Ten Digital Ideas to Consider at Your School This Week 1

This past week was the 2012 Michigan Digital Learning Conference hosted by the MACUL organization. The conference brings together Michigan educators and technology professionals to share ideas on what the latest and greatest in technology could mean for education. There were presentations by classroom teachers, administrators, tech “gurus” and technology vendors. The conference was an opportunity to learn new things, share and discuss ideas with others from around the state of Michigan, and to renew a sense of the role of technology in our lives. There was something for everyone to take away from the keynote, session presentations, and discussions. Whether you are in the field of education, or just want some great digital ideas to use in your personal or professional life, here are the top ideas that stood out at the conference.

Keynote speaker Leslie Fisher presented on day two of the conference and showcased a number of cool gadget tools and apps for iOS. LeapMotion, an up-and-coming competitor to Microsoft’s Kinect, promises 0.01mm accuracy hands-free control of a device. The device will allow you to use gestures that are sensed by the LeapMotion device to control the functions of your computer, laptop, etc. Pretty amazing stuff. The demo video of the LeapMotion alone is enough to motivate an impulsive pre-order. For $70, this device can make you Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Looking ahead to what this might mean for personal computing or the classroom, the ability to navigate control of a device without the need for hard-wired, or even wireless, controllers enhances the experience of using programs, such as maps, simulations, or photo editing. Think about how often people “talk with their hands” during a conversation. They try to help you understand what they are thinking more with their gestures. The LeapMotion may help to bridge the gap between thinking and communicating ones thinking a little more. In the classroom setting, tools to help narrow that gap are invaluable.

Augmented Reality (AR)

A new “visual browser” called Aurasma allows you to create your own “auras” to overlay on images and text. This will allow another user scanning the image with their device camera using the app to automatically access your created content overlaid on the image. There are a number of AR apps out there, many of which are either targeted for or could be repurposed for education. The possibilities of creating content for a lesson or project are really promising. With AR technology, such as the Aurasma app, information could be overlaid on objects, experimental equipment, worksheets, projects, areas of a building, or even to generate hints for assignments and projects. Increasing device use in the classroom makes the future development and current availability of augmented reality apps very appealing to education.

gClass Folders for Google Drive

Classrooms have already seen the value of and begun incorporating Google Apps into their student and teacher workflows. As a free alternative to pricey Learning Management Systems (LMS) and as a no-maintenance option instead of some of the open-source LMS out there, Google Apps can provide a very appealing digital classroom toolset. One of the cautions with Google Drive (f.k.a. Google Docs) has been a challenge to create a file distribution and collection system between teachers and students. Many of the LMS out there offer no-setup folder hierarchies with easy to use features for students and teachers across all classes. Although this can be done in Google Drive, it is not an intuitive or automated setup; and actually, the tediousness of creating all the folders with correct permissions for all students in all classes is a daunting task that few teachers would have time to do. That’s where gClass Folders comes in for the win! It is a script built into a Google spreadsheet template that automatically creates file folders for a group of individuals based on your entered information in the spreadsheet. It automates the creation of a view only folder, editable folder, and turn-it-in style dropbox folder for each individual and then shares the folders with them.

Reflector App for iOS Mirroring on Mac or PC
With the popularity of the AirPlay mirroring features on newer iOS devices, many conference rooms and classrooms are equipped an Apple TV to allow someone to show the display of their device on a larger display. Having an Apple TV connected to a projector will allow any device on the same wireless network to mirror its display and audio through the projector. A great feature for classrooms, the Apple TV can allow students and the teacher to share content wirelessly in the classroom for all to see. Some school wireless networks do not play nicely with the Apple TV, and this can be a brick-wall to classroom integration of the technology; however, a computer-based application called Reflector (f.k.a. “Reflection”) offers a viable alternative. The app, which retails for $15, allows a user to wirelessly mirror their iOS device display on the computer or laptop screen. If your laptop or desktop are connected to a projector and on the wireless network, then a device connection to allow for AirPlay mirroring is now at your disposal. One of the best features of the Reflector app is the ability to display multiple devices simultaneously, a great feature for comparing the ideas of multiple individuals in a classroom. The app also touts screen recording ability, which opens up the playing field for iOS device screencasting, an essential component to flipped classroom models.

