 'wrong' reasons, what do we know about the impact of tablet use on student learning?

Like the use of educational technologies more generally, regardless of which specific technology device we are talking about, the evidence base when it comes to tablet use in schools and to support student learning is rather weak, and can be used in support of or against pretty much whatever scheme is being considered. Most of the related research to date comes from schools in 'highly developed' (OECD) countries, relies on projects with small sample sizes, are of short duration and/or rely heavily on self-reported and/or qualitative data. An upcoming paper to be published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning examines this existing research base. Tablet use in schools: A critical review of the evidence for learning outcomes looks at 103 research studies and then, after applying certain selection criteria, examines 33 of them more closely before eventually building a cohort of 23 studies based on methodological trustworthiness and relevance. The paper also contains a useful short roundup of notable studies from developing countries. While most of these did not meet the selection criteria, these are no doubt useful pointers to initiatives that merit additional investigation.

What did the three researchers (Hassler, Major and Hennessy) find? "16 of the studies reported positive learning outcomes, 5 no difference and 2 negative learning outcomes". They note that the "fragmented nature of the current knowledge base, and the scarcity of rigorous studies, make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. The generalisability of evidence is limited and detailed explanations as to how, or why, using tablets within certain activities can improve learning remain elusive. We recommend that future research moves beyond exploration towards systematic and in-depth investigations building on the existing findings documented here."

Few of the research studies related to tablet use in education offer much useful relevant insight into which of the particular affordances of tablets (e.g. their size, their touch interfaces, the use cases that they lend themselves to) are important. Is it simply having an educational computing device that is important, or is there something specific about a tablet that makes it a particularly relevant option for consideration by educational policymakers and planners?

The sample sizes of the impact studies to date are in many cases quite small, and few of the studies feature randomized control trials (considered the 'gold standard' in some quarters).

Hassler, Major and Hennessy believe that there is "clearly potential [...] to enhance the methodological rigour of future research that investigates the use of tablets in schools". Hopefully recently announced research projects like J-PAL's Post-Primary Education Initiative, which has an RFP open until 15 September which notes that "preferential consideration will be given to proposals on the following topics", including the "use of information and communication technology (ICT) for student learning or teacher training at the secondary level" will help support a few rigorous evaluations that will enrich our collective understanding of this area of increasing activity.

Given the size, scope and ambition of the many educational tablet initiatives that continue to be announced around the world, there will be no shortage of candidate projects to study in the future. Hopefully researchers, and the organizations which fund them, will consider this an area of increasingly important and relevant inquiry going forward.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image used  at the top of this blog post of a multi-colored collection of pills ("tablets: the cure for what ails education?") from RayNata via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The second image of Moses carrying two tablets ("pointing the way to the promised land?") comes from an oil painting by Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete via Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.



Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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