Special Report: Teaching with digital apps

Braden has the students do web-based activities they can also do at home. One of the tools they’re using is Scratch, a free program from the MIT Media Lab that introduces younger students to the principles of computer programming.

Students appreciate the “immediate feedback” they get from the program, Braden says. They can move lines of code around “like puzzle pieces” and see how their character moves on the screen as a result. There’s also a collaborative element to it: Students can share their projects with others, and they can download creations by their peers—so they can learn from these as well.

The pace of innovation creates another challenge for schools: Often, a school’s ed-tech infrastructure becomes outdated quickly as new versions of apps are introduced that no longer work with the older equipment.

That’s what happened at William E. Norris Elementary School in Southampton, Mass., and its case of iPods that teachers could check out for their classes. But while the iPods no longer support many newer versions of apps, the school still has a few laptop carts, says sixth grade teacher Kevin Hodgson.

Hodgson recently used the laptops and an open-source software program called Twine to teach a creative writing unit. Twine lets you create interactive stories and organize them graphically with a map that you can rearrange as you work. Links automatically appear on the map as you add them to your text, and you can eMail a story to friends or post it on a class website easily.

Hodgson had students create a “choose your own adventure” story with the software. Other sites he likes to use with his students include VoiceThread, which is “a nice tool for sharing media and podcasts,” and Youth Voices, an online network for middle and high school students.

Some educators have taken matters into their own hands. Tammy Marshall, a literacy specialist at Goodnoe Elementary School in Newtown, Pa., bought her own iPad last year. She works with small groups of struggling readers and was looking for a tool that could help.

Marshall discovered Futaba, an iPad app from INKids that allows teachers to create multiplayer learning games. That’s perfect for her, because the games can accommodate up to four players at a time—and she can have students share her single iPad while they play.

Marshall also likes the flexibility of Futaba, as it lets her customize the games she creates to make them more or less challenging, depending on students’ abilities. She uses the app to develop learning games that reinforce concepts like short vowel sounds, and her students “absolutely love” playing them, she says, adding: “When kids want to do things, good things happen.”

If Marshall had more iPads, she could “further differentiate” instruction, she says. But for now, she’ll have to make do with just the one device.

Learning about digital tools

Because Marshall took it upon herself to get an iPad, she’s been finding and learning how to use apps largely on her own.

“There’s lots of good stuff for free,” she says, “but it can be hard to find.” Because she describes herself as “not … a techie person” by nature, she looks for apps that are easy to use. “When you’re in the throes of [the school year], you don’t have a lot of time to figure things out,” she adds.

Marshall’s experience is common among educators. According to the 2012-13 Speak Up survey, 31 percent of teachers said they’d like to learn more about “how to identify mobile applications to use in the classroom with my students”—making it one of the top professional development wishes for educators.

Dennis Pierce

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