iPads Trump Interactive Whiteboards

Though many classrooms and conference rooms are already equipped with interactive whiteboards and projectors, if there is a decision to be made about choosing new technology, perhaps the best choice isn’t an interactive whiteboard. The actual interactive whiteboard device isn’t much more evolved than a traditional whiteboard, or worse yet…a chalkboard; however, it does have some appealing features such as simulations, games, integration with student response systems, and lesson/assessment templates. Notwithstanding these software features, the actual hardware has many setbacks. Its one user at a time limitation and fixed position in a room requires a presenter to be tethered to the board (unless you have an Airliner) and that blocks the view of the audience from any content being displayed. Yet an insightful presentation on why you want an ipad instead of an interactive whiteboard, revealed that the cost of an interactive whiteboard is far greater than an alternative setup that includes a projector, Apple TV (or computer running the Reflection app) and an iPad. The iPad setup for a classroom has much more versatility and plenty of comparable features to outplay any interactive whiteboard, including that several iOS devices can interact with the setup and allow audience members to participate with their own device. With the untethered freedom, variety of apps available on iOS, and the ability to act as a roaming document camera as well, the iPad (over the interactive whiteboard) not only advances classroom technology but promotes collaboration instead of mere presentation.

21Things4Students & the Digital Literacy Movement

We want to use all these great technologies, apps, and digital tools in classrooms with students. The hope is that these innovations will empower students and enhance teaching & learning. One major hurdle to use of technology in the classroom is the ability for students to engage with and successfully use all the tools at their disposal is that students may not know how to use the tools already. This sets up a need for training, and intensive training in some cases. The theory of the digital native posits that individuals born in the digital age have some intuitive and and inherent ability to use and learn technology that surpasses the ability of individuals born in earlier generations. This can sometimes leads to false assumptions in the classroom that students will easily figure out how to use digital tools and integrate them immediately into their learning experience. Without the proper training, students will struggle with technology just like anyone new to it. That’s where a tremendous initiative to teach digital skills and standards of digital citizenship called 21Things4Students comes up huge. It is an organized curriculum for students, mostly focused at the middle school and junior high level, to teach them digital skills and introduce them to tools common in the digital learning realm. Students proceed through the curriculum as a course led by an instructor and completely delivered online. The experience takes students, at their own pace, through a variety of skills and guides them to create artifacts and generate a portfolio of their learning. The implications for such a curriculum is far-reaching and imperative to training students to be successful in navigating the digital world.

Students Should Be Blogging

If 1) the pen is mightier than the sword; 2) writing is a blueprint of thinking; and 3) social media can help change the world, then meaningful blogging is the perfect tool to teach students written expression…and much more. The connection between writing skills, learning, and academic performance has motivated an emphasis in teaching writing across the content areas; however, there is no hard-and-fast approach to teach writing in each subject discipline. Often times, technical writing in each subject is the focus of teaching writing across the content areas; however, a reliable and consilient method of teaching writing could be to get students blogging. There are many examples of student journaling throughout the history of classroom teaching at many different levels, but blogging provides an opportunity for not only reflective writing and thinking, but for communication, showcasing student learning, and making thinking visible. Some great examples of student blogs exist at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels of education, and they can be inspiring to see what students can do to create and share content and ideas. Even micro-blogging can be a successful opportunity for student writing. Overall, student writing is the focus, regardless of the medium, but blogging offers so much more than mere writing. Blogging could be that missing link that bridges a gap between thinking and expression to help students become more resourceful and successful learners.

