Sunday, March 24, 2013

Got iPads? Where to start?

So you finally convinced someone at your school that a sure fire way to move forward and take your school into the 21st century is to get iPads (or any mobile device for that matter) into your classrooms. Now what? With over 300,000 iPad apps alone, where do you start?

Well, we started with the basics...the very basics. What are basic skills that we expect our middle school students to have? We may have many answers but I narrowed them down to three areas that reflect crucial student organizational skills. First, we expect them to take notes in our class; second, they should to do their homework in a timely fashion; and, third, we expect them to study for tests or complete final projects so that we can assess their mastery of the subject matter. Pretty basic, right?

This is the process that we want our students to follow so that teaching can be focused on student learning and achievement and maybe even some fun. If we are able to keep our students organized with their materials, then their mind can be clear and open to critical thinking and open discussion. The use of mobile devices in the classroom has been a hot topic in the last 10 years for many reasons which include alternative methods to differentiated instruction, enhanced creativity in the classroom and easy access to information on the Internet. But at some point you have to hold back our obsession with apps and start at the beginning.

So we started with the basics. The first step was to give each of our students a Gmail account through our school domain. From there, our students have access to all Google Educational Apps that can help them learn and collaborate which include Google Drive, Sites, Youtube, and my all time favorite, the Google calendar! We introduced the Google calendar to the students as a way to record homework assignments, project due dates and test dates. The iPad calendar app as well as the mail app were linked to their school Gmail account. I will admit that the iHomework student planner app is far superior to the the calendar app for recording school and student tasks but because of our initial pilot program, where our students left their iPads in school for several months, the Google calendar was the easiest choice for it’s portability, and no extra login requirements.

The next app introduced was Notability, a note taking tool. It  lets you take notes via typing, handwriting, or audio and all three methods can be integrated into one note. You can easily switch between the different types of note taking methods. You can insert many forms of media into your notes in addition to being able to annotate PDF files. This part was a key factor in transforming the classroom to becoming more paperless because students are able to annotate the worksheets sent to them electronically by their teacher. One of the main features in my opinion of this app is its seamless process for synchronizing with a multitude of cloud storage solutions. Once again, because we started off with a pilot period where our students had to leave their iPads in school and be able to access their notes at home, we needed to find just the right storage solution. Ultimately, Dropbox proved to be an amazing storage and backup solution for our students and teachers. They are able to create folders, into subject categories and even subfolders for further organization. The most amazing feature is that Notabily notes can be automatically synced to dropbox and all Notability folders can be backed up there so that it is seamless and instantaneous to the user. That means, no more “ I lost my notes.” In addition, files can be easily shared between students and teachers for collaboration purposes. A bonus to all of this the web tool DROPitTOme which offers a secure way for teachers to receive files from students so that answers cannot be seen. What a fantastic way to have students hand in assignments and even tests!

Just using these three simple apps has totally transformed the organizational process of our middle school students. Students write better notes, lose fewer documents and collaborate on more documentation with fellow students and teachers. This, in turn, results in better study skills for the students. Obviously, we have expanded beyond these three apps in our classroom but with the overwhelming number of apps, tools, and ways to integrate iPads into the classroom, these three were a great way to start our program and get our students used to this new learning environment.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

An iPad 1:1 pilot program “takes off”

The 1:1 iPad pilot program...oooohhh..sounds very serious. It sounds like a bunch of people sitting in a think tank type of room and testing out iPads in every which way. Testing every app, how every app runs, what it does, how it works with other apps. Maybe the testers have to fill out a checklist for each app, each iPad etc. It sounds like a full on testing and quality assurance program. Well, normally, there is a lot of testing that goes with hardware and software before it reaches the consumers but sometimes the only “real” testing that can happen when the product goes out into the real world. And then there was the pilot program! This program began to make a public statement to all administrators, teachers, students and parents that even though we have prepared and trained for iPad use in the classroom as much as we possibly can, when the students actually start using in the classroom we will find many problems - guaranteed! Things will “break”! They either just won’t work, we may have way too much access to certain Internet sites or be blocked out of basic educational sites too. Some students will take a while to master the iPad while some will be pros from the get-go. Some teachers will embrace the iPads while some will hate them. The pilot program is a battlefield! Everything that could possibly happen will, we expect it and we are prepared to validate them and try to resolve them. We need to emphasize this over and over to our students, teachers and parents so that everything is out on the table. It’s going to be a team effort and everyone needs to get involved to help us find the problems so that we can fix them and improve the program.

So what kinds of problems are we talking about?

First, we are talking about the easy access to internet sites. At this point, our firewall and proxy servers are as good as we can make it but it’s not perfect. Students and teachers have to communicate sites that they need and sites that students should not be allowed to go on, for example, certain gaming sites. By nature, initial use of iPads in the classroom is a distraction until we are able to create a sense of responsibility and the idea that the iPad is a tool for the classroom and not for personal or social use.

Another problem that can come up during an iPad pilot program is the initial ability to access all of the information and data that the students have input into their school-issued iPads and being able to access it at home. During our iPad pilot program, we did not allow students to take home their iPads until about 3 months into the program. This meant that we needed to train students on solutions to saving their data in the cloud, for example, with Dropbox and Gmail calendars.

Another issue that came up and is a continual challenge is the classroom management changes that needed to take place. Teachers had to have a heightened awareness on what their students were doing on their iPads. They needed to “police” the appropriate use of the devices and the random useless doodling that went on. Techniques such as circulating about the room, putting away the ipads until necessary for the lesson and taking away the iPads from a student who was off task were initial solutions to the problem. Although, this has been a major challenge for our teachers, we are confident that with more experience we can overcome the issues by enforcing the consequences involved in iPad misuse across all teachers and classrooms, finding iPad management software to help manage the iPads in the classroom and creating a better sense of responsibility among our students.

Now that we have established that the ipad 1:1 pilot program is pretty much a free for all where anything can happen. Let’s not harp on the bad stuff, at least not the entire time!How about using the pilot program to experiment with new learning techniques and new ways to assess the students. How about sharing how some students who have had poor organizational skills throughout their elementary career are now forced to be more organized and are feeling pretty good about themselves. What about the times where the IT student in training is excited about showing me something cool in the ipad settings or that he/she found a bug!

The iPad pilot program is an exciting and necessary start to implementing an ipad program in your school so that all strengths and weaknesses can be brought out and dealt with in a systematic fashion before implementing a full on 1:1 mobile device program. Be expected to be frustrated, overwhelmed, and frantic when you start. It’s a bumpy ride but the landing is well worth the trip!!!