Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why Hands on Professional Development is Best

Professional Development workshops should be fun and engaging for the attendees. Just as teachers want students to be excited about learning and not dread coming class, one does not want faculty thinking "I have to attend this workshop today. Ugh."  A hands on activity with tools that can be used across subjects will keep participants engaged and may result in teachers having a Eureka! moment in which they see a way to use these tools in class. There is a comfort level that comes with being in a room full of people learning something new at the same time. Attendees peek over at the next person's screen and say "Hey, what's that?" and before you know it, people are collaborating and talking about what works best for them.

We presented a Google Apps for Education workshop earlier this year for our faculty and instead of providing an introduction to setting up a class web site and sending them on their way with a link to a printed or video tutorial, we invited everyone to bring their laptops and build their site right there in the workshop. We created a demo site and used each of the page templates to demonstrate the different types of pages and how they might be used. Before we knew it, several teachers had created workable web sites that with a few finishing touches, would be ready for prime time. 

As the session moved on, more and more teachers became comfortable with trying new things. Their willingness to experiment was in large part due to the support system that was sitting right there with them. Several asked about creating a class calendar and no sooner did we show them how to set it up, many of them followed suit and put the calendar into the home page of their site. What made us very happy was the fact that no one was watching the clock and ready to rush out once the session was over. Some stayed behind to finish up the site or ask questions about the different ways they could communicate information. When we held a follow up session a month later, nearly all of the attendees returned and a few new faces showed up as well.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Which case for student iPads?

A critical piece of the decision-making process when it comes to issuing iPads to students in a 1:1 situation is the case. Once you determine that you will provide a case with the device, you'll quickly find that there are a sea of cases available and choosing one that meets all of your requirements can be very difficult. You may wish to keep the cost as low as possible, but end up spending even more money replacing those that wear out, rip or tear under the strain of frequent use. You may have to give up a desired feature or two and go with the one that's most practical.

You may opt to allow students to purchase their own cases but that comes with issues as well: if the devices are school owned, the cases must provide adequate protection. Some students may purchase simple top covers or other non-durable case; some students may not be able to afford a case with keyboard or a case at all; teacher troubleshooting of various brands and models of Bluetooth keyboard cases can result in lost class time if the teacher is unable to diagnose the problem. 

The first thing that should be decided is: Will you be issuing cases with built in keyboards? If so, that will add a small amount of additional weight to the device. It will also add an element of responsibility to students in that they will have to charge the keyboard as well as the device a regular basis. The batteries in Bluetooth keyboards have lasted weeks or even longer; however, if students do not develop a routine to charge them periodically, they may be surprised one day when they are typing in class and the dreaded red light flashes and the keyboard turns off. The unit that we ultimately decided on offers no feedback on the condition of the battery. A red light will flash when the battery is just about empty so students need to be proactive and charge their keyboards regularly.

Cases without sufficient protection increase the chance of breakage if the device is dropped so hands on testing of cases is the best way to determine what works. When we were looking at cases, we requested demo units from several companies. Many complied with our request and shipped out a unit for us to try. One company emphatically told us that they do not provide demos and pointed out that they also do not offer discounts if units are purchased in bulk. Their somewhat dismissive response to our request caused us to question the quality of customer care we would receive if warranty service was needed, so they were crossed off the list. 

The demo cases we received were varied in features and functionality. The top contenders were: Targus, Kensington, Clam, and Adesso. We received two aluminum keyboard cases for demo as well; however these were just keyboards with a slot in which to stand the iPad and snapped onto the front of the device when not in use. We could not go with this type of case because it provided no protection for the back:

The clicky-ness of the aluminum case keyboards had a great feel to it but we needed something that would fully envelop the device.

Once the finalists were chosen, I gave them out to various teachers and asked them to give it a try. Every few days, they would swap their case for another so after two weeks, just about everyone had tried out multiple cases. 

The Adesso and Kensington cases wwere an immediate hit because of the removable keyboard. The teachers felt cramped typing on a keyboard that was not detachable from the case and the ability to push the iPad further away and keep the keyboard close was a great feature. A couple pointed out that younger kids would not have as much of an issue with it. Both cases had a vinyl, soft feel to them and a few were concerned that the units lacked sufficient corner protection. The keyboard had a good typing feel and was not mushy at all. 

