Advancing the tablet beyond an e-reader ; a forethought or an afterthought?

Much of the initial argument to introduce 1-to-1 digital learning devices in schools hinged on the imperative to address physically demanding weight of students’ schoolbags.Now however management and teachers are tasked with advancing these devices beyond e-readers. Here lies a bone of contention; devices were opted for without proper consideration, training, and planning regarding their role in terms of e-learning, digital creativity and  adaptability to a new curriculum. Scaling this down to just my own classroom experience , I can easily relate to the current predicament in which  many schools that have gone down or are considering the tablet route find themselves.

Project Maths stimulated more thought in how I introduced, sequenced and consolidated various topics. As I initiated more pair and group work I definitely felt the pinch on time and also the need for a better way to round out lessons. With increased activity based learning often through pair and group work it was important to nail down the concepts drawn from tasks and to relate these to the different ways students went about solving problems. Even if a student went down the wrong path this was welcomed and highlighted in our common mistakes or misconceptions section, something the textbook failed to do – here we often learn the most valuable lessons. Instead of the more traditional model of creating and distributing notes I enjoyed being able to create the notes in class with the students, making them active participants in the process as well as giving them ownership of the work. This allowed the material to be contextualised and made far more relevant.

Creating class notes in class with students

Students create the class notes during class

The interactive whiteboard wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted a tablet to bring this methodology further such that I could move about the classroom whilst still projecting, take pictures of students work and activities to add to our notes, handwrite, and annotate. At first I had to do some research to get up and running – choosing what would suit my needs, what adapters or accessories I needed for handwriting and projecting and of course deciding which apps worked best for Maths. At the time it came down to a Surface Pro (the first edition) and an iPad2. I was heavily leaning for a Surface Pro but with little encouragement from a salesman in PC World I ended up purchasing an iPad 2. I was quickly up and running with my iPad. Very soon I was adequately functional and refined my class usage to a few very good apps: NotesPlus for handwriting and annotating, GeoGebra and FluidGraph2014 for graphing, and Reflector on my classroom desktop to allow airplay and thus projection. I found my favourite stylus from the EuroGiant store for a bargain €1.49. IPads are not ideal for handwriting and this was my major reason for moving away from it originally but it is possible if you are willing to accept the stylus will never replicate a digitiser pen like a Surface Pro. A digitiser will reject your palm on sensing the pen close to the screen. I’m not so sure the iPad would be a good digital handwriting model for students using them on a regular basis in the classroom.

There were marked improvements in my classes and students found it easier follow lessons and enjoyed seeing their work projected, highlighted, and worthy of the class notebook. All agreed they could access these via a mobile phone, tablet, iPod etc. at home so the less need for taking down notes in class freed up more time for listening and contribution to discussion and other tasks. Here came my next hurdle; where would I upload and share notes and resources? I was aware of three different Learning Management Systems being used by teachers in the school, a less than ideal solution for students.. This is another crossroads schools find themselves at, choosing one system which will adequately and comprehensively meet the needs of different subjects and various teaching styles without causing mutiny! After a chat with the Principal I went for the most widely used, Schoology.

Explain Everything for screencasting

Explain Everything for screencasting

Here I didn’t find things so smooth. At the time the app crashed regularly or just didn’t save when uploading resources or notes directly from the iPad. I’m sure this is more robust by now but it was frustrating at the time. With senior students I wished to make screencasts for exploring some of the components of the flipped classroom. Again this was not so simple with the iPad. There was no way to record my screen while I moved from app to app directly on the iPad. For this purpose I experimented with a number of apps but mostly ExplainEverything, a digital whiteboard with the ability to record sound and audio as you move about the app. It allows uploading to YouTube or converting to mp4 directly from the app. Personally I wasn’t impressed with the quality of inking in the app so in order to make screencasts I decided to mirror my screen onto my desktop create my screencast from there. Here I could stick with my handwriting app of choice, NotesPlus. This worked well but thinking further down the road when students would have devices in class and they would be creating screencasts: I’m not nearly convinced it would be suitable on this scale.

 

At this point it was more evident than ever if students were to arrive to class with devices a vision of how digital technology would sync with class structure and strategy needed to be created first.Since my own initial endeavours digital and cloud technologies have moved on making it much more practical for all staff to move together using a system which offers a space for planning, collaboration and improving the learning experience. This to my mind is the best place to start, with staff planning and collaboration, prior to sharing and interacting with students. In order to harmoniously move all stakeholders in the same direction it is perhaps more prudent to explore and find a VLE that will give structure, accessibility, and productivity to teachers and students and then further this with a device which extends this functionality. A device should as much as possible work around and enhance styles and strategies already in place and not be too removed from or foreign to the instruction/learning process.

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