Having been teaching with a tablet in my classroom for nearly a year it has become evident that the market for Education apps still isn’t quite right. I think this is most evident in the fact that the course I run training teachers to use an iPad effectively in the classroom features almost no ‘education’ apps. I do one session (out of 7) that revolves around subject-specific apps, but other than this, the apps that are used on a day-to-day basis are commercial, and often free.
That said, even these great apps, that no doubt you read about all the time – Evernote, Dropbox, iMovie etc, don’t do everything we need them to do.
The key to successful technology integration in schools is to get the staff on board. To get the staff on board, you need to show them how much easier life becomes with the technology, as well as how much better/enhanced the learning can be. There will always be a core group of teachers who get on board without much fuss and these people are what keep you sane when you’re trying to push things forward. I will discuss the role of ‘champions’ in a future post.
Back to what we need to get devices functioning at a higher level in a classroom. My wish list includes the following:
An integrated marking and record-keeping app
There are a number of mark books and registers out there to purchase in the App Store and there are a couple of perfectly reasonable marking solutions out there using PDF annotation apps like iAnnotate PDF and neu.Annotate+. I’m also testing out the beta version of an app called Markup, which is specifically designed for marking homework. All of these apps share the same sort of features – you can scrawl and in some cases type over student work once it is in PDF format. With the Markup app the clever bit is that it is delivered to the app and sent out of the app by a unique email address which is useful. But what all of these tools lack is a way of recording what you’ve just done. Whether that is simply putting a grade next to a students name or recording a few notes (written or verbal) about the work whilst it is still in front of you, you can’t do it and this is what we need if marking ‘online’ is ever going to take off. And until marking a text document on a tablet is as easy as using the ‘comment’ function in Microsoft Word on a desktop, you know that the right solution hasn’t made it to the market place.
A heads-up app
Reading about the spec of the new Amplify tablet was interesting as it was clear that the designers had actually talked to teachers. There are some ‘good’ functions in there, including a ‘heads up’ button. Personally I don’t entirely endorse this idea. but I also understand that for some teachers to embrace this technology they need to feel that they have controls above and beyond their old style of classroom management. And I understand this – it is daunting to be faced by 20-30 students all looking at a screen you can’t see. If there was a way of controlling at least when their screens were ‘live’ it would be reassuring, at least in the short term. I think building it in to the functionality of the device is a little limiting and perhaps even insulting to those that do know how to manage this environment effectively. It may also encourage those that can’t, not to reassess their teaching.
Live screen-sharing en masse
There is no denying that Nearpod is a great app. It does a lot of very clever things and I have never seen a class engage so deeply with a task as when I have used it. However, one of its limitations is the ability to share ideas that just happen in the class. Whilst you could build in these types of slides into your presentation, that would defeat the idea of a natural development of ideas! If we could have an app that did this, it would be a winner. Obviously Apple TV gets around this problem to a certain extent, but sometimes the personal and private nature of being absorbed in your own screen can be very powerful and focusing.
Subject-Specific apps designed with Higher Order Thinking in mind
In many ways this was my primary motivation for writing this piece – the lack of really classy and sophisticated apps for specific subjects. Don’t get me wrong, there are some truly beautiful apps out there that have been designed by the best of the best, but these apps are not necessarily aimed at stretching the brightest minds and this is a problem. Technology will always suffer if skeptical teachers get their hands on an app and say ‘that’s too simple.’ They need to look at an app and be confident that it is more than just lip service to ‘real’ learning. An ‘education app’ also needs to be more than a one-trick-pony if it’s going to be ‘paid-for’. Free apps can do one thing well and nobody minds, but schools can’t justify buying a grammar app, a story-writing app, a handwriting app, a Shakespeare app etc all for the same group of kids – the economics just don’t make sense. A good education app will need to allow students to learn in a structured environment, at their own pace, pushing and testing them across a range of topics within a curriculum subject. It’s a big ask, but it’s also the only way to get cynical tech-denying teachers on board – you need to give them a irresistible proposition and in this instance it is an app that can teach at least as well as they do on their very best days in the classroom.
Microsoft Office App
I can see that this is probably going to be a controversial point to finish on and let me preempt this by saying that I do not believe that the iPad needs Microsoft Office apps. What I do believe is that as with the group of people I outlined above, you are going to get more people on board with your project if you offer them something that is a hybrid – something that is partly new and frightening, but partly familiar and comfortable. By offering a ‘Word’ app, you would be doing just that. I know that it’s unnecessary and that you can make Microsoft and Apple play nicely enough, but if using technology in the classroom is about making life easier for teachers and better for students, then sometimes you need to take the small, awkward steps to achieving that goal.
I’m sure there are lots of other things that education needs in the way of apps and software, but these are just some of my initial thoughts on the matter. I’d love to hear what it is you’re waiting for someone to invent/release/develop.