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.