Monthly Archives: February 2013

iPads in the Classroom – One Take on Why We are Doing This

“The Acquisition of a Child by a Learning Disability” by Ray McDermott (in Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context, Chaiklin &​ Lave, 1991) is an essay that I consider to be one of the most influential pieces of work in my career as an educator, and as a tech integration specialist, in particular.  I recently had reason to revisit this article, and found myself still moved by some of its central points: 1) learning (especially in schools) is an inherently social process, influenced by peers, relationships, and social dynamics, and is not a trait to be found in the heads of individuals; 2) as educators, we have an implicit role in the formation, arrangement, and at times, the foreclosure, of childrens’ learning opportunities through this social process; and 3) though children try on different identities throughout their educational experiences and their adolescent development, they sometimes, perhaps all too often, carry those identities which society (read: peers, teachers, schools) ascribes to them.
I’ve recently found myself asking, and being asked by several colleagues, why are we going one-to-one?  What is the point of bringing iPads into the classroom?  I don’t have a canned response or a rehearsed answers to these questions, which is a good thing, I suppose, but when I think about how to respond, I’m often drawn to thinking about McDermott’s essay.  Let me see if I can make that connection here.

McDermott illustrates the central points mentioned above through the story of Adam, a student who has been labeled “learning disabled” (LD) because of the difficulty he experiences in accomplishing certain school-based tasks (e.g., following a recipe in cooking club, staying on task during classroom lessons, and finally – and most challenging for Adam – performing in testing situations).  McDermott’s take in this essay is to consider the contexts in which Adam does well, and those in which he does less well, by examining the various demands and constraints placed on Adam in each setting.  By “demands,” McDermott is not just talking about learning outcomes, he also means the demands placed on Adam to avoid displaying his LD to the world, appearing incompetent to his classmates, and failing to accomplish certain “simple” tasks.  As the demands placed on Adam differ from contexts to context, he looks more-so or less-so competent, sociable, charming, and helpful.  School is a struggle for Adam, but life in the outside world is not.  Because Adam’s ability to perform various academic or real-life tasks didn’t equate across settings (school and non-school), McDermott sought to describe the various contexts in which Adam was being asked to learn, and how the properties of the contexts influenced when Adam appeared LD, and when he did not.In teasing out the different aspects of each context, McDermott highlighted the resources available to Adam at each moment – language, learning materials, peers, teachers, etc.  He then showed how certain arbitrary constraints limiting Adam’s access to these resources made different tasks more challenging for him.  When he has a peer to help him read a math problem or organize his work, Adam performs fine; his LD is invisible.  But when he is forced to work alone on isolated questions that have been removed from the context of his real life experience, or when the tools he would normally use to work his way through a problem have been taken away, he struggles, gives up, and “appears LD”.  Extrapolating this tale of Adam’s experience, I feel I can respond a little bit to why I believe schools adopt, or should adopt, one-to-one programs.  By placing tools into the hands of our students that have real-life application, that give them access to resources and information, and that can help them explore, organize, rehearse, and make salient their own thinking, we take a step towards making labels like “Learning Disabled” disappear.  When we compound these kinds of activities with opportunities to engage autonomously in the learning process (such as through exploration, research, and multimedia production, etc.), we start to create contexts that enable students, rather than limit, or “disable” them.  And when we provide students with tools that they can adopt and use in personalized ways, we further advance this notion.  The iPad is just one example of a tool that can be used to suit this purpose, but like anything else in the classroom, for it to be effective, students must also have the opportunity to use it for activities like the ones just mentioned.  That, my friends, is the crux.  How do we, as educators, create those opportunities for our students?

PDF Annotation App – PDFpen

The 1:1 Committee at my school has been looking at several apps this year in an effort to produce a list of “essential” or “core” apps that we believe our faculty will need for instructing with the iPad.  A number of us deal with PDFs on a regular basis, whether it’s an article we scanned on one of the school copiers, a journal article we downloaded from a library database, or even a Word document we asked our students to convert and upload to Google Docs.  Since so many of us are looking to go paperless when our students have their iPads next year, the 1:1 Committee has been considering a handful of PDF annotation apps that are functional enough to allow for electronic grading, and passing documents back and forth between us and our students.  I recently read a blog post on ProfHacker (a fantastic blog, by the way, on teaching with technology) reviewing one such app – PDFpen.

After navigating the PDFpen site a bit, I came across this video tutorial, which covers practically every feature available in the app.  The video is a bit long, but it’s very, very thorough, and worth a watch for anyone considering annotation apps for the iPad.

Some of the features I like:

  • It integrates with Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, and a few other services, which makes it easy to get PDFs onto your iPad, as well as export them to a file sharing service (for instance, if you wanted to upload a marked-up student assignment to a shared folder on Google Drive).
  • It can create PDFs, including PDF forms (and it can combine existing PDFs!).
  • It can markup, highlight, and annotate in many colors and shapes.
  • It includes a thumbnail navigation pane for easily scrolling through long documents.

What do you think? Does this have advantages over PDFExpert?

Collaboration with Dropbox and Google Drive

During last Friday’s Professional Day, my friend Rob and I covered a few topics to consider when designing collaborative activities that use the iPad.  Specifically, we covered some of the differences between Dropbox and Google Drive, and how those differences make each tool either a better, or worse, solution for sharing between iPads.  One main difference we found is the ability to assign different permission levels to subfolders (folders within folders).  For instance, in Dropbox, when you create a folder within an already shared folder, that new folder will inherit the permissions of the “parent” folder, meaning that the new folder will be shared with the exact same people as the parent folder.  Additionally the people woth whom the parent folder is being shared will have the exact same level of access to files within the new folder as they do with the parent folder.  Make sense?  For example, if you create a folder in Dropbox, and share that folder with your class, all of the students in the class will have access to anything you drop into that folder – including new folders.  This makes for a messy situation when you want to share items with only certain individuals (e.g., grading).  Several people have experimented with workarounds for this, including keeping a folder for delivering class materials (shared with all the students in the class), and separate folders for each student (shared only with that student).

In Google Drive, however, you can set different levels of permission on each item, even if an item is stored within a shared folder.  This has many advantages.  For example, you can create a class folder (shared with everyone in the class), and then create subfolders within that class folder that are shared with only certain individuals (or groups of individuals).  This is useful if you want to provide feedback to students on a paper they’ve submitted to you electronically.  You could also use this method to create folders for small groups, where only the members of that group have access to that folder.  This is a handy way to have students share materials and collaborate on projects.

Changes Coming to Google Forms

Google just announced that it is doing some major upgrades to Google Forms.  For those of you who have used forms in the past, you’ll notice some feature enhancements, including the ability to copy text from a bulleted or numbered list, and paste it directly into a multiple choice or checkbox answer set.  Google has also added a collaboration feature – the sidebar chat – to the forms editor.  Now you can create a form collaboratively, or have your students work on a survey together asynchronously.  Finally – and this will be big for some – you can now choose to store your survey responses in either a spreadsheet (the way Google Forms has done all along), or within the form itself, under the “Summary of responses” feature (found under the “Responses” menu when editing a form).

For a run down on some of the new features, check out this post on the Google Drive Blog: http:/​/​​2013/​01/​google-forms-refreshed.html

For more information on Google Forms, inlcuding creating and editing a form, sharing the form with collaborators, and sending a form to respondents, check out Google’s extensive documentation – it’s actually pretty good.