Mobile Applications Still Dominate the Scene

What would we do without mobile applications? Probably not much. Although the devices we love, and sometimes love to hate, are sophisticated and advanced, it is genuinely the apps for the devices that give them their usability and mass appeal. After all, what would a front-facing camera be without video-calling apps? Many of the conference sessions, including the keynote addresses, highlighted some of the great (free) apps out there that have functionality in the classroom or in education in general. With literally billions of apps available for countless devices and platforms, finding the best apps can be an Attention-Deficit-Disorder-inducing nightmare. A career could be made out of scouring the app stores out there for the best applications, only to find out the next day that new ones have emerged that might be better, or just different. There are apps for teaching science, math, writing, music, reading, fine arts, social studies, ELA, artforeign language, special education, and physical education; however, the common theme here is that apps can help any device do just about anything. Remember, it’s not about the technology, but what you do with it, that is most important when it comes to education.

Considerations Before Going 1:1

Talking to educators and other professionals from schools and districts around the state of Michigan, and likely around the country and world alike, you quickly discover that many places are looking into one student-one device (1:1) initiatives for the learning environment. There are many great models for a 1:1 classroom, or school, including computer labs, mobile devices, BYOD or even student laptops. Yet, many of these initiatives present as if the focus is on the technology and not the teaching & learning. One of the most impactful messages that was presented at this conference encouraged schools and classrooms, which are considering or have gone to 1:1 environments, to ensure that the focus is always on student learning outcomes. A 5-E framework was presented to guide decision-making for anyone considering 1:1. These five Es include: effective instructional practices, economics, equity, expectations, and evaluation. The presentation suggests a process-driven approach to a 1:1 initiative that starts by identifying learning outcomes for students, devising instructional practices and tools that achieve these outcomes, and finally deciding which devices would best support the teaching & learning. It is a backwards-by-design approach in comparison to what may otherwise seem like a simple choice of what is the best device to get for everyone; however, it is not that simple.

BYOD/BYOT Policies Need Closer LookIf you had the choice between a laptop given to you by your work or school, and using the one you already have, which would you choose? It’s likely that the device you obtained for yourself meets your specific needs, whereas a device given to you will meet only some needs of yours and mostly those of another party. The generosity and care behind a 1:1 initiative is great, because schools and businesses are considering that they want all individuals to be equally equipped; however, just as teaching, learning, and working do not all happen in the same way for all individuals, we cannot expect that one technology meets the needs of everyone either. So, does a “level playing field” for technology mean that everyone has the same technology, or just that everyone has equally capable technology? This is what makes a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) policy a great way to go. Using the device you already have allows you to tailor your own expertise to meet the challenges of tasks that require technology. It can save districts and businesses lots of capital that could go toward training staff or enhancing some other area of the practice; yet, many places do not have supportive BYOD/BYOT policies in place. Productive adults in the professional world will be hard-pressed to deny the indispensable nature of their personal mobile devices or laptops, and that is an important thing to consider for the learning environment as well. Cell phones can be learning tools, but only if there are supportive policies in place to allow them to be. When considering technology in the classroom or workplace, BYOD/BYOT should be a top priority. There are best practices of a sustainable policystep-by-step guidelines for forming a policy, and important considerations for any policy writing of the sort in either business or education. It might be helpful to take a look at example policies already in place elsewhere before formulating your own. From business, to education, to government agencies, great examples of BYOD/BYOT policy can guide you in the right direction. It is true that BYOD/BYOT is a debate in progress, but with solid discussion and planning the best decision can be made. If your school, classrooms, businesses, or departments are looking into ways to incorporate technology, then a BYOD/BYOT policy is in need. Supportive policies make best practices possible. 

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Gary is an influential teacher leader with extensive experience educating students at the high school and university level. He is a regular conference presenter, education speaker, and leader of staff development for educators. His classroom practice embraces a collaborative environment centered on constructivist teaching, project-based learning, classroom branding, Modeling Instruction, standards-based grading, and mobile device technologies.

About Gary G Abud Jr

Gary is an influential teacher leader with extensive experience educating students at the high school and university level. He is a regular conference presenter, education speaker, and leader of staff development for educators. His classroom practice embraces a collaborative environment centered on constructivist teaching, project-based learning, classroom branding, Modeling Instruction, standards-based grading, and mobile device technologies.

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