Monthly Archives: March 2012

Teaching? Theres an App for that

In recent years, as phones have become ‘smart,’ I have found myself relying more and more on them. My iPhone, with its sleek, 3.5’ touch screen interface is able to help me with nearly any task. It is a handheld GPS, it reminds me of important dates and deadlines and allows me to ‘google’ anything, at any time. It wakes me up in the morning and can even sing me lullabies at night (on a timer). And when I run into a problem, the App Store is always there to lend a helping hand, because you can bet that no matter the problem – there’s an app for that!

It is amazing how many smart phone applications can be employed within the classroom, or were developed exclusively for educational purposes. Mobile phones have become hand held computers that can become so useful in facilitating student engagement and learning.

Truth of the matter is that there are actually SO MANY apps that it can become difficult to isolate the most useful for the purpose. Luckily, Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA)  regularly tests available apps and even recommends apps for teacher use!

Being an iPhone user, I can really only comment on my experience with the apps available in the App Store. However, many of the same or similar apps are available for android users too. Here are some of applications that I (and TCEA, as well) feel have huge potential in the classroom:

Astrid – this is an open source to-do list and task manager that enables the teacher to make to-do lists and share them with the students. The app features reminders, syncing, a widget and instant notifications, the app is useful for peer-learning tasks and building organizational skills.

Evernote – A handy little app that allows you to take notes, pictures or clip articles on your smartphone, which you can then tag with words, phrases, date tags or other info in order to reference later. All notes created on your cell phone will be synced with your computer as well. During a science lab, all students could take a picture of their results to send to Evernote. Likewise, the teacher can save all readings, notes and presentations into Evernote for students to access from their mobile phones.

Open Culture – This free app provides mobile access to educational media collections, audio books, language lessons, podcasts and more. Many students have difficulty completing effective searches through a search engine and a simple ‘google’ search brings up far too many irrelevant results. Open culture focuses the students search on educational material in audio, written or visual form.

There are also a huge number of subject specific stimulations that can create hands on learning environments for students. Using mobile technology applications students can dissect a frog, observe and predict weather patterns, create music, or even create personal study tools. For those looking for a more comprehensive list of applications, check our APPitic! It is a great website database of over 1800 educational apps, sorted by purpose, subject and age group.


Make Learning Meaningful with Media!

There is no denying that our world has gone through enormous transformations in the past decade and a half. The Internet ramped up, and entire waves of technologies have come and gone. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter exploded onto the scene, inevitably altering the ways individuals interact with each other (Meister & Willyerd, 2010).

Perhaps the biggest change is the rate at which we are able to consume and produce media. Students who are heavy into social media are constantly influenced by their friends, family, celebrities, blogs, journalists, and news media sources. They are able to create their own media in many forms that acts to express their thoughts and interests. In recent years, social media outlets have helped to launch the careers of some huge celebrities including Justin Bieber and Soulja Boy. Furthermore, it has created serious bankroll for a number of videographers, comedians, musicians, vloggers with the use of YouTube.

Because media and social media are so present in their lives, students easily realize the practicality of lessons that incorporate media and media literacy. Students who see a purpose in learning are far more likely to engage with and absorb the content. Convincing students that there is purpose to their learning is one of the biggest obstacles that teachers must conquer, but with the use of media this task becomes pretty easy. Media can be incorporated into nearly any subject during a lesson, or as a component of an assessment.  In most cases, media helps to elicit student interest, making them want to actively participate in learning and improve the quality of their work. The video below gives ideas of ways that Social Media can help us engage digital natives and, so some extent, revolutionize teaching.

I employed some of the suggestions from this video during a recent teacher’s education placement; I witnessed first-hand exactly how helpful media can be as a means for engaging students. In several instances, blogs, online videos and news articles were used to capture student attention and spark discussions to consolidate learning. The 8th grade science unit focused on the importance of water and water conservation.  The Jay-Z Water for Life video was incorporated into several lessons throughout the unit to teach students about the water crisis. We watched different parts of the video prior to discussions about water scarcity and contamination, as well as accessing and cleaning water. The familiarity of the celebrity made the video’s content more engaging for the students. Media literacy was included in the lessons by having students think about what types of conventions and techniques were used to create meaning and what biases may exist.

Media was also incorporated into the assessment plan. Having students produce media was such a great assessment method. There is so much freedom that can be given to assignments, which makes them more appealing to the class as a whole. Students can decide to write a blog, make a prezi, create a video or even write and record a song. For formative assessments, students can complete an online ‘exit card’ by making a post on twitter or a class wikki. The options truly are endless.

Using Technology in the Classroom – Finding the Perfect Balance

Students of today are demonstrating, in large, the impact of having developed in the digital era. These youth have been completely normalized by digital technologies—it is a fully integrated aspect of their lives. For this reason, this cohort of students has come to be known as digital natives (Prensky, 2001a). Prensky argues that these digital natives contain brain structures that are actually different from those of ‘digital immigrants,’ or the digitally illiterate from previous generations (Prensky, 2001b). To a teacher with a psychology background, this phenomenon of something called ‘neural plasticity’ makes perfect sense. For those who may not have the neurology background, the video below may may make this idea a little more clear:

As the video explains, an individuals brain is largely shaped by the environment around it. It is the use of technology in every aspect of life that has molded the brains of Digital Natives to be different than those of previous generations. Ultimately, this has changed the way students learn. Prensky argues that the differences are so significant that the nature of education itself must fundamentally change to accommodate the skills and interests of these ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001a)

Unlike Prensky, I would argue that  it is unnecessary to make fundamental changes, especially those in course content.  Being a digital native, it is only in my nature to use technology whenever possible. Within the next few years, the influx of digital native teachers may, in itself, influence the types of lessons and amount of technology used in the classroom. There are several forms of technology that I will, undoubtedly, use in my future teaching career. Here are 3 technologies that I think will be particularly useful and beneficial to student success:

1. SmartBoard – The smart board is a great tool to use for lessons, class discussions and hands-on activities. The Smart Board is an interactive presentation board that can be extremely effective as a medium to include students in learning. For idea consolidation, students can be asked to drag pictures representing ideas into categories or corresponding concepts. Teachers can use the smart board as a digital whiteboard that can save notes for later use.

2. Tablets – In addition to endless educational application possibilities, tablets can be extremely useful in group work. With basic apps for calculations, timers, weather, maps, video, photography (and more!), tablets can act as a useful tool in almost any subject. In group discussions, a tablet enables students to any information at their fingertips. Often times, an idea comes up in discussion and is left behind because students are not able to access the information required to follow the thought. When students have access to a tablet, they can simply ‘google’ to find the information.

3. Video Games – To date, there haven’t been too many exceptional educational video games; however, as this field becomes more popular the quality has been increasing exponentially (Sanford & Hopper, 2010). Through video games, students can complete a series of tasks that help to teach them the required concepts. In addition to a consolidation discussion, video games can be useful in engaging Digital Natives in their learning. The allure of video games comes from their absolute versitility. For literacy and numeracy, video games can be altered to fit so many interests. Furthermore, several versions of the game can be created that will cater to diverse abilities.

Although the use of technology proves to be helpful in teaching and learning, we must find a balance in the amount of technology we bring into the classroom.  It is pertinent for students to gain the basic literacy and numeracy skills without the use of technology, before relying on it. Students must learn to write using a pen and paper before learning how to make the process easier with a computer. When students learn to write, they are practicing their fine motor skills – skills that may not be properly developed otherwise.