SCHOOL pupils in Scotland should be given tablet computers to help close a “digital divide” which is opening up between the poorest and most affluent students.
The call has been made by ScotlandIS, the trade body for the country’s IT industry, which believes tablets costing as little as £60 could be handed out for use during lessons.
Tablets have been credited with increasing performance in schools and improving the sort of computing skills which are currently in high demand in the employment market.
One Scottish private school, Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock, is already seeing positive results after introducing leased iPads for all students in 2010, a move it claims was a first anywhere in the world.
One of Scotland’s largest education authorities, Aberdeen, is already looking at ways of introducing devices such as smartphones and tablets into its classrooms.
Polly Purvis, executive director of ScotlandIS, said tablets could be introduced gradually, with the possibility that parents could be asked to contribute towards the costs. Although Apple’s iPads cost around £400, cheaper versions are on the market at around a quarter of the price and a version being produced for developing countries will sell for as little as £60.
“Realistically, you have to start somewhere, and that could be by gradually introducing them year by year,” she said.
“Teachers would have to be trained up to use them as well. For a number of reasons it would not be appropriate to have iPads as standard because they are very expensive. There are other devices out there, and we need to be realistic about this – it needs to be at a cost that schools can bear, as clearly they are strapped for cash.”
Purvis said there was a danger of a “digital divide” opening up between children who come from homes which have access to computers and the internet, and those who do not.
“It is worrying, particularly at the moment when the government is rolling out digital infrastructure. We don’t want young people to become disadvantaged in any way,” she said. “There are currently subjects like home economics where parents are asked to contribute towards the cost of materials. In many cases parents would need to contribute where they could.”
Fraser Speirs, head of computing and IT at the Cedars School of Excellence, said it currently cost £12.50 per month per pupil to lease iPads, which are used in everything from science experiments to art classes.
He said: “We introduced the iPad into lessons in August 2010, so we’re now in our second year. To the best of my knowledge, we were the first school in the world to go one-to-one with iPads.
“Every pupil in the school has an iPad which they treat as their own and which goes to lessons with them. We’re quite a small school, so any statistical analysis is difficult to do, but what we have seen is a much greater engagement in the classroom.”
However, he questioned whether opting for cheaper technology would ultimately be the most cost-effective decision for schools.
“The Chinese and Indian governments are making tablets for $100 (£63), but do they have the same quality of software? I also think the size of screen is important, and anything smaller than an iPad would be difficult to use. Smaller is not always better. You also have to remember that devices get superceded and cheaper devices are cheaper for a reason.”
According to ScotlandIS, the technology sector is under threat from a skills shortage and a “dwindling talent pipeline” from schools and universities. It says the number of school pupils taking computer-related courses in Scotland has dropped by 13 per cent since 2006, while the number looking to study computing at university has fallen by a third in the last decade.
The organisation wants to see computing embedded in the school curriculum from an early age as well as computing teachers being given access to Continuous Professional Development (CPD) to help continually refresh their skills.
Aberdeen Council confirmed it was examining ways to introduce more technology into classes. A spokeswoman said: “As part of that work we are looking at a range of devices and how to use mobile technology that can be utilised in classrooms to enhance education delivery. We are looking at the suitability of a number of devices, including smartphones, handheld devices and tablets, across a range of platforms and software providers.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said it was up to local authorities to decide how to introduce technology in their schools. “The Scottish Government, alongside the education community, is currently considering how best to maximise the use of technology across Scottish schools.”