Local News
5:02 pm
Tue June 3, 2014

Using Tablets To Teach—Not Distract—In The Classroom

Industry analysts predict that schools will purchase 3.5 million tablets by year’s end. How is this changing the classroom? WGBH’s innovation reporter Cristina Quinn takes a look at a digital platform that is helping teachers gauge student learning on the fly.

Eighth graders filter into English class at Oak Middle School in Shrewsbury. Many of them have a smartphone in one hand and a copy of a Midsummer Night’s Dream in the other.

Teacher Kate Lewis doesn’t tell them to put away their phones. Instead, she instructs them to take out their devices. Using their phones or tablets, the students log on and take the quiz using to a free online platform called Socrative, which was created by a startup of teachers and engineers based in Cambridge. 

Students in English class at Oak Middle School in Shrewsbury use tablets to answer teacher questions.
Students in English class at Oak Middle School in Shrewsbury use tablets to answer teacher questions.
Credit WGBH

As the students quietly type away their answers on touch screens, Lewis monitors how fast they answer questions and which ones they’re getting right-- and wrong. By the time the quiz is over, Lewis knows if her students understand the material. In this case, a lot of them haven’t quite figured out the difference between personification and metaphor.

Lewis says using Socrative does more than save time from grading quizzes at home.

“I can deal with a problem a lot faster than before and it also allows me to change my instruction based on the student’s needs,” she said.

About 750,000 teachers around the world are using Socrative, whether it’s for taking polls, taking quizzes or conducting brainstorm sessions. The concept has caught on fast and more companies are developing similar programs as more students BYOD—or bring your own device.

Sue Cusack, an assistant professor of educational technology at Lesley University, argues the concept isn’t all that innovative.

Because you’ve always had some level of being able to do this, and it was called raise your hand,” Cusack said. “The trick is how do you structure your probes in a way that gets at critical thinking instead of the usual – ‘What date was it? What’s the right answer?’ That, I think, is the challenge. Polling kids has been around for a while and it’s really not a new thing.”

What is new is the unprecedented access to technology kids have today. And both Cusack and Lewis at Oak Middle School agree that teaching kids how to use programs like Socrative shows them how to be responsible digital citizens.

“So, not just going on and posting what they ate for lunch or what they got at the mall, but how to access information and how to use it in a more mature way to grow their knowledge,” Lewis said.

And for a generation that has grown up in the age of the Google search, this kind of instant feedback is a no-brainer for 8th graders Nolan Gericke and Tori Flint.

When we’re with the teacher, we always have these questions that we want to ask them, how did we do on the test? Questions that we had that we couldn’t answer on the test but we know instantly instead of waiting ‘til the next day,” Gericke said.

“There’s a better way of keeping track of everything ‘cause if you write all your notes on paper but leave it at school, you don’t have the notes. But if it’s on your own personal device, you don’t forget it … because you always have your phone on you,” Flint said.

That’s a line you won’t find in a Midsummer Night’s Dream—or any Shakespearean text, but a theme that nonetheless reflects the human condition.

Lesley University professor Sue Cusack talked about how technology is transforming the classroom on Greater Boston: