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Best iPad Apps for Teaching

At my institution, we have a one-to-one initiative where a cohort of teacher interns receive iPads prior to starting their field placement.  In this program, the iPad is mainly used as a reflective tool where the interns record themselves teaching and analyze their efforts.  We also encourage the interns to use the iPads in their teaching as much as they’re able.  After distributing the iPads last week, one of the interns tweeted a question asking about the best apps for teaching.  While this is not intended to be a complete list of iPad apps for teaching, I thought I’d offer a list of some of my favorites.  Feel free to add some of your own as comments.

1.  Explain Everything. Explain Everything ($2.99 on the App Store) is an easy to use lesson recorder.  The app allows teachers to record narration over a slideshow or a whiteboard and would be prefect for creating short lessons or for a flipped classroom activity.  The final recording is easy to post to YouTube, share through email or project to a classroom of students.

2.  Dropbox.  Everyone has their favorite cloud storage system.  Dropbox is mine.  When you sign up for Dropbox, you get 2 Gb of storage for free.  While that may not sound like a lot, you can build more storage by inviting your friends or students.  Using Dropbox is simple.  You simply upload documents through the free app or through the Dropbox site.  Once a document is saved to Dropbox, it can be accessed through any of your devices.    You can also have students submit assignments through Dropittome and grade the papers right on your iPad with an app like Notes Plus, Notability or Penultimate.

3.  Google Drive.  There are a lot of iPad apps that try to mimic the functions of Powerpoint, Microsoft Word and Excel.  While Google Drive may not be the best Office app out there, it does allow quick access to files saved to your Google Drive account and gives you the ability to edit those documents easily.  You can also share files to other Google Drive users and manage their access.  It’s a perfect way to share lesson plans with teams of teachers or to collaborate on a project with other students.

4.  Remind.  Formerly known as Remind101, Remind allows safe and efficient communication with students and parents.  Remind utilizes texting capabilities to communicate to parents and students but keeps phone numbers private to keep communication secure.   The app can be used to schedule meetings, remind students of an upcoming project or send voice clips to clarify the details of an assignment.

5.  Socrative.  Want to get your students more engaged in class lessons?  Socrative is a good place to start.  Socrative functions like a classroom gameshow with the instructor asking questions and the students responding.  You’ll need to download the free teacher app to get started but students can answer questions via any web-enabled device.

6.  iPadagogy Wheel.  While this isn’t an app, I felt I should list this awesome resource created by Allan Carrington.  The iPadagogy Wheel lists a plethora of iPad apps and connects them to the SAMR model and to Bloom’s Taxonomy.  It’s a great starting point for a new teacher who is wondering what type of app they can bring into their classroom.  Rather than just listing available technologies, the wheel focuses on the pedagogy first.

7.  Reflector.  This also isn’t an iPad app but a piece of software that allows you to project your iPad via your Mac, PC or Android device.  Reflector is inexpensive ($12.99) but works really well.  Simply choose Airplay on your iPad and it projects to your computer screen.  Reflector evens supports projecting multiple devices.   I would suggest testing out the software before buying it.  Some wireless networks can be difficult.


Banning the laptop? Revisiting the issue.

With it being the start of the semester, many colleagues are revisiting the topic of banning laptops in classrooms as they construct their new syllabi.  I ran a post last year discussing research conducted on students who used laptops to take notes in comparison to students who took notes by hand.  The study mainly looked at how laptops could create distractions not only for laptop users but also for those seated nearby.  Students seated near distracted laptop users performed almost as poorly as the students who used the laptops themselves.  Both performed significantly worse than those isolated students who took notes via paper and pencil.  In my original post, I offered several suggestions to avoid an all-out ban of laptops but I feel that many instructors may still be resistant.

In a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor outlined her rationale for banning laptops from her classroom.  Besides referencing the previous study, the professor also included some recent research that examined students’ learning after taking notes via laptops and with paper and pencil.  In this three-part study, there were no distractions or multitasking aspects.  In the study, some students took notes by typing while others took notes by writing.  In the first part of the study, students who took notes by hand performed significantly better on conceptual exams than the students who took notes with laptops.  The authors concluded that the laptop note taking resulted in “shallower processing” because students often tried to type lectures verbatim.  After seeing these results, the researchers tried to account for this tendency in the second phase of the study and asked students to type notes in their own words.  With this intervention, the researchers found that the laptops users’ factual recall was more in line with the paper and pencil note takers.  The laptop note takers, however, still struggled with conceptual application and higher order questions.  In the third phase of the study, the researchers had some laptops users and some paper and pencil note takers study from their notes prior to taking the exam.  Here, the paper and pencil note takers continued to outshine the laptop users.  The results were clear.  Taking notes by longhand positively impacted student learning while taking notes by typing on a laptop negatively impacted student learning.

