There’s an app for that…

Posted by: Howard Errey, Educational Developer, Learning and Teaching, Design and Social Context College, RMIT University.

This post focuses particularly on use of the iPad for educators although some of what I share will be relevant for Android devices and smartphones. The ‘digital divide’ is a real issue and one that I’d like to take up in a future post- but increasingly most students will have more than one mobile device. So for ‘iPad’, read ‘iPad, tablet and increasingly smartphones’.

RMIT's Open2Study Course: Foundations of PsychologyOften staff are interested in how they can adopt new technology but are concerned about not having enough time to learn and make successful changes in their teaching. One of the things I have found about the iPad is that it has improved my productivity as well as provided new ways to transfer learning. The challenge, as with a lot of new technology, is putting in the investment of time before the payoff in effectiveness can occur.

There are a couple of examples where I have been involved with iPad use in education that have been illustrative of both the challenges and advantages of adopting iPads. Often iPads are introduced with a simple focus that fails to address the complexity of issues the device also creates as well as the potential complex advantages.  In the Open2study free online Foundations of Psychology course, you can see the iPad being used primarily so that the academic can continue to face the camera while delivering the content. However in several of the early Open2study courses the iPad was merely being used as a whiteboard without taking more advantage of the functional strength and flexibility of the device.

I’ve also been involved in vocational settings where iPads have been handed out to students as a paper and cost-saving activity.  Loading electronic versions of textbooks was going to be cheaper than the provision of textbooks and workbooks. As the devices get cheaper and as the publishers shift to eTextbooks this trend will continue. In this case students were not given enough context and training in using the device and teachers were initially resistant due to a lack of support and preparation. What these instances highlight is the need to be clear (from the teaching team’s perspective) about what moving to devices like this means to their delivery model.

Productivity

I find that the iPad helps my productivity in several ways. One example is that I like to use the Evernote app for note-taking. Evernote is a wonderful tool for collating all sorts of notes. It works across all devices or in a browser and saves notes to the cloud. When I go to a meeting and start a new note Evernote automatically brings the meeting title from my calendar into the note’s heading – making it easier to just begin and know that when I am back at my desktop the notes are already saved and ready to use. I also find the iPad very fast for making presentations – faster than on my laptop or desktop. More on that below.

Challenges in VET and HE

One of the challenging things about the iPad is not having a file system. There are no content folders, no usb port, just apps that you download on to the devices. For a number of reasons, Apple has made this side of the system opaque to users. This means you have to start thinking differently about how you go about things. A part of the solution is to start thinking in combinations of apps. Often you might use two or three different apps to achieve what you want. You might use a third-party camera because it allows for more control over the shot; that shot goes into the iPad’s Photo app and you might use a different third-party app to edit the photo. It’s important then to think in terms of workflows. If you are planning activities with students, you need to consider how you create evidence for what they do on the device (process) as well as how artefacts are transferred off the device (the final product) into an appropriate place (like Blackboard) for assessment.ipad and moleskine notebook

So remember these three questions when you’re planning an activity:

  1. How will the students get the content onto the device? (Will the students use one of the inbuilt tools on the device: web browser, microphone, camera, video camera, notepad or gps?)
  2. What are the students doing with the content once they have it? (What’s the critical or creative task that they’ll be engaging in on the device? Does it require an app or an internet connection?)
  3. What is the process for getting the work from the device and onto, for instance, their peers’ devices for comment or back to their ePortfolio, or into the Learning Management System? (Will the result for you, as an assessor, be easily viewable? Will you be able to see the process as well as a finished product?)

The best way to increase your capacity with these devices is to use them for yourself in meaningful ways. You’ll find yourself using a version of the steps above in your own use-cases. As well, playing with the device is an important element that makes it easier to discover your own approaches to teaching with the device. Here are three ways that I find the iPad useful as an educational device.

1. Presentations

There are several apps that make creating and running presentations easy and engaging. I like to develop PowerPoint style presentations in Keynote. It makes it easy to quickly move content around and it has a notes function that enables you to read from this while presenting. Haiku Deck is an app that encourages good design using free to use images and less text. If you want to use a PowerPoint you have already created then try SlideShark which will import and run the presentation on the iPad without animations.

students using iPhones.

For running presentations try Penultimate which is like a flipboard that you can write on – and you can also import your slides to write over these. Even more sophisticated is Explain Everything which will enable the same activity and will also record what you do on your screen with your voice as you present. You can then save the presentation and send it to students via email or place it in the LMS.

2. Content specific apps

It’s worth visiting Apple’s App Store (or Google’s equivalent Google Play) and typing in your subject or topics relating to your subject. For example, a chemistry teacher will find dozens of apps relating to molecular bonds. There are many free and low-cost apps that could enliven demonstrations on particular topics, allowing students to perform simulated experiments or used as study aids. Trouble Tower (see a screenshot below) is an example of an RMIT-developed app that looks at Occupational Health & Safety in the context of the Australian construction industry.

3. Playing around

Sometimes an app will demonstrate or provide a purpose in unexpected ways. For example the popular game Angry Birds gives a wonderful demonstration of the principles of physics. Fun, intuitive apps like Comic Life and storyboarding apps are used for quick mock-ups in courses like theatre, literature and cinema studies.  Apps that you might use in your own life might have applicability across a range of disciplines. For example Magic Plan allows you to point the device in a room and accurately measure dimensions to create a floor plan.

A note on Android tablets and smartphones

There are often the same (or equivalent) applications for Android devices. And there are a number of aspects in which the Android platform currently has the lead on Apple; a tighter integration with Google’s online tools is a significant one.

Opens a new window to Trouble Tower in the App Store.

A screenshot from Dr Stefan Greuter’s app ‘Trouble Tower’

Androids have other advantages; they offer more customisation and they play Flash animations. While iPads are often easier to use, Androids can often be better adapted to do specific things you want to do. They can also represent good value if you want basic functionalities without the cost of the iPad.

In closing, start small! Try to modify one activity in your class that you think would be enriched by using mobile technology. A colleague at another university recently told me about an OH&S activity she ran where the students had 10 minutes to walk around the building and snap pictures of hazards on campus. The students messaged the pictures to her which then formed the basis of the group’s discussion. A simple activity like that can begin a process of harnessing the tools we’re carrying in our pockets for quick, real-world learning.

Share your thoughts (or useful apps and learning activities) in the comments section or contact me (Howard Errey on Yammer or on Twitter: @howard61) or your School’s Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching for more information

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