The Clam case was dismissed outright by all but one teacher. The weight of the case turned off many right off the bat. A couple remarked that for a family device that would only be carried indoors by young children, this case would be ideal but for kids to carry in backpacks all day it would add significant weight to their backpacks. Another pointed out that once the iPad is placed into the Clam case, it becomes very top heavy and if leaned back too far, the iPad would tip. One teacher said it felt off balance. Before putting the device into the Clam case it looked like it would be the top choice since it felt so lightweight. Once it was coupled with the iPad though, it felt like it gained a huge amount of weight.

The Targus Versavu was the most popular one that everyone wanted to try after the first tester raved about it. The case itself felt rigid rather than soft, and the keyboard had a good feel and response. The Targus case's four hard corner protection edges were noticed right away as the best of the bunch. Once the testers found that the device can be rotated from portrait to landscape right in the case, many were sold. One issue mentioned about the Targus case is that there is only one angle available and to some it was too vertical.

We took a vote and it was a close one but the Targus Versavu case won by a couple of votes. Several liked the Kensington case because it did not feel as bulky and weighty as the Targus and this group believed that was very important to consider. The ability to remove the keyboard from the case was another huge feature that the Targus lacked. After a discussion to determine the number one requirement, all agreed that corner protection was key and the Targus case was the winner. Just about everyone said if the Targus case only had a removable keyboard, it would hands down be the case of choice.

Interestingly, once distributed, some students inquired about the case choice. They feel it is too heavy and bulky and wished we had gone with something else. I showed them some of the other options and they quickly learned that any case with a keyboard will add both bulk and weight and of all the cases we tested, the Targus was one of the lightest. Also, before we surveyed the teachers, I did show three cases to several students and asked which one they liked best. They chose the Targus because of the ability to rotate the screen in the case. I originally wanted to put together a team of kids but due to time constraints was unable to do that. 

We chose the case that provided the best protection for the device, and for us this was the Targus Versavu. For next year, we will try to demo some of the newer offerings and may choose a different model if we find one with better features. We will also have a crop of students test out the cases and get their feedback as well.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Importance of Professional Development and iPads

Having a 1:1 iPad program alleviates the need to worry about being unable to use technology in class on a daily basis. If you decide at the last minute that you'd like to do a particular activity, you instruct students to take out their iPads and begin. If not, the iPads sit at the ready and are available as needed with no pre-planning required.

Teachers that have relied on shared laptops or relocated to computer labs during classes that require  computers   may occasionally (or not so occasionally)  find that there are scheduling conflicts that result in  having to change plans for a particular day. Events like that can dissuade teachers from using technology often because if availability of devices is not consistent, it can be frustrating.

Some faculty may be under the impression that an iPad is just a smaller version of a computer and are used in the same exact way. In fact, if you issue devices with a keyboard case, when opened up and sitting on a desk, it looks like a netbook. But iPads are not laptops. At all. There is a learning curve involved and the more time teachers have to acclimate to this new device before using them with students, the better.

Many applications that teachers have used in class have a counterpart for the iPad; however, IOS device versions tend to have much less functionality and teachers need to be aware of that while planning their activities. An English class will undergo a much less radical change when shifting from typing in Word on a laptop to typing in Google Docs or other word processor on an iPad. Math, on the other hand, will have a more difficult transition if they are used to using Geometer Sketchpad on a laptop and then move to the IOS version because the app does not have all of the functionality of the laptop version.

Professional Development should accompany any new technology. Failure to do so puts the program at a disadvantage from the start because teachers are left to flounder on their own and just figure it out. This may be fine for tech savvy teachers or those that don't mind finding their way, but others need a bare bones but structured introduction to their new device. If left to their own, teachers may hear bits and pieces of what others are doing and try to mimic that in their classes rather than starting with a clean slate and learning what they can do in class that is tailored to their own teaching style and subject.

Another critical element of professional development is to help teachers shift their mindset from "Let me find a way to mimic on the iPad exactly what I am doing now" to "How can I use iPads to enhance and explore different ways to do what I am doing now?" An example might be a language class in which students read text in class and receive feedback from the teacher and other students. To enhance the class using the iPad, the teacher might assign students to create a video reporting on a news even in the language they are studying. This type of engaging activity not only enhances language skills but enables students to actually see themselves giving a presentation and further develop their public speaking skills.