While this may provide further evidence for my laptop banning colleagues, I am still hesitating to ban the laptop from my classroom.  Rather than set up a technology free zone, I explain the cognitive research on technology use and try to convince students to make informed decisions about their learning. I even include a statement in my syllabi that outlines student expectations regarding technology use and how students should use technology for creative applications connected to class content.  As an avid iPad user, I share my journey from using my tablet to take notes with my Bluetooth keyboard.  After coming across the note taking research this past summer, I stopped using the keyboard and now take hand written notes (albeit with a stylus on my iPad).  As an educator, I believe it’s my job to impact my students’ lives beyond the walls of my classroom.  By teaching the issue, my hope is that students will begin to make data driven decisions, not just with laptop use but also with other critical aspects in their lives.

Three easy steps to build more student engagement

As regular readers know, I’ve been working on a collaborative project with a local school district for the last few semesters.  The project is in support of a Flipped Classroom initiative in the district and the students in my instructional technology class create learning objects that district teachers use for several classes.  While the project has been successful, I had a few student groups last semester that struggled to collaborate and communicate with each other and didn’t fully engage with the project.  This summer, I wanted to develop ways to foster more student engagement and came across “engagement theory” by Kearsley and Shneiderman (1997).  While usually applied to online and distance educational environments, the theory also can be applied to face-to-face learning environments as well.  Engagement, Kearsley and Shneiderman argue, comes from involving students actively in higher order cognitive processes like creating, problem-solving, evaluating and decision making.  To be successful in these types of activities, students must be engaged in collaborative teams that make meaning of the content and apply the content to authentic situations through problem-based projects.  As I read more about engagement theory, it sounded perfectly connected to the type of activity in which my students were participating and gave me a good lens to examine some areas for growth.  Kearsley and Shneiderman proposed three components to help support student engagement:  Relate, Create and Donate.

1.  Relate.  Communication is critical for student engagement.  Students working in collaborative groups must interact with each other and plan, organize, debate and discuss relevant issues.  While learning is often viewed as a solitary process, in engagement theory, students learn by socially constructing their understand by relating and interacting with their peers.  In my classroom project this fall, I plan to stress the need for communication and collaboration and offer more avenues for students to interact with one another.

2.  Create.  For engagement to occur, Kearsly and Shneiderman argue, students must be involved in some authentic work where they create something that applies the content in a real-world context. This component was the main focus of my project.  My students were creating short instructional videos.  Without intentional support and attention to the other components, however, I saw that some groups floundered.

3.  Donate.  In engaged learning environments, students make contributions through their involvement.  I think this component has two interpretations that are meaningful to collaborative projects.  The authors intend that the project should have some outside focus where student efforts are donated to some larger context or issue.  The term, however, also implicitly communicates that individual students must contribute their effort, ideas and energy to the overall success of the project.  In my classroom project, I assess students’ individual contributions as well as the overall success of the group.  My hope was this would foster more individual responsibility and involvement.  By positioning the project in more altruistic terminology, some students may be more motivated to be involved and contribute their efforts to the project.

By communicating these collaborative components with my students, I hope to foster more engagement this semester and build more success with the classroom project.  Be sure to check back later in the semester for an update.

Beginning teaching? Some advice to help.

This week, our campus kicks off its new faculty orientation.  With four and a half days of meetings and professional development sessions, the orientation is intended to be an entryway for faculty new to the university and, in some cases, new to teaching.  As I’ve been working to plan the orientation, I thought I’d use this week’s post to offer some advice to those educators who may be just starting out their career.

1.  Shoot for being effective.    Creating syllabi and planning lessons are daunting tasks.  They can also be humbling and a little scary.  When I first started teaching, I worried about creating perfect lessons and error-proof syllabi.  In practice, however, these are targets that may be unattainable for someone new to the profession.  Instead of focusing on perfection, start with being effective.  Create lessons that effectively help students learn and syllabi that effectively communicate class expectations.  After reaching that goal, you can start working becoming perfect.

