Tablets: the great equalizer

The introduction of tablet computers in the educational mainstream has helped to transport students, in mind if not body, to places that can deepen their understanding and maximize their engagement in learning.

Mark Twain, arguably one of the great voices of American society (and frequent critic of the American educational system), once said that travel is one of the best ways to remove prejudices, explore new ideas, and understand perspectives different from one’s own. It is a fact that most of our underserved populations fail academically because they do not have the benefit of the experiences and resources their more affluent classmates enjoy. This is not a new problem and has been, up to now, largely a problem of geography more than motivation.

Our students live in an age when virtual field trips replace stale lectures and students thrive as dynamic creators rather than passive consumers.

Since 2010, the introduction of tablet computers in the educational mainstream has helped to transport students, in mind if not body, to places that can deepen their understanding and maximize their engagement in learning.

The catch here is how to sustain this engagement, how to ensure students carry their learning beyond school. Isn’t the formal segregation of academic learning and informal learning something that needs to go? In this age of nearly ubiquitous mobile device ownership, how relevant are physical rooms of learning?

We now have the capability, more than any time before, to provide students, all students, with the means to break loose from the confines of their limited background or lack of resources, to share with them the world and to give them the opportunity to discover and analyze and create, all for the cost of what would otherwise be a few textbooks.

The tablet computer has done more to transform education than any other device in education history. Kids can’t take a desktop computer from the computer lab home. And it’s impractical to expect students to use laptops to take pictures and film videos for their multimodal projects.

Tablet computers are the great equalizer, if not for any other reason but to give students the opportunity to personalize their own learning. The importance of this personalization cannot be overstated, and it is a critical factor in maintaining interest and engagement in the skills and knowledge students need for success.

Group-oriented, project-based-learning is one of the most powerful pedagogical models we have to spark student interest and engage them in deep thinking. Giving students the opportunity to work with a tablet gives them access to resources to contribute to the group effort as well as the flexibility to move freely within the inquiry model afforded by PBL. Students can explore divergent ideas more readily when they have access to all that the Internet has to offer—right there, right in their hands.

Tablets can finally put students and educators in a place where genuine learning happens—everywhere. Most underprivileged students, whether rural or urban, often must endure lengthy bus rides home. And when these students get home, there is no guarantee that they will have the cultural or academic resources that more privileged students have the freedom to enjoy. Imagine all students having the opportunity to develop deeper relationships with their teachers and fellow classmates and to continue working on immersive projects and research outside the classroom.

There are other benefits to tablets as well. Without a doubt, active parental engagement in a student’s academic life is linked to his or her higher engagement and achievement. Tablets help bridge the divide that often occurs between low-income parents and schools by opening new channels of communication and providing parents with a more accurate look at what their children are learning and creating at school.

These many benefits of tablet computers do not come without a cost. But, we should look at the challenges of implementing tablet computers as an investment.

Administrators and other stakeholders also must understand that putting a powerful learning tool in students’ and teachers’ hands is not enough. Lack of planning and poor sustainability relegate tablets to the status of the shiny new toy that everyone wants but really doesn’t know how to use. Proper training and follow-through, however, can ensure that teachers know how to maximize the inherent benefits of the tablet and integrate them in such a way that the tablet is an inconspicuous extension of the learning environment.

The focus should never be on what amazing things the tablet can do; rather, the focus should always be on what amazing things our students can do with the tablet.

Michael S. Mills, Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Arkansas. Over the past 19 years, he has worked as a public high school teacher, literacy specialist and university professor. His focus for the last decade has been on literacy development and the practical uses of educational technology, particularly on using collaborative tools to better engage students and designing strategies for effectively integrating mobile devices in the classroom. He is an SXSWedu, ISTE and SITE presenter. He has chapters featured in the books “The Plugged-In Professor: Tips And Techniques For Teaching with Social Media” and “Technological Tools for the Literacy Classroom.”

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.