Lightbulb #5 – A brave new world?

Integrating mobile technology into the classroom is a thorny area – although I don’t feel that the debate is as polarised as the media and public attitudes might have us believe. I have to admit that, 18 months ago, when 1:1 iPads first came on my radar as something I would have to think about as part of my teaching practice, I would have counted myself as one of the skeptics. Not, I hasten to add, as a result of caveman-like Luddite attitudes to technology, but more because of a lack of awareness about what sort of power these devices can have. I was sure they could do something, but I wasn’t yet sure what.

I’m happy to be wrong. It’s been great! I’ve genuinely loved trying different ways to implement this, and I’ve written more specifically about useful apps and ideas for technology in the English classroom here and here. But, for what it’s worth, here are some of my more general thoughts on some of the challenges, triumphs and tribulations of mobile technology in the English classroom.

 It’s great when it works

There have been some great articles and blogs about the power of mobile technology to improve workflow in the classroom, and apps such as Showbie and Edmodo do create excellent platforms for work to be handed in and marked digitally, while apps such as Socrative are great ways to create digital quizzes or reflective plenary-style questions.

But problems in practice have meant that this have never been as efficient as I wanted it to be, not least because 11-year-olds aren’t famous for being highly efficient and independent. By the time I’ve spent 10 minutes helping half the students deal with technological mishaps (wifi not working, server down, iPad out of battery because they forgot to charge it, other mysterious issues which I don’t have the technical knowhow to fix), I can’t help feeling that I might as well have just asked them to write on paper and collect it in the old-fashioned way in the first place.

Possible solutions

  1.  This may be obvious to you, but it wasn’t for me, so I apologise if this sounds patronising, but do have a back-up plan. This may be for those students who can’t upload their work to Showbie, for instance, to email the work to you or stick it in a shared Dropbox folder, or it may be simply getting them to email it into you later, or to write the work by hand.
  2. Whatever it is you do, have a system to keep track of how students hand in work. The part of me that tends to prefer doing things the long-winded way likes to use a paper mark book, and I’ve started adding another column for each piece of work with a quick record of what format the students have handed in their work: bk for book, Sb for Showbie, E for emailed and so on.
  3. Be patient. I have a feeling that these are teething problems which will eventually settle down when students are more used to this new way of working too. It’s worth bearing in mind that although they are very familiar with mobile technology, students’ understanding of iPads are mostly about watching videos and checking social media, so using them efficiently in school will take some adjustment for them as well.
  4. Keep it simple, certainly at the start. I think it can feel a little overwhelming – I certainly felt a little swamped by all the wonderful and whizzy things you can do with an iPad, and if your head is in a whirl, you can guarantee that the students’ heads will be in a similar state! Find an app or two (at least to start) which work for you and stick with them, and after a while your class should get the picture and some of these kinks will be ironed out. I think my biggest mistake was trying too many different things and then not really knowing which to use, leaving my poor Year 7s feeling somewhat wobbly and unsure of how their work would be collected. The other advantage of course is that the students will now have a centralised location to find all of their digital work for your subject, making it much easier to review progress.

 Does the tech need to catch up with us?

Using AirPlay to flip the iPad screen onto the interactive whiteboard and modelling annotating poems or marking exemplar paragraphs has been a lovely way to avoid the lack of eye contact with the class while you write on the board, or a way to avoid leading the class from the front of the room all the time. I also very much like the way I can collect work (using Showbie), mark it (again on Showbie or using Notability), and send it back via email, without having to leave my desk to collect the work from the printer, and I don’t have to carry enormous piles of books with me. I can also type comments in almost a fraction of the type it takes me to write out feedback and targets.

However, these great timesavers have not altogether met my expectations. Although I have a great little stylus for writing on the iPad (albeit a very cheap one), I haven’t yet managed to master the art of writing on an iPad screen. Detailed annotations – circling spelling errors; wiggly lines; questions; slashes; dashes and so on – these are essential items in the English teacher’s marking toolkit but my iPad marking is extremely clumsy. Most of us lean the pad of our hands on the page when we write, but if I try this on an iPad I inadvertently move the page, or create exciting little squiggles and hieroglyphics in odd places. Try writing something without leaning your hands on the page. It’s tricky, isn’t it? There’s a distinct lack of control – how on earth someone manages to create those fantastic drawings you see in iPad/tablet advertisements I have no idea. And typing isn’t much better: when the keyboard pops up on-screen you can’t see most of what you (or the students!) have written as the keyboard takes up half of the screen.

Possible solutions

  1.  Again, I’m prescribing patience. Perhaps in a few years, the stylus and screen will have evolved such that this sort of thing will no longer be a problem. UPDATE: Today I opened Notability to find a notification that they have developed a way to detect the pad of your hand to prevent the aforementioned unwanted squiggles. Hallelujah!
  2. Customise your equipment. Without spending a fortune, the students have purchased all manner of additional items such as portable chargers and styluses for their iPads, and under recommendation from one of my Year 12 students, I bought a nice, cheap bluetooth keyboard from Amazon for about £15 – this has completely eradicated the keyboard-hiding-screen conundrum and made the predicted text function disappear to boot.
  3. Practice – I did spend a good half hour on my PGCE practising my interactive whiteboard handwriting and I do feel that was a half hour well spent. Perhaps a similar investment of time will help me write more efficiently without using resting my hand on the side of the page? Watch this space…

 Content woes

In a word, English is possibly the most challenging subjects in terms of content, purely because there is so much of it. My overriding feeling is that the supply of content-based apps simply does not meet the demand – certainly not in terms of content. Much of what is out there tends to be too simplistic; it’s better for primary level, but a little superficial for the kind of detail and evaluative approach I’m looking at for my Key Stage 3 and 4 classes, especially when it comes to literacy. There are a few literature quiz apps which could make nice starter activities for revision, but beyond that, have limited use for the analytical demand of English study. The most useful apps are those which promote collaboration or which focus on generating ideas or the planning stages of a piece of work, but ultimately, I do feel that English draws the short straw on the app front.

Possible solutions

 1) Don’t use the apps if they’re no good! I felt a little pressured to use what’s there, but on the most simplistic level, using iPads for instant, (relatively) fuss-free email and internet access is a perfectly valid and useful way to make good use of these tools. Dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopaedias, easily the most widely needed items in English lessons, are now immediately accessible.

2) Create the content yourself! It is now fairly standard practice for me to simply email powerpoints or worksheets in advance of the lesson – a fairly idiot-proof way of reducing paper waste, annihilating the amount of wasted time spent cutting out and sticking work into students’ books, and ensuring that all students get the work, even if they miss a lesson. The content is exactly what I want it to be. I’m going to start investigating ways to convert my content into iBook format to make it even more iPad friendly, but for now, this is working well for my classes.

I’m probably preaching to the converted or simply reiterating things which people have heard before, but I hope not – if these ideas were useful to me, I’d like to think that someone else might benefit from them too. Please let me know your thoughts, comments and questions.

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