Sara Hennessy

Tablets in schools: Tools for learning or tantalising toys?

Sara Hennessy Reader in Teacher Development and Pedagogical Innovation University of Cambridge Tuesday 21 June 2016

Tablets are coming to a school near you. Actually, they’re probably there already. In the UK alone, around ¾ of schools were using tablets in 2015, for over half of lesson time, according to the latest BESA survey. Exponential growth continues. Other countries are scrambling onto the bandwagon. But why? Does tablet use actually support children’s learning or are they the latest shiny tool to infiltrate classrooms? Purchasing rationales are extraordinarily vague. Teachers have asked me to ‘evaluate’ their school’s iPad initiative after procuring machines without any idea of how/why they’ll be used. Having seen some shocking under-utilisation and prosaic use of expensive kit in schools (and HE!), this tablet influx seems – depressingly – to risk repeating past mistakes in the ‘edtech’ arena. The UK is the world leader in edtech – have we learned any lessons (and shared them with other countries)? What does the research say?

My colleagues and I conducted a critical systematic literature review to determine if, when, and how using tablets impacts on learning outcomes, and what factors contribute. The literature was sparse and fragmented; much research focuses on motivational rather than learning gains and many studies were small-scale and lacked rigour according to our quality criteria. Some didn’t describe learners’ actual activities! 103 studies found were whittled down to only 23 eligible ones – spanning 10 countries, with diverse scope, methodology, purpose, frequency and mode of use.

The outcomes were mixed. 16 studies reported positive learning outcomes, especially in science, social studies, mathematics, and for students with special needs. Five studies found no differences. Two studies reported a negative impact: one on reading comprehension, the other on creativity and writing skills with tablets used collaboratively. There was some evidence for learner-centred approaches emerging. Supportive features included user-friendliness, integrating multiple features within one device (also potentially distracting), easy customisation, support for inclusion, availability and portability (‘anywhere, anytime learning’ – releasing the shackles of the school VLE), and the touchscreen providing vivid multimedia representations.

What’s the added value of tablets over other mobile technologies? Surprisingly, many studies didn’t explore unique features like the accelerometer and GPS sensors. One notable exception is MotionMath, an iPad fractions game: physically tilting the device (using the accelerometer) directs a falling star to the correct place on a number line. Student understanding of relationships between fractions, proportions, and percentages improved after only a week.

Should tablets be an individual or shared device – is One Tablet Per Child best? Assumptions are rarely warranted by research comparing modes of use. Some students prefer having their “own” tablets, yet groupwork with shared tablets can produce better quality joint outcomes, e.g. concept maps; touchscreens facilitate more equitable participation. In low-resourced contexts like sub-Saharan Africa, sharing machines is necessary and highly productive, as we’ve observed ourselves.

Obstacles to learning with tablets include limited content availability and interactivity, wireless infrastructure and professional development opportunities. In my experience, the latter are paramount. It’s quite obvious that simply introducing new technology doesn’t change pedagogy, yet it’s astonishing how many edtech initiatives – and policymakers globally – still believe it will. Research has clear implications for preparing educators to use new technologies purposefully. Tablets have an intuitive interface so informal approaches may work best, but also important are peer support, time, trial-and-error in a safe space or alongside fearless children, and self-paced learning: some teachers never recovered from the trauma of having their ordinary whiteboard forcibly removed and replaced by an alien interactive board. Demonstrating how to operate it didn’t suffice.

What next? Experts argue that the latest hybrid tablet-cum-laptop devices with physical keyboard offer far more flexibility and slash numbers needed. Pedagogy remains crucial. Teachers typically use a narrow set of m-learning pedagogies, in face-to-face settings. Burden and Kearney (2016) helpfully illustrate four future scenarios varying along dimensions of learner agency and collaboration. These could encourage educators to exploit m-learning in new ways, especially linking different learning contexts seamlessly within/beyond the classroom. Rare innovations included students using Twitter to share experiments with the wider world. Posting real questions to outside experts takes learning beyond passively consuming expertise. Overall, findings look promising but far more in-depth, systematic and rigorous research is needed, particularly on sustained tablet use in authentic settings. And hopefully schools will think more carefully about their needs before shopping.



Burden. K. & Kearney, M. (2016). Future Scenarios for Mobile Science Learning. Research in Science Education.

Haßler, B., Major, L., & Hennessy, S. (2015). Tablet use in schools: A critical review of the evidence for learning outcomes. Journal of Computer-Assisted Learning. 32 (2), 139-156.      

Dr Sara Hennessy is a Reader in Teacher Development and Pedagogical Innovation in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. She has been researching and publishing in the area of educational technology for around 30 years. Much of her work focuses on school-based professional development of teachers in using classroom technologies more effectively to support subject teaching and learning. Recent work explores the potential of using technology to support subject learning, critical thinking and inquiry through classroom dialogue, and it produces multimedia professional development resources. Technologies explored include interactive whiteboards/display screens and mobile devices. Some of her research is focused on improving the quality of learning and teaching in sub-Saharan Africa through a professional learning programme introducing interactive pedagogy and Open Educational Resources.