Apps

My article for the October edition of Teach Secondary Magazine.

For as long as computers have been used in schools, their advocates have promoted the power of digital technology to transform education, yet the reality has all too often fallen rather short of the potential, with too few computers, unreliable kit and overly complex software and systems. Recently though, things have started to look up, thanks to the take up by schools, teachers and students of personal, handheld kit like iPod Touches, iPhones, iPads and similar Android powered devices. Robust, reliable, simple devices like these, whilst not specifically designed for schools, seem ideally suited for learning, both in the classroom and at home.

There’s growing evidence, such as the recent Naace study of iPad use at Longfield Academy that schools who can provide 1:1 access to kit like this really do see significant impacts on learning and pedagogy. Furthermore, 1:1 access needn’t mean buying a device for every student, as increasing numbers of secondary age students have smartphones or tablets of their own, which a BYOD (bring your own device) approach to school tech. could see being used for school work as well as informal learning, social life, games and media.

Crucial to the success of tablet or smartphone use for learning is connectivity. Fast, reliable broadband and extensive wifi really is necessary if schools are to make the best possible use of this kit, particularly as so much can be achieved using no app more sophisticated than the web browser. With access to the whole of the web, the opportunities for self-directed, independent learning are immense. It’s now so easy for sufficiently interested, motivated and connected students to teach themselves (almost) anything, using the rich, dynamic resources of Wikipedia, YouTube, Google and the rest of the web to explore, research, connect and share. The tablet or smart phone is a great device for using highly interactive HTML5 sites, and any decent VLE or blog platform these days is likely to have a selection of responsive themes tailored to the smaller screen.  Some web-based platforms have dedicated apps too: for example, WordPress’s app makes it easy to write blog entries, even when off the net, and there are similar apps for accessing a Moodle VLE.

Beyond the browser, the simple approach to software for these devices, in the form of highly focussed, often single purpose ‘apps’ seems well suited to education, especially as so many apps are either free or cost a small fraction of the price of the closest desktop equivalents. Browsing the education categories in the iTunes App Store or Google’s Play marketplace will suggest countless apps designed to help students learn topics across the whole breadth of the curriculum: students themselves quickly acquire a certain savviness in deciding between the good and the bad here, and there’s no reason for teachers to assume that one app would suit all learners. Alongside these, there are more generic apps that, whilst they don’t have any educational ‘content’, and probably haven’t been designed with the classroom in mind, are just the sort of digital tools needed to make great creative, collaborative use of this tech. for learning across and beyond the curriculum. It’s this sort of app that I’m focussing on in what follows. The selection here is a personal one: other apps, often with very similar functionality, are available, and I’m concentraring on Apple’s iOS platform rather than Google’s Android operating system.

Study skills are well supported. Pages is a lovely word processor, and is particularly good at creating documents that combine images and text effectively, something which I still find ever so slightly tricky in Word. That said, it’s not (yet) good at managing complex workflows of comments and tracked changes. Keynote is great too as a presentation tool, with some gorgeous built in themes and transitions. Apple’s AirPlay is great for beaming these to an Apple TV box plugged into an HDMI equipped projector, or indeed to a Windows PC or Mac running ReflectionApp. Mind-mapping works very well on the iPad: my preferred choice is iThoughtsHD. More linear note-taking can be done in Microsoft’s OneNote app, and SoundNote allows students to take notes alongside an audio recording. There’s a good dictation tool built in to the latest iPhones and iPads, but the Dragon Dictation app is very good too, available for older devices and free. Apple’s iBooks and Amazon’s Kindle are both great tools for reading, highlighting and adding notes to eBooks, and both provide a mechanism for transferring content to the device outside of their respective book stores. iBooks comes into its own if partnered with iBooks Author on a mac, making it possible for teachers to create their own high quality, media rich course texts, or indeed for students to create their own revision guides. iTunesU provides sixth formers with access to high quality content and courses from world class universities, and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we see open resources for UK secondary schools shared here too.

As well as the web as a platform for collaboration, apps like Skype and Apple’s own Facetime make video conferencing at student level very easy from a technical point of view and, with a little preparation, joint projects with classes elsewhere in the UK or around the world can have an immediacy and level of interaction which would otherwise be impossible.

Whilst an iPad is great for accessing content, it’s also a great tool for creating digital content, across a whole range of media.  The built-in mike and particularly the camera are great, and there are many, many areas of the curriculum where being able to take photos or shoot video can add so much to students’ learning, as well as contributing to a rich portfolio of evidence. Geotagging photos and video, which happens automatically, has many uses on field trips. Editing tools like iPhoto and iMovie are hugely impressive, allowing students to revise and refine their work before sharing their achievements with one another or indeed a global audience. Apps like Garage Band, Brushes, iStopMotion and ComicLife provide further scope for digital creativity.

With the renewed interest in programming and other aspects of computer science in the ICT curriculum, there’s scope to for students to get to grips with developing apps themselves. There’s more to this than just coding, of course: CDI’s Apps for Good project also look at finding problems and designing solutions. It’s probably easier to get started in app development on the Android platform where MIT’s App Inventor provides a building block based interface for the coding, familiar to any who’ve used Scratch, but  Stencyl is cross platform and not that much harder to learn. Codea also has a gentler learning curve than Objective C, and runs on the iPad itself. It would be great to see teachers themselves developing a few apps using these tools, for their own classes and others.

Apple do provide a rather good ‘Configurator’ tool to help with class and school deployments; the usual filtering and logging of school internet traffic should allay parents’ (and teachers’) concerns over students’ access to the net; and Apple’s Volume Purchase Program now makes it a bit easier to purchase apps for a set of school owned devices.  Technical issues aside, 1:1 access to tablets or smart phones provides both new opportunities and new challenges for teachers. Access to information, a tool for note taking and interactivity are easy enough to incorporate into lessons, but the real benefits of this technology demand pedagogies that promote creativity, collaborative working and independent learning.

The above is © Teach Secondary Magazine, 2012, all rights reserved. It is reproduced here with permission.