iPad-powered learning as students and schools embrace new technology

New technology is more integrated into the classroom than ever, as educators and industry insiders hope that students, and females in particular, can both benefit from and help to build the digital future. But not everyone is ready to embrace this vision.

Like many students, Tasnim Al Khaldi could often be found glued to a smartphone or computer screen while she was in school.

But this software engineering major, who graduated from Al Ain University of Science and Technology last year, did not just tap apps and surf the internet for pure entertainment. She and a classmate designed, programmed and edited an app - iMonitor - that tracks the speed of young drivers then sends an SMS to their parents whenever they pass the limit. The software programme was created for mobiles made by Nokia, the phone maker that hosted a national contest for app developers last year and awarded iMonitor second place overall.

"I'm working on one for Windows Phones," says Ms Al Khaldi. "I'm still a beginner but hopefully I'll be able to deliver something useful."

Whether teachers like it or not, digital devices have proliferated in classrooms across the Emirates and around the world. Technologies ranging from pint-sized microchips embedded in student ID cards to mobile phones and tablets are becoming inextricably linked with the school experience.

Some students are also now developing mobile apps right inside the classroom.

"As technologies emerge, many schools have embraced them," says Kamy Akhavan, the president of ProCon.org, a nonprofit research organisation based in California.

"Look at copy machines, calculators, overhead projectors, VCRs, computer labs, Web-based educational support, and, yes, even handheld devices like tablets," he adds.

Popular consumer electronics, including Apple's iPad, have ushered in changes to how students learn. A majority of university students in the United States now prefer reading digital books rather than print-based texts.

Tablet ownership among this group, combined with high school seniors who intend to go to college, more than tripled between 2011 and last year, according to a survey commissioned by the Pearson Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes literacy and learning.

Younger, primary school students are increasingly being targeted with digital content - much of which is designed to boost their learning experience and foster deeper engagement.

For instance, certain electronic books for this age group come embedded with videos and quizzes. These kinds of interactive features helped to boost the sales of children's e-books in the United Kingdom to 2.6 million during the first half of last year, which was more than double that of the same period in 2011, according to data from the Publishers Association.

Young students are also going online via smartphones to complete more of their class work. Some are allowed to use mobiles for basic functions, such as a calculator, or to watch videos about solving maths problems.

Others can utilise a phone's camera to scan so-called quick response codes that virtually link to vocabulary or reading sites.

Even run-of-the-mill class field trips are becoming digitally enhanced. At a museum exhibit in Toronto, elementary school kids can roam under dinosaurs while holding up an iPad with an "augmented reality" app.

It layers virtual experiences over the real environment to seemingly bring dinosaurs to life, says the Royal Ontario Museum.

There is another reason for the educational push to teach more young students with technology: a growing number of toddlers and even infants are now swiping their tiny fingers across tablet screens.

Some product developers say this change presents an opportunity to increasingly market their wares to kids, and little girls in particular, while getting them more familiar with technical education. In other words: use technology to teach kids about this sector, in hopes they will join it later down the road.

A couple of female engineering graduate students from Stanford University wished more women were in upper level maths and science classes, so they created a toy company called Maykah with a flagship line of products known as Roominate. These US$59 (Dh216) to $225 construction kits are designed to help six- to 10-year-old girls build and wire their own customised, interactive room or home - complete with circuit components that power a fan or light.

"Early opportunities to be inspired and encouraged will help girls welcome their potential as tomorrow's technology innovators," Roominate says.

Debbie Sterling, another engineer from Stanford, founded the toy company GoldieBlox last year to teach basic engineering principles to young girls. While her main $30 kit shows how to create structures out of blocks, cranks, axles and washers on a pegboard through a storybook, it comes with free e-book downloads for the iPhone and iPad with animation and tutorial videos for those too young to read. More than $285,000 has been raised via Kickstarter.com, a crowdfunding site, to back the creation of this toy.

Among older students, there has been a push to grow the number of female app developers, in part, by providing better access to technology.

Nokia, for one, has offered teaching material and its mobiles to students from Sharjah Women's College - Higher Colleges of Technology. Female students from Zayed University in Dubai also received technical training on developing mobile apps for the competition in which Ms Al Khaldi ultimately finished runner-up.

"We have witnessed a notable increase in the number of females engaging in developer-related activities in the Middle East," says Ahmed Arab, the developer outreach manager for Nokia in the UAE. "Not only [are] females more active in app development, but they do stand out with their creativity and quality of work."

At the same time, there has been something of a backlash against technological inclusion in schools.

Some teachers or administrators have banned devices from the classroom. And while e-books continue to gain in popularity among elementary students, many of the best-selling ones are based on movies that seem to be better designed for watching rather than reading content, critics have argued.

Students have not always been fans of the high-tech changes either.

One female high school student in the US recently refused to carry around a school-issued ID card that could track her location - and every other student's position - within the academy through a microchip. The student, who was threatened with expulsion, went to court to ensure she could stay in school.

The student's attorney, John Whitehead, who is the president of the Rutherford Institute in the US, recently won a separate case against a school that initially wanted to use biometric scanners to read the palms of students as they passed by in lunch lines so that money could be deducted more quickly from each child's account.

In cases such as these, Mr Whitehead says, technology has moved from advancing the learning process and into helping to extract revenue from students and determine how it is processed.

"Technology is now basically directing the show, and should that be is the question," says Mr Whitehead.