The tablet computer is not new. It’s beenwith us for around 40 years, but only recently has it had an impact – and a big one – on learning and teaching in FE institutions.

The Association for Learning Technology’s (ALT) annual conference in Manchester (see picture) was a chance to debate its use and its future.

James Clay (right), the information, learning and technology manager at Gloucestershire College, asked questions such as what sort of learning activities and scenarios are making best use of the tablet? And, where will tablets take us?

“Virtually every educational institution I’ve been to in the past 12 months has been talking about tablets,” he said. “They are in classrooms, in libraries, in workrooms and in the hands of learners.”

When he later spoke to FE Week he criticised the unnecessary use of pilots and projects to test the device, arguing that learning providers often replicated research already carried out by another institution.

“The core reason why we use pilots is because we can’t afford a roll-out,” he said.

“I have to admit, I’m not a great fan of the word pilot or project, because it implies it’s going to end. To me, if you’re introducing a new technology it means that you’re changing the way that society works from then on. If you do a 12-month pilot, it implies that at the end of the 12 months you’re going to stop using it.”

To stress his point, Mr Clay used the example of a free e-book collection his college was given by JISC, an organisation that champions the use of digital technology in education.

Virtually every educational institution I’ve been to in the past 12 months has been talking about tablets”

“I remember talking to someone who asked which group we were going to pilot [the collection] with. I said ‘no, we’re going to roll it out across the whole college and we’re going to target everybody with the e-books’, because the research had already been done.”

Only a few people used e-books when the college introduced them, but the right structures were in place when they became part of mainstream and their use rocketed.

Mr Clay told delegates that it was key to think where technology would be in the next five to 10 years, rather than where it was now.

“You’ve got to focus away from the here and now,” he said. “Just because it’s popular, just because it’s mainstream, doesn’t mean that’s its the future, it means it’s already here.”

Mr Clay added that it was not about trying to predict new technological devices, but rather considering what was going to happen with society in the future.

In terms of FE, he believed that technology would remove the geographical boundaries between colleges.

“Colleges can be anywhere,” he said. “At the moment you go to your local college because it’s local, because geography is important.

“But in a few years’ time, when people have got these connections, geography will be less important. It will still be a factor, people will continue to go to their local college, but for many it will become less important.”

He said the “smarter colleges” were already looking into this. “They’re getting their name about in other locations, competing directly with local colleges. It’s about awareness-raising, so that when people think ‘I need to do a college course’, the one they think about is not their local one.

“We cannot afford to let learners fall down by the wayside.

“Technology is a solution to that problem, because it enables us to provide a much greater depth and richness of resources, different kind of learning experiences, and new ways of assessing learners that will allow us to ensure that our learners are successful.”

Mr Clay reinforced how tablets could help with a student’s learning: “It’s about personalisation.

“A learner who missed last week’s class or didn’t quite grasp the outcomes, can go on their device to go back to last week’s lecture notes and assignment materials.

“Likewise, the learner who read the textbook and thought ‘this is really easy’, is being directed to go forwards.”

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