Friday, May 24, 2013

iPads: Us or the students?

We are approaching the end of our year long pilot with iPads in Grade Three. We've had 20 iPads to share between five classes for the year and I personally feel like these have been a useful addition to the classroom. I believe the general consensus of our Leadership team is that iPads are best used for consuming rather than creating, hence they may not be the best investment for the school. I'd like to make two points in regard to this. 

Firstly, teachers and admin teams are generally making this decision. While they may collaborate, the buck ultimately stops with them. Some might say that's fair enough too. After all, the school is providing the budgets to purchase hardware and the teachers are responsible for making sure that learning occurs. Why shouldn't they have the final say? I'm not saying that they shouldn't have a voice in this decision, but they shouldn't be the only voices. If they are then I believe that the system of feedback & decision making has some limitations. 

All teachers and administrators are making decisions about technology that is relatively new to them. The first iPads were launched around 3 years ago and before that us old timer adults used laptops, desktops, calculators, abacuses and chalk and slate! If the school were deciding whether to introduce individual blackboards for every student then almost every teacher would be qualified to contribute an opinion, having been at school at some stage in their lives where a blackboard was used. I'm fairly confident that every one of these teachers would also  feel quite blasé about the initiative. However, for someone that never before had any way of sharing some written information (or a diagram) with a class of between 20 - 40 students, this could be quite exciting. That's how most of us feel about iPads too. These are machines that are capable of doing things that we've never been able to do before. But not for a lot of our students. iPads were released in 2010. They operate similarly to iPhones, which were launched in 2007. If we use a random marker of 3 years of age for a child to be able to use one of these devices effectively (and it could even be younger), then that means that conceivably a student up to the age of 10 wouldn't be able to remember a time when these weren't around. The point I'm trying to make is that for some of our students will consider iPads to be technology just as much as some teachers would consider a television technology. Thomas Whitby, from The Educator's PLN, puts it quite nicely when defining what technology is:

Now let’s look at the student perspective. There isn’t one kid today in our modern culture that doesn’t have access to a computer. Most kids today live with cellphones, if not Smartphones. If you don’t know already, a smartphone is simply a complex computer with phone capabilities. What many adults don’t get is that computers and smartphones are not considered technology by kids. They are not in awe of the capabilities of these tools. They expect it. It is part of their world. Educators should not be so arrogant as to think that they have the ability to decide whether or not kids can use these tools for learning. The kids do it with, or without adult permission. Any educator has the right to choose to live in a cave however, they do not have the right to drag their students in there with them.

It was stated at a staff meeting recently, with reference to a possible introduction of BYOD for our Elementary students, that 'we need to give time for the students to be comfortable with using these different types of technologies'. I disagree with this. A high majority of our students are already comfortable using a myriad of devices. I think a more accurate statement would be that 'we need to give time for the teachers to be comfortable managing these different types of technology'. An even better statement would go more or less along the lines of 'we need to give time for teachers and students to collaboratively learn how these technologies can be used most effectively'.

When we talk about creating on iPads - or any similar device, our students need to be given a voice. How can adults alone make the decision that laptops are better for creating and iPads are better for consuming? As adults we are dealing with new technologies that change the way we consume, collaborate and create. Of course we'll prefer 'the old way' of doing things - we're comfortable with it, we know how it works and we've been doing it that way for several years. However, we shouldn't always be making decisions for students on the back of our own experiences. In the end it all has to come down to the students. 

My second point refers to the development of these types of hardware. While I agree that there are some instances where I prefer to create on other devices (such as laptops), I've maintained the line over the past couple of years that as apps are developed in more elaborate ways then creation becomes easier and preferable on the iPad. My students have experienced this to an extent this year. The two examples I'd like to share are from the DoInk and Blogger apps. Doink was previously available as a Web 2.0 site and the students used laptops or desktops to create animations. I have found it to be a great tool for formatively assessing student understanding of certain concepts throughout a unit of inquiry. DoInk ceased to be available as a website this year and now can only be used as an app. It is available for iPhone and iPad and my students this year thought that it was easy and effective to use on the iPad (having used it in previous years on the laptops). This year we used the program to see how well the students understood how changes in the Earth could impact the way humans live their lives. You can see that we had some varying results here and here

