Hugh Reilly: Tablets no cure for education headache

ANNOYINGLY, my family and imaginary friend continue to regard me as a something of a technophobe. To be fair, my mobile phone is a somewhat retro item. Put it this way: when I take a picture using the camera function, I have to place a dark cloth over my head and hold a flash bulb aloft.

Blame for my fear of all things technological can be traced back to my days as a Sixties school pupil. This was a decade of revolutionary social change, what with student riots in Paris and strident British women winning the right to take out a bank loan without their husband’s permission.

In schools, writing with a stub of chalk onto slate had gone the way of using a stylus to scratch down homework on a wax sheet. An HB pencil symbolised the white heat of classroom technology.

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When the tip became blunt, the implement could be re-invigorated by placing it inside the mechanical sharpener atop the teacher’s desk. Turning the handle should have been a foolproof activity but, as I embarrassingly recall, my over-enthusiastic handle-twirling often resulted in a seriously whittled-down pencil that would have looked tiny even in the hands of a four weeks premature baby.

Of course, my shame could have been avoided had school managers moved ahead of the curve and bought some ballpoint pens, patented in 1938 by Laszlo Biro, but the lead-pencil Luddites would not countenance such a new-fangled scribing tool.

Textbooks were invariably old. On these yellow pages, our fingers did the walking as we read aloud, often chorally. Most tattered books had pages missing, evidence of either incompetent book-binding or, more likely, a desperate kid’s attempt to overcome the problem created by the chronic lack of toilet paper.

Thankfully, schools today have embraced all things modern. In my final year of teaching, I was the grateful recipient of a Smartboard, a wonderful teaching resource that greatly enhanced the learning experience for children. Electronic pupil registration and reporting systems eased Sir’s workload, while increased access to computer rooms afforded students opportunities for self-learning.

Last week, the Scottish Government announced it would explore the use of tablet computers, such as iPads, in the classroom. The national body, Education Scotland, will investigate the worth of these devices.

In this age of austerity, I can save Education Scotland a shedload of money by stating that the notion of iPads becoming commonplace in the classroom is as likely as Johann Lamont ditching her petty partisan politics and sincerely praising the SNP’s minimum pricing policy on alcohol.

iPads are expensive and our education minister is Mike Russell, not Mark Zuckerberg. Further, there are practical problems with tablet computers. First, they require wi-fi access. Given the paucity of a school’s budget, we can reasonably assume that internet provision will be the low-bandwidth type that leads to the user staring mindlessly at an on-screen spinning circle.

While adults are stoically prepared to wait for the mini-computer to function properly, deferred gratification is something of an alien concept to teenagers. Hence, the touch-screen quickly becomes the bash-screen as frustrated young people endeavour to make the computer processor work just that little bit more efficiently.

In a doomsday scenario, IT gadgetry suddenly infected with viruses could force Sir to do something unthinkable, ie: talk to the children and pass on his expert knowledge of the subject he studied for four years at university.

The history of kitting out kids with IT hardware is grim. In recent memory, Glasgow council issued a laptop to every S1 pupil in a deprived school in the north of the city. Naturally, on the day of its launch, local politicians and other decision-makers deemed the initiative to be a resounding success. Soon, however, teething problems arose, largely connected to the re-set value of the merchandise.

Unsurprisingly, rather than being rolled out, the scheme was quietly rolled up and unceremoniously dumped in the recycling bin.

Carrying a lightweight iPad to class would be popular with kids, especially those youngsters who wish to avoid curvature of the spine caused by 12 years of yomping to school with a bag that’s bursting with heavy textbooks. That it’s not going to happen is written in tablets of stone.