Thursday, May 23, 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?

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