Special Report: Teaching with digital apps

In Maynard, technology teacher and iPad coordinator Emily Dowd has put together lists of apps that are useful for various tasks, such as note-taking or video creation, and has eMailed these lists to teachers.

With the help of student volunteers, she’s also created how-to guides, reviews, and comparison charts that focus mostly on applications that can be used across the curriculum, such as Diigo (an online bookmarking and highlighting service), Evernote (a web clipping service that lets you save and sync notes, web pages, files, and images), and Google Drive (an online service for saving and collaborating on videos, documents, and other files).

“It’s great to hear from students and get their input on what would work in class,” she says.

She’s trying to encourage teachers to standardize their use of these apps across all classes, so students would have access to the same digital resources in each class.

Apps that are free—or the free version of apps that offer a more robust, paid version as well—often come with certain limitations. LaBelle discovered this when looking for a tool that students could use to create video timelines.

She had her students use Educreations, a free app that allows users to combine images, text, and voice recordings into a video presentation. But the downside of using the app was that students couldn’t save their work and come back to it, building their timelines incrementally. And “if they messed up their recording, they had to start all over again,” she says. (Educreations since has fixed this problem and now lets users save and return to their work.)

Dowd is working to build a case for why her district should invest in some paid apps for students and teachers, such as Pages (a word processor and page layout tool for iOS devices) and Explain Everything (an iPad app that lets you annotate, animate, and narrate explanations and presentations).

“We want our iPads to have the same functionality as our desktops,” she says.

How a new resource can help

The sheer volume of new apps being created every day poses a key challenge for educators. “There’s so much out there, it can be overwhelming for teachers” to digest, says Hodgson.

But a brand-new service could help. Called Graphite, it’s a free online portal to help educators from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade find, use, and share the best digital apps, games, and websites for their students.

Created by Common Sense Media with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the service contains objective ratings of apps and other digital learning resources from professional reviewers, along with reviews from dozens of “Graphite Educators,” teachers who are hand-picked by Common Sense Media. The nonprofit children’s media group says its system is the first centralized source for unbiased reviews of the learning potential of apps developed for a variety of platforms.

Dennis Pierce

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