Tablets for Fifth Graders? Teachers Try Different Tactics

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Schools across the country are increasingly starting to use mobile devices like tablets and smartphones as classroom tools. But some educators are still skeptical that devices will distract students as much or more than they enhance the learning environment. Because it's still fairly new, there have been few quantitative studies, but Project Tomorrow and Kajeet for Education recently completed a study of mobile learning among 136 fifth graders at Falconer Elementary School, a Chicago public school where 94 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch. The Making Learning Mobile Project study documents how four different fifth-grade teachers and their students used the tablets they were given both in class and at home once the school day was over.

The study finds that students used the tablets for more activities than even they expected. Though only 56 percent of students said they envisioned using the tablet for internet research before the study, that number turned out to be 93 percent after the study was completed. Only six percent of students thought they might use the tablet to create videos, when in fact 39 percent completed video projects. Other common uses included project work, educational games, homework, checking grades, communicating with teachers and classmates, receiving reminders, and organizing schoolwork.

Access to the internet at home improved greatly when students were allowed to bring a device home to investigate topics of their own interest. The Falconer students had significantly less access to high speed internet than a national average of their peers. While 54 percent of students in third-through-fifth grades nationwide report having access to high speed internet, only 39 percent of the fifth-grade Falconer students said they had access. Thirteen percent of students said their only access to the internet was at school.

The one-to-one experiment also appears to have made an impact on how families valued the internet. At the end of the school year, 53 percent of fifth grade Falconer students reported having access to high speed internet, up from 39 percent. “While it was not studied as part of this evaluation, it may be hypothesized that the students’ access to the Internet through their tablets when at home encouraged or prompted their parents to invest in high-speed connectivity to serve the entire family,” the report stated.


The students took full advantage of that access. Kajeet software on the devices tracked the websites students visited and when they were accessed and reported the following: “Three-quarters of the device requests for access to learning or academic websites occurred between 3 pm and 9 pm." The Chicago Public Schools district had requested that the devices be disabled after 9pm. The tracking software also found that students used the internet to further research topics that had been discussed in class once they got home. That doesn’t mean they didn’t also research their favorite celebrities and sports stars, but there’s clear evidence that mobile access extended the learning day.


Another common fear about mobile learning is that students won’t behave properly online or they will steal and damage devices. In this study of fifth graders none of those worst-case scenarios came true. Students took a digital citizenship course before taking the tablets home and 84 percent of students reported they were better digital citizens after the year with tablets than before.


How teachers chose to integrate the devices had impacts on learning, too. All four teachers in the study were excited about integrating tablets into instruction, but some were less confident with what strategies would work. As is common with a new classroom support, one teacher used the device for limited activities to test it out. She focused on educational games, calendar keeping, and grade checking. “Her limited usage of the devices is representative of how most elementary teachers approach the integration of new technology, by focusing on a few activities in a limited setting,” the report said.

Another teacher tried lots of different teaching tactics with the tablet, offering students a diverse array of activities. She assigned videos, used class polling apps, asked students to take notes on the devices, used educational games, checked grades, and used the calendar functions. The report notes that while it's understandable that teachers are cautious about jumping in too quickly with a new piece of technology, taking advantage of the tablet’s wide array of feature, functions, and applications provides a “more meaningful environment for student impact, both in terms of classroom activities as well as extending learning beyond the school day.”

“Students in the classes where the teachers were able to more deeply integrate the devices into instruction had a slightly stronger or different set of values associated with the device usage than students in classes where the integration was still limited,” the report said. Some students saw the device as mainly useful for internet research or as a self-organizational tool and didn't test its creative tools.

Another finding from the report is that teachers can’t be expected to immediately know how to achieve integration with mobile devices. They need professional development to understand how to formulate effective lessons and the time to experiment and discover value in the devices.

“To fully capitalize on the benefits of the mobile devices, teachers must redesign in many circumstances their lessons and instructional strategies,” the report said. “This is hard work that requires time and administrative support.” Part of that redesign process needs to center around clarifying instructional goals and defining how the technology helps teachers better reach them.