I recently went to my school district's technology conference. Skydrive, iPads, Prezi, etc. Technologies built—supposedly—with education as a viable use. 8+ hours of (boring) presentations about using (boring) technology in the basest way possible. As I was drafting this post, about 20 teachers were using their iPads as really expensive digital notebooks, while I wrote by hand. Meanwhile, the presenter kept referring to iPad experts as 'Bill Gates.' (No, she was not joking. I think she meant to call them 'Steve Jobs.')
Oh yeah, the problem: what good is an iPad if it's not doing anything any other cheaper tool could do? A lot of PC's are cheaper than iPads, and they're easier to type on. I prefer pen and paper when I'm out and about. I even splurge on pens that cost over $1 each. (We public employees live the high life.) Yet teachers, myself included, still yearn for excuses to get an iPad.
This is nothing new, I don't think. Some teachers look for excuses to use new technology in the classroom, other teachers are told to incorporate more technology into their classrooms by their superiors. In the end we just get slightly fancier lectures. I often think back to my high school science teacher—the ultimate lecturer—who still preferred the old fashioned slide projector. He would project images onto the screen and speak freely about them, often because he took the pictures himself. No need for bulleted lists (I'm looking at you, PowerPoint), dizzying animations (Prezi), or viral videos. He used exactly as much technology as he needed.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-technology in the classroom. Kids are definitely growing up in an entirely different culture than even I grew up in, and I'm not even 30 yet. But technology in the classroom needs to be designed much better if it's going to have a positive impact on learning.
What it Isn't
As I hinted before, this is my opinion, using an iPad to take notes is stupid. It's slower than writing or drawing by hand, and I don't think you retain the information as well as when you write by hand. Likewise with a lot of apps. If you look in the App Store under Apps for Teachers, you get a bunch of apps that are nothing more than old teaching techniques that have been digitized. Digital white boards that you can project onto your screen, note-taking apps, rotatable models of the human body, and so forth. These aren't bringing anything new to the arena, and in a lot of ways they're simply not worth the trouble.
You're Getting Warmer
I keep ragging on white board apps but in reality they're actually showing a little bit of promise. You can throw in pictures and maybe video, and the app can record your voice as well as your writing and drawing to be viewed again later by absent or absent-minded students. This is better, but it's still just a digital version of an existing idea. App makers need to change the question from, "How can I use [the iPad] to improve or replace what I use as a teacher?" to "What are my challenges as a teacher and how can [the iPad] address them?" (Insert whatever new technology into those brackets.)
'Teaching' is the fun part of being a teacher. No, I'm not being redundant. Actually explaining and demonstrating an idea that you're passionate about is always fun, and you can do it with a stick and some sand to draw in, you can do it with hand gestures, you can do it with slides, whatever you want. Technologies only slightly improve that part of the process.
Anyway, my point is, we don't need help teaching. In fact, in my opinion, we need help doing less of it, and more of giving students the opportunity to learn for themselves. But that is different for each class. If you're teaching architecture, your students should spend most of their time architecting. (Holy cow the spell check didn't go off? 'Architecting' is a word?)
Let me list off the biggest challenges I face as a teacher, and what I think could be done about it with the aid of [the iPad]. Yes, it's a bulleted list. I will forever mock them while harboring a secret love for them:
- Grading: it's just so time-consuming if you do it right. Doing it right means open-ended assignments and problems that require an expert's critique (that's you, teacher). Doing it right means providing constructive feedback. Doing it right means looking beyond right answers, and looking for progress and learning. After all, we learn most when we make mistakes, which I guess are wrong answers.
- This is actually why I came up with my new grading scheme. Basically, there are assignments and projects. Assignments get completion credit, while projects are graded on three criteria—skill, effort, and progress—and their grade is based on their best two. (Read the post to see how this is more efficient and fair.) It can do with little-to-no technology, but I intend to use whatever I can to improve the process.
- One such thing I haven't yet been able to use is called ThreeRing. At the moment, you use your device to take pictures of student work and it uploads to a class database where you and students can provide feedback. They say they are developing an option for students to upload their own stuff, which would help me. Students could upload their work, and it would all be in one place for me to look at and comment on.
- Otherwise I'll set up my students with Edublogs or Weebly sites. These would be nice because they could work on them from home. I would have them post their work, and then reflect on the larger projects. (You know, Bloom's Taxonomy or whatever.) And I could post comments on them. Considering the age group (12-15), these would focus entirely on positive things. College students can and should deal with harsh criticism, but growing youths need only positive reinforcement. (This is not based on any study that I know of, just my own intuition.)
- I want an app that looks like a seating chart and lets me input grades right there on the spot. While I walk around the classroom, a student can raise her hand to show me she's finished, and I can check it off right there on the seating chart. If there's an assignment logged in the app for the day, it puts the grade in there. Otherwise it just creates an assignment out of the date. This offers more than a piece of paper because it records when I checked it off, and automatically puts it in my gradebook.
