There's been a lot of talk lately about two things that are going on in primary schools at the moment. Synthetic Phonics, which is the government prescribed method of teaching kids to read and write, and iPads, which are starting to play an important role in schools and learning.
The coverage of both subjects can be mixed. The use of iPads in schools is seen by some as being elitist and an unbearable expense for lower income families. And the use of phonics has been criticised because some feel it can hold back more advanced students.
As a developer of a leading Phonics app that's being widely used in primary schools both in the UK and across North America, I've got a somewhat different view of both issues. Not because I'm biased, which perhaps I am. But because of the research I have undertaken over the five years I've been in the Apps business, and the changes I've had the privilege of witnessing.
The first issue I'd like to put to rest is that of tablet based learning. The worry that iPads in schools are in danger of creating a digital divide between that haves and have-nots is only part of the issue. It's not just the rich parents that are using apps like mine to get their kids reading even before they get to year one. With more than half the phones in the UK being smart phones, Apps like mine are available to lower income families. But it's the families that are actively engaged in helping their children learn that are getting ahead of the others. That means poor kids with engaged parents can do every bit as well and probably better than rich kids with parents that are uninterested in the child's development.
Of course there are engaged parents that don't have iPhones or iPads, and that where iPads in schools comes in. If each child has access to an iPad, and phonics software, they can learn at their own pace using the very latest technology. The worry that advanced children are held back by using phonics when they can already read reasonably well misses an important detail. That's because software like PocketPhonics has the advantage of quickly assessing a child's ability, and it tailors the lesson (which incidentally looks a lot like a game to a child) to that child's ability. So advanced children get more advanced letters and sounds, and children just starting out are given more basic lessons.
The beauty of the system is that the lessons which are automatically tailored for each child means everybody learns what they need to learn, without having to work to the average pace of the class. This is something that even the very best teachers can't offer. If the same lesson is taught to a whole class, advanced pupils get bored, or the less able kids get left behind.
The solution to this is to put as many iPads in primary schools as possible, as quickly as possible. The danger of a digital divide is solved by this approach, not exacerbated. Of course funding is an issue, but there is a solution to that too.
The coalition government introduced something called the Pupil Premium to tackle the problem of children from less well off backgrounds in school. Over the next year schools will be allocated £900 for every pupil considered to be disadvantaged. It potentially provides schools with a ready source of funds to close the digital divide. The rules for this allow the things purchased with the Pupil Premium money can be used by other children too. So it could in theory be used to kit out whole classes with iPads, and the supporting software.
When this happens, and it is already a well advanced strategy in the United States, the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots will be closed, and all children can advance at their own pace. In my opinion this cannot happen too soon.