Taking the Tablets

Taking the Tablets

Has a revolution in teaching and learning finally arrived?

Ever since I founded the MirandaNet Fellowship1 in 1992 our community has been expecting a revolution in teaching and learning resulting from the impact of digital technologies in schools. Over the years MirandaNet has grown from fifteen teachers in England who saw themselves as thought leaders in education innovation to one thousand members in eighty countries. Our online and face to face debates and our members’ publications on our website indicate that the exponential increase in the use of technology is a global phenomenon.

Our hopes for a revolution on teaching and learning strengthened in 1997 when the UK government introduced the National Learning Grid: the first Internet service for education in the world. However, IMG_0307unlike the workplace that has been transformed by technology, most classrooms have continued to look much the same for the last 100 years.

 Teachers who are reluctant to use technology

MirandaNet Fellows investigated the reasons for the slow pace of change about five years ago2. The teachers who were interviewed then had been nominated by their peers as excellent practitioners. These professionals were often able to use the desktop computers at home but were reluctant to use them in the classroom. We found they had good reasons. They questioned the design of some learning products: inappropriate sounds and tasteless animations diminished the calm atmosphere of learning they were trying to create. They found that Internet access was not always reliable and that, when computers in network rooms did not work, the rhythm of the lesson was interrupted. Overall these reluctant teachers were sensitive about gimmickry and about money being spent on technologies for their ‘wow’ appeal rather than because their educational value was proven. These were fair professional judgements – but they were mostly focused on the challenges of the network room and the software available there.

 A tipping point in education innovation

Now a tipping point has been reached in educational technology innovation. Why? Well, for the last twenty years keeping the school networks and computer rooms functioning has absorbed staff energy, consumed money and put control in the hands of the network manager. In contrast, Fellows are now observing a sudden change in practice because personal tablets and smart phones have put powerful and affordable tools in teachers’ personal control, 24/7. Now that this technology is smoother, faster and more intuitive, its uses in everyday life have stimulated a much wider professional understanding about how this technology might be used in the classroom and at home3

David Fuller, a MirandaNet Fellow, has published an action research study about the use of tablets at Fonthill Foundation schools in Brighton4. When the tablets were first purchased, David worked closely with the teachers to translate the potential of a tablet into classroom practice. He also harnessed the students’ empathy with this technology – a valuable source of insight for teachers. David advocates allowing students to experiment, share and, most importantly, to reflect on the potential the technology offers them. For example he describes students writing their own books,

“For the final section of the lesson, they passed on their book to a colleague who completed audio or video feedback on what they thought about their book for the author. This proved really useful encouragement for the SEN children who attended the session”.

In the Fonthill schools new kinds of learning are taking place, whereas at Warden Park School in West Sussex, Dai Thomas, another MirandaNet Fellow, has planned a slow revolution in learning through well-organized trials of tablets5. His study emphasises an emerging pedagogical practice called Flipped Learning . The idea is to “flip” the responsibility of learning to pupils so that the teacher becomes more of a facilitator. This model explores a different way of using physical and virtual space from traditional approaches: students are encouraged to research a topic outside the classroom now that they have significant resources at their finger-tips through safe use of the internet. Students also view instructional videos at home and then debate what they have learnt at school where the teacher can pick up the misconceptions and encourage inspiration. Students return to the classroom to collaborate, coach, and instruct each other and debate with their peers and their teachers. Tablet technology also underpins the opportunity for small groups or individuals to present strategies and solutions to help others. Enthusiasts maintain that students’ understanding is internalised and reinforced.

 Flipped Learning

Dai’s study indicates that clear leadership is essential to make Flipped Learning work and anticipate challenges. Reasonable reflection time and professional development space is also important but because teachers do have to change their teaching style from information transmission. Some advice that emerges from the first eighteen months of this project is:

  • Help teachers view positively the move to use tablets by starting with personal administrative tasks: for example registration and email on the move; note taking; and resource collection.
  • Encourage teachers to enlist pupils to help them as pupils welcome opportunities to help the teachers understand the tablets
  • Debate the wider and broader aims of education within the staff. At some point the whole staff will want to consider whether they are willing to adjust the theoretical underpinning that informs their professional life and adjust school policies on teaching and learning on the evidence of promoting tablets for all.
  • Communicate sympathetically with parents and staff members who are concerned about league tables and academic rigour because the current assessment environment does not encourage the changes in teaching and learning that are pursued in this project.

Of course this revolution in the ownership of personal devices is already causing dissent from some teachers and researchers. For example, a research report that is being hotly contested on the debating channel, MirandaLink, appears to demonstrate that in schools where mobile phones are banned achievement scores improve7. Even if the methodology is flawed note must be taken. Enthusiastic innovators bring in mobile devices must work with all the teachers and parents on a code of conduct that everyone can sign up to.

Professor Mike Sharples summed up the overall MirandaLink consensus that schools have a responsibility to harness the power of mobile devices for learning. “To harness the power of mobile devices for learning is just one small way to help them ‘navigate life’ and develop valued and transferable skills. The key is not to let phones rule in school, but to put them into their proper place alongside the other equipment for learning, and to encourage responsible and safe use.8.

Not a revolution then but thoughtful changes in practice designed to prepare pupils for the future.


  1. The Mirandanet Fellowship is a community of practice that is free to join mirandanet.ac.uk
  2. A section about teachers who are reluctant to use technologies in the classroom can be found in this report http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/1769/
  3. MirandaNet Fellows observations about using learning technologies /knowledgehub/learning-observations/
  4. David Fuller’s observations on the use of tablets in the Fonthill schools in Brighton /about-associates/associates-research/pop-up-classroom/
  5. Three studies about Flipped Learning including Dai Thomas’ description of how he developed a Flipped Learning project at Warden Park School West Sussex. /knowledgehub/learning-observations/flipped-learning/
  6. MirandaNet associates, Tablet Academy, run course for schools about using tablets creatively in schools (/associates/ )
  7. Beland, L and Murphy R, 2015. Technology, Distraction & Student Performance. CEP Discussion Paper #1350. Centre for Economic Performance. Available at: cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/dp1350.pdf
  8. MirandaLink post 30 June 2015