Thoughts on Education – 4/29/2012 – Technology in the classroom – iPads and more

I have been saving up quite a few articles over my inactive time the last month or so, and today I want to turn to a couple that address technology in the classroom.  Technology is often presented as the cure-all for education, and I will admit as much guilt as far as this goes as anyone else.  I am always out looking for the new piece of technology (although often I can’t afford it), and I will often then sit down and think about how I could use it in the classroom.  Unfortunately, a lot of what I would like to do with technology, namely engage the students more directly, would be difficult without all of the students having the same access to the same technology.  This can be fixed through things like classroom sets of technology instruments, but that is an inelegant solution at best.

We have done several of those things at my community college in the past and present.  A couple of years ago, we acquired a couple of sets of clickers, when that was seen as the latest tool for attracting student interest.  We also had a push for getting online classes to think about using Second Life for a short period of time.  Both of those technologies seemed limited and untried at the time, and I never found any interest in adopting them.  Neither went far at the college, although I do think we have a couple of people still using clickers, and we do teach some of our gaming in Second Life.  The question of the day on this topic is, of course, iPads.  They are the latest thing, and I am part of a faculty workgroup that has gotten iPads as a test piece for our own educational use as well as overseeing the deployment and use of classroom sets of iPads.  The question will be if this is another short-spike-of-interest device or if it has a long shelf life in education.

The latter option is reflected in this article, titled “How the iPad is Changing Education.”  Although the article is more speculative than directly tied to evidence (probably because of the short time these devices have been really available), the article does point to some increase in learning and success among students using iPads.  Of more interest is this point:  “In the meantime, the devices make a great tool for self-directed, independent learning. There’s no shortage of one-off educational apps on any given subject, from American History to advanced biology.”  Of course, this requires engaged students, and use outside of a classroom set (or time set aside in class to use the iPads for this purpose).  Still, that is certainly what I have found as I have looked around for possible apps for use in the classroom myself.  I can find dozens of whiteboard and projection apps, but the actual learning apps for the classroom are scarce.  However, from teaching American history, I can certainly vouch for the number of American history apps out there, most of them informative and of very uneven quality.  Few have much in the way of classroom application, although I have found a few.  So, the iPad, as it stands right now is much more an information-retreival device than an active-use device in the classroom.  As the article notes at the end, the real strength of the iPad for classroom use comes in the ability to make your own books and access iTunes U.  As those areas develop more, there might be some possible in-class uses for them, but they still remain mostly passive presenters of information.  I’ll be curious when the first truly in-class, adaptive, learning app comes along.  Has anyone found one yet?

As this article notes, the issue is also not just what you can access through a device like the iPad, but also how the iPad is used.  If it is used, as I noted above, as a substitute textbook, then that’s all it is.  The students will ignore it just as they ignore the current textbooks today.  This is my greatest fear of our adoption, that we will not find enough content out there and not have enough time ourselves to develop new, and the iPads will end as just a fancy way to access content, leaving it relatively unnecessary.  It will then be a neat trick, and not much more.  This article comes back to the whiteboard idea again.  We will have a new academic building where our iPads are going to key into Apple TVs in the room and hopefully be able to interact with smart boards.  I might get more use out of the iPad as a teaching tool, and whiteboarding might be a good way to get students working with each other.  We shall see.

However, without the new building, I have been struggling to figure out how to use this new technology in the classroom.  That’s why this title caught my attention – “Five Ways to Bring High-Tech Ideas into Low-Tech Classrooms”  These ideas are interesting enough to detail a bit here:

  • Put the Facebook page on paper – Start up something that the students can use as a reading log or something like that.  Basically, it’s a way to create a live blog of material going on in the classroom and outside.  The students can see each other’s blogs and like them.  Status updates, posting of pictures, linking, etc. can all take place.  This is the most promising use of the iPad in the classroom that I have come across, as a platform to extend what is going on outside of class into the classroom as well.
  • Build a classroom search engine – less interesting to me because I tried this before.  I started using wikis to create a classroom definition bank starting about 4 years ago.  I never was able to use it with any real success, but it might be useful someday for something like this.
  • Tweet to Learn – OK.  I don’t use Twitter.  I probably should, but I don’t.  Why should I?  You tell me how it could be useful in a classroom situation.
  • Encourage students to “chat” – an in-class chatroom is something I’ve been toying with for a while.  Maybe this coming semester, as part of my broader changes.
  • Talk the Text Talk – OK.  No.  Not going to do this, especially not in college

Anyway, I thought those ideas were interesting enough as part of what we could all be doing more of.  I’m also getting a bit more desperate about how I’m going to use the iPads in the classroom.  The college has spent quite a bit of money to get me one and have several classroom sets.  I’m just afraid I don’t know what to do with them, and so I’m trying to think about it more and more.

As a side note, I start the final grading push for the semester tomorrow, so I may not be very regular here for a while.  We close on our house this Friday as well, so that will also bring a whole new set of obligations.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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