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Early hiccups for 'Tablets in Schools'

Published:Sunday | December 14, 2014 | 12:00 AMRyon Jones
JIS photo Minister of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, Phillip Paulwell (2nd left), hands over a tablet to Cambridge High School student, Stacia Thompson (2nd right), and her mother, Stacy-Ann Pryce (right), at the distribution exercise under the Tablets in Schools pilot project held last week. Sharing the moment at left is acting principal of the school, Marcia Mungo.
JIS photo Students of Cambridge High School in St James and their parents, benefit from an orientation session conducted by personnel from e-Learning Company and Innovative Corporate Solutions, during the distribution of tablet computers at the school last week.

It might be a working Christmas for members of e-Learning Jamaica Company Limited and the Ministry of Education as they seek to ease the teething pains affecting the six-month-old Tablets in Schools Pilot Project.

Though hailed as a relative success since its roll-out, the programme is experiencing early struggles that participating schools are desperate to see fixed. At the top of the list is greater regulation of the sites the students are able to visit, as this is said to be resulting in a high degree of distraction within the schools.

"We were extremely happy to know that we got such devices, but it has caused some negative things to happen," said acting principal of St James High, Denzil Reid.

"Because the students have the tablets now they don't want to go to class as before, because they want to hide away to use it. I can't even say for negative things because we haven't found anybody visiting those negative or undesirable sites, so to speak, because they always run when you are coming," added Reid.

Three students of St James High have already lost their tablets, two as a result of theft and the third through carelessness.

limited control over sites

Vinroy Harrison, principal of Central High School in Clarendon, also voiced concerns about the limited control over the sites the students are able to visit.

"It can be a bit of a distraction. Because there is not a central control system, so it can be a bit chaotic," said Harrison. "At times you will not have all the students conforming and so you have some of them who will be on different sites, because the teacher cannot totally manipulate all the gadgets at the same time."

The agency responsible for implementing the programme, e-Learning Jamaica, which works in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the Universal Service Fund, has acknowledged receiving some complaints about the project, but said early hiccups were anticipated.

"We expected challenges in spite of whatever measures taken since we are dealing with 'digital natives' who have been waiting, knowing or unknowingly, for a challenge in the world of technology and so we are not surprised at what the experiences are so far," e-learning Jamaica said in an emailed response to The Sunday Gleaner.

Public relations officer at e-Learning Jamaica, Lorna Rowe, said steps that have been taken to better control website access.

"A secure browser which denies access to inappropriate categories of websites is installed as the default browser on each tablet. We recognise that we will have to develop a strategy to help our students to be responsible digital citizens who do not need to be monitored as to what they view, and so we realise with greater education, this will become less of a problem," said Rowe.

Some of the other complaints that e-Learning Jamaica has received include the memory partition dedicated to applications, in some instances, being inadequate; the cases provided by one of the vendors do not provide adequate protection from accidental damage during normal use; restrictions to applications and websites are considered to be too conservative in some instances; and students being unable to log in after changing their passwords.

While Reid has lauded the impact of the devices in the classroom, he, however, confessed that the "level of anticipation with how far it could help us hasn't really materialised because the distraction factor is very high"; with the volume of persons who need to be connected to the wireless also cited as another issue.

"The system cannot accommodate our population, which is over 2,000 students; because if half of that is on the system, you know it is going to cause a breakdown in the system. So we have that challenge in terms of Internet use and some of them have their cell phones running simultaneously with the tablets," Reid said.

redesign of the classrooms

According to Harrison, teachers and students at his institution are excited about the introduction of the devices, with the latter showing more interest in class work, as they even do work on their own. He is, however, calling for a redesign of the classrooms.

"There are times when the device needs charging and there are not enough outlets to accommodate that, therefore, the classroom should be reconfigured to take that into account."

"The WiFi network that is currently in place in all the schools is an interim solution which is not able to satisfy the full demand for Internet access. This interim measure is only awaiting the permanent solution which is being procured by USF (Universal Service Fund) who has this responsibility," e-Learning Jamaica explained.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Education said it is optimistic about the impact of the $1.4 billion programme.

With approximately 17,000 students in 27 institutions having received devices under the pilot project to date, Dr Grace McLean, chief education officer in the ministry, said it is satisfied with how the programme has been progressing.

"The Tablets in Schools programme has so far seen early signs of success in the institutions," said McLean.

"There is a high level of enthusiasm and engagement on the part of both teachers and students. Students have even been turning up at schools on Saturdays and Sundays just to access WiFi to use the tablets. The boys especially are less disruptive and there seem to be less behavioural problems."

A comprehensive evaluation is currently being done of the programme to assess the early successes and to provide tangible data, declared McLean.

Minister of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining Phillip Paulwell late last week reported that 18,000 of the targeted 25,000 tablet computers will be delivered to students before the end of the Christmas school term on December 18.

The remaining 7,000 devices will be distributed during the early weeks of the Easter term in 2015.