2.  Expect to make mistakes.  While you’re developing those effective syllabi and lessons, you’re going to make mistakes.  Maybe you’ll be in the middle of some lesson and forget how to do long division.  Or maybe you’ll arrive at 10 AM for your 9 AM class.  Or maybe you’ll misgrade a whole set of exams.  The important thing is what you do next.  I’d suggest embracing your infallibility and discuss how important it is to learn from your mistakes.

3.  Teach students.  While you’ve probably been hired because of your content expertise, you also have to remember the other aspects of the job.  You don’t just teach your content.  You teach students and their learning requires more than a “stand and deliver” approach.  In his book “Naked Teaching,” Jose Antonio Bowen discusses the importance of face-to-face interaction in a highly technological world.  In an article in Liberal Education recently, Bowen writes:

As faculty, if we are primarily concerned with transmitting content, then our value will only decrease. The Internet contains a much broader selection of lectures, demonstrations, animations, and examples on more subjects, in more languages, and with a greater variety of approaches, methods, and pedagogies than any professor, department, or even entire university can provide. If, however, we are more concerned with faculty-student interaction; the design and sequence of learning experiences; the application, analysis, and synthesis of information; the motivation of students; and, especially, the increasing complexity of students’ mental models, then the value of what we do will increase.”

These processes require that we focus on students’ needs and interact with them on a personal level.  Our value as educators isn’t based solely on the amount of knowledge in our heads but on our ability to foster a positive learning environment in our classrooms.

4.  Take care of yourself.  I hate to break it to you, but you’ll have bad teaching days.  My hope is that you have more good ones than bad ones this year.  At the end of the day, however, it’s important that you remember to take care of yourself.  I have a colleague who identifies a point on his commute home where he drops the emotional and mental baggage of the day.  Other colleagues relax by exercising, gardening and cooking.   Whatever activity you choose, identify something that you do for your own well-being.  Teaching is hard work and requires dedication.  But it also requires that you attend to your mental health and spiritual well-being as much as you do to planning lessons and grading papers.

Formative Assessment: The Secret Sauce of Blended Success

A few weeks ago, a colleague emailed me about some trouble she was having with her first attempt at blended instruction. She had created some videos to pre-teach a concept, incorporated some active learning strategies into her face-to-face class to build on the video, and assigned an online quiz so she could assess what the students had learned. After grading the quizzes, however, she found that many of the students struggled with the concept. “Maybe,” she wondered, “blended instruction won’t work with my content area.”

When I met with the colleague, it was clear from our conversation that she hoped a blended approach would allow her to incorporate more active learning strategies into her face-to-face class. She wanted to break away from a primarily lecture-driven environment and provide students with more opportunities for collaboration and interaction. When we discussed her blended lesson, however, she focused mostly on what she wanted the students to learn during the different phases of the lesson. “What,” I asked “were YOU learning from your students during the different phases of the lesson?” She seemed puzzled by the question, which provided a great entryway for discussing how formative assessment can contribute to blended success.

Although most people probably associate the term “assessment” with quizzes and exams, in reality these high-stakes activities represent a small subset of assessment opportunities. Educationally, assessments can be broken into two larger categories: summative and formative. Most of our experience with assessment usually comes in the form of summative assessment. We have our students take exams or write papers at the end of a chapter. Summative assessments are valuable because they let us know whether our students have successfully learned what we wanted them to learn. Summative assessments, however, are limited in that they provide little information to guide teaching because they usually serve as the endpoint of some instruction.

Whereas summative assessments are assessments “of” learning, formative assessments are assessments “for” learning. They help to guide instruction and provide valuable information for the instructor and for the learner. Formative assessments can help to drive instructional decision-making and allow the instructor to “take the temperature” of the class. In the discussion with my colleague, I outlined the different phases of blended learning and highlighted opportunities for formative assessment in each.

Activities for before class
In a blended class, instructors typically assign a video or some instructional content to pre-teach a topic or concept. But this also provides opportunities for formative assessment. Instructors can examine the prior knowledge that students possess before starting the lesson. This process doesn’t have to involve giving students something formal. Prior to assigning the pre-teaching material, instructors can have students complete a concept map representing what they already know about a given topic, or they can facilitate a classroom discussion where students share their knowledge associated with the concept.