Many of my students also prefer to update their personal blogs using the iPad (and Blogger app) instead of on the laptop. We had originally used Posterous and when it shut down it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the app for Blogger is much more effective to use. The mobility of the iPads means that the students can blog from almost anywhere and this also serves to personalise their learning. Not all aspects of blogging are better on the iPad though. We can't edit HTML code on the iPads and its more difficult to embed other documents in some cases. As I mentioned at the beginning though, as the apps improve so will the creative ease. The ways that schools and teachers use iPads also have an impact on how effective they can be for content creation. Two recent posts from a Swiss International School and a school in the USA highlight this. Another friend of mine also alerted me to this publication, which highlights the value of mobile devices and social media in the pursuit of personalised learning.

The choices we make are generally made with the best of intentions. But education is changing and we need to be mindful of who we're making decisions for: Us, or our students?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Skype call is a learning call....supercharged

Today in Grade Three my students and the students from another class skyped with Kenn Nesbitt, poet and author. The teachers have organised this for the two years prior to this - he's quite engaging and relates well to the students. If you'd like to read more about this then check out the posts by one of our previous ICT teachers summarising the process here and here. I've used the word 'supercharged' in this post title because this year the students in my class added a few extra elements to the process.

Each year the classes have skyped with Kenn they've researched about him beforehand, used google maps to see where he lives. After that they skype with him and generally complete some sort of class reflection. We've completed all of this again over the past couple of days and today we added two additional things. Part of the pre-learning tasks involved working through what a skype call as a big group would look like. The students learned about where to look, that some people would have specific roles during the call, and some other general tips for the whole class. We also introduced live tweeting and blogging as part of the learning. If you look in the background of the cover photo you can see two of the bloggers, two of the question askers (in the background holding up a sheet to help each other read), and Kenn on the big screen.

We've used twitter on and off throughout the year so the students in my class are familiar with what it is. They're still getting to grips with the inner workings (re-tweets, follows etc) but they've been keen to learn about it. Some of my boys had their tweet re-tweeted by Zlatan Ibrahimovic earlier on in the year during our unit of inquiry about role models, which was really exciting for them! We had three designated tweeters that would provide live updates throughout the call. This served as a great resource to help the students re-connect their thinking after the call had finished and we were back up in our classroom. It also helped in the reflective process by reminding the students about some of the key messages. By tweeting they were also listening very carefully for the big ideas that they could take away about poetry and Kenn himself. Here's a couple of examples of their work:

We also had three students writing blog posts in real time as the call was happening. The bloggers were able to provide more background information about the call and expand on the ideas that they learned about as it was happening. Because we were using iPads for both tweeting and blogging, the students were able to easily take photos and upload them instantly to their posts. Check out an example of one of the posts here.

The call went very well. As I said before, Kenn was fantastic with the students so that obviously helped a lot. The students thrived using the technology and hopefully the other class that participated in the call with us saw how useful it could be (some teachers have been a tad skeptical about blogging and tweeting this year). There are definitely improvements that could be made though. Firstly, the iPads were ideal for this task and I'm glad we had the opportunity to use them. The Blogger app is also quite good, but you can't seem to edit things in HTML mode on the iPad like you can on the laptop or desktop. This meant that we couldn't re-size some of the photos that were too big on the post. I was surprised how frustrated this made some of the students - but we had given Kenn the links to our blogs so he could check out what they had written later on. I'm glad they care so much about how their work looks. Isn't it amazing what an authentic audience can do for kids!? I also think that I could have used twitter more effectively this year. We've used it as a questioning tool during our class and that has worked well. But we only follow a couple of accounts so we're not connecting with other learners as much as we could be. This has been a big oversight on my part.

I'm moving school at the end fo this year but I hope the Grade Three classes continue to connect with people like Kenn. The students have really enjoyed the experience and have redefined their learning by using some of the technology we have available.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sir Ken Robinson's message

The above video is another talk by Sir Ken Robinson. I chose to post this talk as I think it is a nice summary of his message regarding education. His first book, 'Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative' is one of the few resources I've read that has dramatically changed the way I teach, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in education. 'The Element' is also a great book and I'm eager to read the second book in this series - 'Finding Your Element' when it is published on the 21st of May.