- Classroom management: while we're not babysitters and taskmasters, the classroom should be an environment that enables all students a chance to learn. This means preventing basically any disrespectful behavior, be it disruptions, belittling, distractions, or dissidence. (Is there a 'dis-' word that means 'to belittle?') But you can't do it so well that it simultaneously stifles creativity. This balance will always be a struggle for me.
- One way to help manage the classroom is make the work itself engaging and rewarding. If students are intrinsically motivated to work on and finish their assignments and projects, they won't have much time to be disrespectful. When they talk to each other, most of the time it will concern their work, giving and getting help and advice, or proudly showing what they've done. Inevitably, occasionally they will get out of hand and that's why a teacher is constantly wandering through the students.
- There's a web app called Class Dojo that can be used via iPad to quickly and simply record positive and negative behaviors. You define the behavior, and the app gives you a net behavior result for each student. It has cute little unisex monsters as avatars for each student that apparently they can choose or design themselves. It makes a little noise when you give positive or negative feedback.
- Take that same nonexistent app I mentioned above and simply add a Class Dojo-like behavior part to it. When I tap a student, I can input a grade or log a positive or negative behavior, in addition to attendance. Thanks to special computer powers, I can tell the app that I take attendance during the first two minutes of class, and I don't grade until the last ten minutes of class, so everything in-between will probably be behavior management. When I tap on that student in the app, it knows what time it is and appropriately brings up the options it expects me to use. Naturally I can override that and make an attendance change in the middle of class or log a grade toward the beginning, if necessary.
- Absent and absent-minded students: often when I'm frantically preparing for class to start or right as the final bell rings, a student will come up to me and ask, "What am I missing?" Often it's because they were absent at some point in time, or simply absent-minded. Either way, it nearly always comes at a time when I have a million other things going on (grading daily work, exchanging materials for a new period) and I have little patience to help them right then.
- Oh the weekly anonymous grade printout, I miss you. This was the format when I was in junior high. Find your student number, see how your grade changed over the weekend. It's actually pretty exciting. Students crowd around it like it's a vending machine spewing free candy. This little weekly habit helps quite a bit. Despite the fact that students can check their grades anytime, from any computer, few actually do unless parent-teacher conferences are coming up. Yet they will check the printout. This helps a lot.
- To make the printout more powerful, you can add an assignments page to your teacher site. This page can be completed before the term even starts, if you're a veteran teacher that already knows exactly what she's doing, or as you go along. Simply add the same title as you put in their official grades, then add a date and description of the expectations. Add the next bullet's tools and you've got yourself an even more powerful tool.
- If you teach with or from a computer, try Screencast-o-matic to record your screen as you present your boring PowerPoint or your demonstration of how to create math formulas in Excel. Link to these screencasts through your Twitter feed, Facebook page, or teacher website as mentioned above. If you're more of a white board kind of guy, an app like Educreations can record the whole thing and put it online.
- I live and die by Google Calendars, and I want my students to as well. I organize my whole curriculum by titling each day's work and finding a spot for it on the calendar. I share this calendar with anyone who cares. (Often they don't care until they're going on vacation for a week and I say, "Check my calendar.") Even better, if you add a description to the calendar and embed it in your site, when a student clicks on that event they'll see that description. That way, if they have been absent or plan on being absent, they can just find the day, click on it, and bam, they know everything they need to and they don't need to bother you during stressful times.
- In addition to the solutions above, where's my app that can do all this for me? Even better, use voice recognition to do it. Student comes up, "What am I missing?" I pull up the app, tap the microphone button, say the student's name, up comes his pertinent information: missing assignments, absences, current grade. I tap the email information button and it sends all this information to both the student and his parents. Many gradebook programs already have similar options, but they're not so concise.
- Creating engaging work: this was actually one of my solutions to the classroom management problem, but it's a problem in itself. But my philosophy is that great teachers have two main qualities: a passion for the subject and a love for the students.
- Oddly enough, there's already an app for that! You won't find it under Apps for Teachers. I can't even remember how I found it. It's called Zite, and you can get it on Android or iOS. It might well be my most-used app, as well as the app that helps me most with school. It's one of those personalized-magazine apps. You tell it the topics you're interested in, it goes out there and finds content. I find both the interface and content to be boat loads better than Pulse or Flipboard, albeit not as flashy. And then by giving feedback to the articles you get, you can personalize it even more. My interests include Graphic Design & Typography, Architecture, Multimedia, Web Design & User Experience, Gadgets, Psychology & Mind, and Education (among a few others). I find at least a few articles every week that directly influence my class, often ideas that I can turn into projects. And then I find at least one a day that indirectly influences it. Many of these articles aren't even under 'education.' (Maybe I should write an entire post that raves about Zite, because it is probably the single biggest reason the iPad has helped me as a teacher.)
- Anyway, as you read on Zite about other teachers ranting about their "top 5 thingamajigs" or "10 strategeries" or "32 indispensable whatsits" you should also be asking yourself, why do I love this subject so much? How have I found it useful in my life? What are ways I can make it meaningful to people who aren't like me?
Ok I've ranted for long enough now. This post is way too long to continue with my teacher challenges. I apologize to the four of you that accidentally clicked on something that brought you here.