Nurturing Digital Skills with Tablets in Schools
Understanding the need for expanding digital access in the country from an early age, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining (MSTEM) in Jamaica developed the Tablets in Schools program to “improve the educational levels of its citizenry and move towards a fully connected and knowledge-based society”.
The initiative, which is carrying on its one-year pilot through this academic year, is being implemented by e-LJam (E-Learning Jamaica Limited), a MOE agency responsible for the telecommunications portfolio. The one-year pilot will be carried out in 38 educational institutions and will see the distribution of tablets to benefit 25,000 students and 1,200 teachers, including a special education institution. The initiative also involves the distribution of computers and multimedia devices, including interactive whiteboards/projectors, scanners and printers to pre-primary and primary schools. This is in addition to the installation of Wi-Fi at all 38 educational institutions, which is implemented by the Universal Service Fund, a government-funded agency in charge of facilitating internet access in the island by deploying broadband services in strategic locations such as schools, public libraries, post offices and other institutions.
Following a review of the pilot, Tablets in Schools will be rolled out across the island, targeting 600,000 students and teachers. By that point, the plan is for the government to share the cost of the tablets with parents. The government would supply free access to content, including ebooks and learning applications.
The first step of the program was to provide training for the teachers, both in incorporating tablets into their lessons and in using ICTs for managing their classes and students. This was a key aspect for starting the initiative, as noticed by Sheldon Richards, principal of a primary school in Kingston:
“Over 50% of my staff is over 45 years old, and about 30% are over 60… a number of teachers had expressed fears in using such technology, but I am quite impressed to see that these teachers are now communicating through emails. Even the way grades are taken and sent to the office, it’s no longer long sheets of paper, handwritten… it is now Excel spreadsheets… so it is being used, and the teachers are quite excited.”
In addition to providing the tablets and training teachers, the government also invested in providing electronic content for the tablet computers for the subject areas of Mathematics, English Language, and the Sciences from the lower primary to the secondary level.
The tablets started rolling out in schools in July 2014, and by November, STEM Minister Phillip Paulwell declared high satisfaction with the program:
“The success so far is good. We have seen students, especially the boys, giving up lunch time and recess (to focus more in their lessons); (and) we’re seeing, already, students reading improving, (while) attendance records have shot up. Students are coming to school because the computer now provides a means of learning that is interesting and it motivates them to go and find out things.”
The Tablets in Schools program was launched with a campaign explaining students and parents the importance of caring for the devices and using them properly. In that vein, the Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, cautioned students against using the tablets to post on YouTube and other social media sites, explaining that the devices “are for educational purposes; nothing else”. This line of thinking about the devices, however, differs among officials, as both the STEM Minister and e-LJam CEO, Avrill Crawford, later declared that if students show additional technical skills by either hacking the device or breaching privacy barriers, they shouldn’t be punished, but “selected for advanced training”.
In December, the government declared that it would set aside money to reward the five schools that showed the greatest academic improvements from utilization of the tablet computers. Money would also be set aside for a competition in which a boy or girl who shows exceptional skills with the tablet can be rewarded personally.
Visit the Tablets in Schools website for more information.