The specific strategy isn’t as important as the information the process reveals. By assessing students’ prior knowledge, the instructor discovers the starting point for her learners, which can inform how the lessons are organized and the techniques used. In a science class, this could mean helping students overcome long-held misconceptions about a topic by using more hands-on instruction. In a math course, this might mean teaching some requisite skill needed to learn at a higher level.

Assessing prior knowledge isn’t the only assessment opportunity in the pre-teaching phase of blended instruction. Instructors can also assess students after they’ve interacted with assigned video lessons. Students can complete a handout while watching the video or take an online quiz after the fact. Free tools like EDpuzzle and Educanon allow instructors to easily embed questions at specific points during the video. The screen recording software Camtasia Studio also allows instructors to inject questions throughout a video lesson. Again, the specific strategy itself isn’t as critical as the information it provides. Armed with information from these assessments, instructors can modify their in-class lessons and activities to target areas where learners have struggled after the pre-teaching phase.

Activities for during class
In this phase of the blended cycle, instructors incorporate activities and lessons to help students build on the concepts they learned during the pre-teaching phase. Maybe students are completing problems in class or discussing higher order concepts in more detail.

Like the pre-teaching phase, this phase provides opportunities for formative assessment that can help guide instruction. For instance, instructors can use clickers to assess whether students are effectively applying the concepts. This can let the instructor know when he needs to reteach a concept or open the class to some peer instruction. Even informally observing body language and facial expression can prove to be powerful formative assessments to guide instruction.

Activities for after class
In this phase of the blended cycle, students are extending their learning by applying the concepts to new situations or building on the concepts through additional instruction. These situations lend themselves to even more formative assessments. For instance, as students exit the class, instructors can ask them to submit what they felt was their “muddiest point” of the lesson. This could provide useful information as instructors create or select content to assign.

In my colleague’s lesson, she had originally assigned the quiz as more of a summative assessment. After our in-depth discussion on the power of formative assessment, my colleague began to see the quiz as providing valuable information to guide her instruction and reteach areas where the students had struggled. This important shift in the purpose of assessment is critical to the success of any student-centered environment, especially a blended class.

Note:  This post originally appeared on the Faculty Focus blog on July 23, 2014.

Replay: Minecraft and the power of the IKEA Effect

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d replay some “family-inspired” posts from the 8 Blog archive.  This one was written in February 2013 after reflecting on my kids’ addiction to Minecraft.

My children are living in two worlds.  Almost every evening, I have to ask my kids to shut down their iPod Touches and return to planet Earth.  After some minor protests, they’ll re-engage with my wife and I but I can see it in their eyes.  They long to return to the boxy world of Minecraft.  For those of you who may not know, Minecraft is an online application where players build their own worlds.  Minecraft functions almost as if someone had digitized an entire box of Legos and shipped them to an imaginary 3D world.  While it’s often called an online game, no one “wins” at Minecraft.  In fact, there aren’t any rules or points to score in the game. Players just build.

The game has two basic versions:  survival and creative modes.  In survival mode, players must survive an attack of zombies, monsters and spiders and maintain their health by collecting resources available in the Minecraft world. My children typically play in creative mode.  In creative mode, the objective is more free form and open: create your own world.  By assembling Minecraft blocks, my son and daughter build trees, houses and all sorts of different structures.  When I talk with my kids about their Minecraft world, they light up.  My son will show me the house he’s built inside a mountain and my daughter will show the elaborate forest she’s constructed.  Even though they’re just selecting and assembling blocks in a digital space, they’re proud of their work.  They’ll excitedly navigate through their Minecraft world showing me all of the products of their labor.

While thinking of the pleasure that my children derive from playing and building in Minecraft, I heard a news report on NPR that discussed the IKEA effect.  Researchers at the Harvard Business School examined people’s affection for products they had assembled from IKEA.  Compared to products that came pre-assembled, individuals valued objects they had assembled themselves significantly more.  People value the products of their labor when they are able to successfully complete a task, the researchers claim. Put more simply, labor leads to love.    Even though the participants in the study were simply following step-by-step instructions when assembling the IKEA products, the researchers found a greater valuation of these objects in comparison to similar pre-assembled ones.  But the research wasn’t just limited to chairs and bookshelves from IKEA.  Researchers found similar effects to more hedonic products like Origami flowers and Lego structures.  When studying the construction of these objects, researchers found that the participants valued their creations so much that many expressed a desire to showcase the objects to others.

