"The iPad helps me complete my school projects faster", says Ameenah Qutubuddin, an 8th standard student of Universal School Tardeo. Located in an upscale locality of Mumbai, this is one among many schools across the country that have adopted Apple products as learning tools. I recently paid a visit to this institution to see for myself if this new approach towards learning is really making things better for students. To start with, here is a brief introduction about the school.
Established more than 40 years ago, Universal School is a modern educational institution. The fully air-conditioned building with spacious classrooms, well-equipped science labs, an e-library, and play area makes this an ideal learning environment. The school has embraced technology in a big way through collaborations with Apple, Google, and Espresso. In fact, this is India's first 1:1 All-Apple School, where pupils are provided with age-appropriate Apple computing devices (iPod \ iPad \ MacBook). Having introduced the school, let us find out how it deploys these devices as learning aids. We will try to determine whether they are really effective or just a status symbol.
I spoke to the Head of Administration of the school, Shamashree Sen, regarding the initiative. The first question I asked was about how the school uses Apple devices to make learning better. "Students find it better to learn using the interactive medium provided by these devices, so it is definitely better than before. They have shown a more enthusiastic response to this new way of learning", she replied.
I wanted to know the meaning of the term "1:1 All-Apple", to which she explained, "It means that each student is given a device so that they don't have to share it. A student can do all he \ she wants with the device, without getting disturbed by another".
When parents think about these devices, they fear that kids will misuse them for playing games and wasting time. However, Sen assured me that the devices in Universal had only educational applications. Even internet access, which is available throughout the premises, is restricted by means of a firewall, thus blocking websites such as Facebook. The school does not use GSM devices such as the iPhone or the 3G version of the iPad 2 so that students don't use mobile phones in the school.
The institution follows the syllabus prescribed by Cambridge University, and the gadgets being used are in accordance with its policies. Therefore, students are not required to put in extra time with the new learning method. While they still need conventional books, the burden is lesser than what they were required to carry before.
iOS Vs Android
Why not use Android devices such as the Aakash tablet, which is available at a fraction of the cost? Even if performance is an issue, there are other Android tablets available at less than a third of the iPad's price. After all, Universal has ties with Google as well. Rohit Tikmany, Director and COO of Universal Education Group clarifies, "We did not look at the devices from the Apple or Google Android point of view. Rather, we looked at how well-supported they are via the existing ecosystem and how easy they are to use. Apple devices definitely have an advantage in those aspects".
I asked whether the school gave the devices to students or were they required to procure them. He replied, "The school provides all the devices to the students during the duration of their classes. Students are not required to purchase them". This is certainly a welcome change from what we had earlier reported about Podar School in Mumbai.
iTunes U (iTunes University) is Apple's powerful online distribution system for everything related to education. To my question about whether Universal uses it, the reply was in the negative. Since this is only the first academic year in this new experiment, the school might make use of iTunes U in the future for higher classes.
I then took a stroll to one of the classrooms, where a teaching session was in progress. The first was a playschool grade class, and the device in use was the iPod touch. The tiny tots did appear to be engrossed, using their iPods to play various games that honed their skills.
The teacher then proceeded to demonstrate what exactly the kids are taught using the iPod touch.
Children learn to recognise colours, shapes, and numbers in an easy to understand and graphical manner. They also learn about things such as animals, vegetables, and even scribble on the iPod touch just like they would on paper - only that no paper is wasted here.
The teacher stated that kids seemed to pay more attention to tasks on these devices and showed a higher level of engagement, as well as more willingness to learn. The main reason is that the process is highly interactive, which is not possible with traditional textbooks. Currently, a host of educational apps are being developed to help make learning more enjoyable and exciting for the toddlers.
In the higher grades, students use iPads and MacBook Airs. These devices are more relevant to older school kids because they now need larger screens.
I decided to quiz a few students to get their take on this learning method. The children seemed to be very upbeat about the whole thing. I asked them what they like the most about this new way of learning and found that it was the interactivity and the ease of learning that appealed the most. Unsurprisingly, all of the students approved of this method.
Apple on its part is also doing its bit, as I learnt from Tikmany. The company has helped train representative teachers from each affiliated school via trainers sourced from Apple's UK operations. These trained teachers then share their knowledge with the rest of the faculty. Educational app developers are also regularly in direct contact with the schools to help test their apps or provide them at discounted rates. However, Apple has been unable to provide discounts on its products to the school. Before you jump to conclusions, it must be clarified that this is not an India-only policy, but due to the current economic setbacks suffered by the company globally. Apple's volume licensing is also not available for India, which would otherwise have saved a lot of money. Currently, the school is required to pay for the software and apps per unit, which is more than the cost of a volume licence.
According to a recent survey of educational technology directors in the US, all were in the process of testing the deployment of iPads in their schools, while none were considering Android tablets. More than a third expected to deploy one tablet per student. Interestingly, none of these schools had one PC per student. On an average, they expressed a rather modest expectation of a tablet for every 6 students in the next 5 years. Obviously, the situation in Indian schools is nowhere near those in the US.
Currently, the hindrance in implementing this educational system is the high initial investment, which is inevitably passed on to the students. In the case of Universal School, the annual fees per child is a whopping Rs 2.5 lakhs for the 1:1 Apple programme, while in schools with shared devices, it is still at a steep Rs 40,000. This educational initiative will gain wider acceptance if Apple starts selling its products at special discounted rates to schools, and introduces volume licensing programmes as it does in the US.
Sceptics will certainly be alarmed at handing over such expensive gizmos to kids at such a young age and "spoiling" them. They were doubtless alarmed in a similar manner over a decade ago, when computers were first introduced in schools. It is prudent to note that these devices only serve as tools to speed up the learning process in a fun way.
While paper books will retain their importance and can never be completely replaced by their electronic counterparts, I am fairly convinced that this new method of education is the way to go. Hopefully, we will see more educational institutions embrace this new way of learning - and not necessarily on Apple's platform!