And that’s the motivation behind Minecraft.  Give players the opportunity to build something and they’ll value the experience and the product of their labor.  Even when applied to a virtual space where players assembled objects from a finite number of pieces, the IKEA effect can be powerful.  Just look at my 6-year-old son and my 11-year-old daughter.  They’re absolutely under the influence of the IKEA effect.  The IKEA effect explains to some degree why it’s so difficult for them to shut off their iPods and return to the land of the living.

But the IKEA effect isn’t negative.  It actually can be really powerful when applied to our classrooms.  Consider incorporating opportunities for students to create something in your classroom.  Maybe have them create a digital story. Or conduct some research.  Or even build a website.  While the labor for these projects may not necessarily to lead to love, it may help build ownership into the classroom content and have them value the course content even more.

Replay: Biking through Scaffolding

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next two weeks, I thought I’d replay some “family-inspired” posts from the 8 Blog archive.  This one was written in September 2012 after teaching my daughter to ride her bike.

Like many parents, I taught my children to ride a bike.  I have to say, as an educator, this was probably one of the most difficult lessons I have ever tried to convey.  In my twenty years of teaching, I’ve taught students integral calculus, thermodynamics and the theory of relativity.  In comparison to these lessons, teaching my children to ride a bike was much more challenging.  Our initial bike riding lessons incorporated falls, crashes, bleeding, bandages and tears. Even though I am an experienced educator, my patience was tested at every turn.  Teaching a child to ride a bike is hard work.

The challenge, however, was not based on the cognitive difficulty of the subject matter or the physical dexterity of my daughter or son.  To be brutally honest, I place all of the blame for any learning challenges squarely on… myself.  My initial bike riding lessons were traditional ones.  I took my daughter to a small hill, positioned her appropriately and let her go.  I figured she would learn through the shear necessity and immediacy of the task.  It was sink or swim.  And she sank.  Or rather, she crashed.  And cried.  And bled.

After several days of regrouping, we attempted lesson two in bike riding.  For this lesson, I took my daughter to a level parking lot and pushed her.  Really fast.  Running behind her bike, I shouted commands like “Pedal!” and “Steer!” and “Keep your head up!”  while trying to keep her from falling.  But she fell.  And cried.  And bled.  And threatened to never speak to me again if I forced to her ride her bike again.

Frustrated and more than a little ashamed, I figured there had to be an easier way.  After a few quick Google searches, I came upon the instructional method that turned my children’s bike riding world around.   Bike New York promotes a “balance-first” approach.  In this method, the pedals of the bike are removed and children focus solely on balancing their bike by walking it around a level surface.  After mastering this task, children begin scooting and then begin to tackle other skills such as pedaling, steering and stopping.  It was a novel approach.  After the traumatic experiences I’d put my daughter through, I was willing to try anything.  I removed the pedals from my daughter’s bike and within a few hours, she was riding.  By moving slowly through different steps, she was able to master the complex task of riding her bike.  The best part?  She didn’t fall once using the “balance-first” method.  No crashes.  No tears.  No bleeding.

But this post isn’t really about the best way to learn how to ride a bike or how wonderful (or horrible) of a parent I am.  It’s about learning.  Liev Vygotsky promoted the concept of the “zone of proximal development” to describe what learners could achieve with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other.  In this concept, the knowledgeable other provides initial supports to help students learn a task.  As the learner masters this task, the supports (or scaffolds) slowly fade until the learner can tackle the task on his/her own.  The focus then shifts to a more complex task with new supports which also eventually fade.  Little by little, the learner moves through new scaffolds and new zones until s/he eventually can tackle a complete, complex task individually.

Traditional methods of teaching bike riding involve little scaffolding.  The learner attends to all of the complexity individually with little support from the more knowledgeable other.  In the “balance-first” approach, however, the whole activity is deconstructed with the learner being scaffolded through intentional, developmental stages that build appropriately to the entire activity.  While the “sink or swim” methods of teaching bike riding might be more traditional, the “balance-first” method was definitely more instructionally sound.


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