In order for teachers to see how their classes can benefit from the use of iPads, professional development is a must. Bringing in outside trainers can have advantages, and while this method is more costly, if in-house technology folks run the sessions it can result in less learning because of teacher familiarity with instructors. An outside trainer brings no familiarity with the audience and likely has a very methodical approach to presenting in structured steps that can feel more like a "real" training session than one held by the people in-house.

For teachers to effectively use technology in their classrooms, they need to be comfortable with the tools they plan to use. Handing an iPad to a teacher and say "Just play around with it, download some stuff, it'll be fine" is not a good way to inspire teacher confidence. For devices like iPads to be used in the most effective ways possible, professional development must be built into the cost of the program from day one. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Apps we tried out this week....


This versatile app can be used in any type of student activity from academic classes to club surveys to advisory activities to elections. Teachers download the instructor version, choose a password and in minutes can begin creating quizzes of their own or look through quizzes that other teachers have shared. Assessments can be in multiple choice, true/false or short answer format. Students download and open the Student Clicker edition and wait for the teacher to begin the activity.

Activities can be teacher or student paced and instant feedback on student progress is displayed on the teacher iPad. Another nice feature is at the conclusion of the activity, a spreadsheet of the responses is emailed to the teacher. In the case of multiple choice and true/false, the spreadsheet will contain the grade each student received.

Multiple teachers tried it out in class this week all with great results. Our math and science teachers used it to send a quiz to students both in multiple choice and short answer form. One of the science teachers remarked that she will be using it often at the beginning of class to give a short, five question survey to see how well the students understand the previous day's material. Based on the feedback she receives, she will know whether she should go over it one more time or if the students are ready to move on. This type of assessment can also be done at the end of class.

Since we are just beginning to use this terrific free app, I'm sure our faculty will find even more ways to use it. More info in future posts...

UPDATED: Socrative has added new features: you can now insert images into your quiz and have text entry quizzes graded. Click the link below and answer the few questions to unlock these new features:

Socrative New Features

Name Selector

This free app is great fun to use when students in class need to be picked for errands or divided into groups for projects. Names are entered into the app and when the button is pushed, a random name appears. Some classes may have a weekly task of bringing the class box of paper to the school recycling bin or erasing and cleaning the boards. Using this app to randomly select students adds a level of entertainment and gets kids that may not have volunteered on their own to participate.

Names do repeat on occasion; however, you can remove a student from the pool of names by opening the class list and setting the slide box much like you do in the iPad Settings to turn services on and off. This is idea if a student is absent or has already done the task.


LoterĂ­a is a traditional Mexican board game similar to BINGO, but instead of numbers, different articles pertaining to Mexican culture appear on cards, for example: el cactus, la chihuahua. If the card called matches one on your board, you cover it with a bean. This app simulates the card game which is fun in and of itself, but it also speaks the word aloud, and students can repeat it. This provides a dual experience in which students are both reading and recognizing authentic vocabulary and listening and speaking.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

More on Apple Configurator....

Just before we deployed our iPads in a Pilot Program, we Supervised them using the Configurator. In an effort to save time, we grabbed three brand new laptops (that were allocated elsewhere), installed Configurator on them and using USB hubs got them all ready to go. Or so we thought...

We missed the part that said that once Supervised, the devices could only be connected to the machine that was used to supervise them. Oh boy. Those laptops would be gone, the Configurator deleted and we'd be in a serious pickle. It was at that time that we also realized that the students would not be able to sync their device with their home iTunes account. 

That had us wondering what to do about backups. Collecting the iPads once a month and performing backups was a possibility but a small tech staff plus teacher scheduling iPad time in class made that pretty difficult to set up.

We had to re-supervise the devices on a dedicated machine before handing them out and learned a good lesson. After we had a few screen breakages, we were able to back them up into the Configurator and restore that backup onto a replacement device. We discovered that this required quite a bit of housekeeping on the part of the student as they had to re-download all of their apps and recreate their folders.

We had the students set up iCloud on their devices after a couple of breakages just in case one broke badly enough to make powering it on impossible. We were pleasantly surprised to find that iCloud is the bomb! When we power up a replacement and restore from an iCloud backup, all apps are put back into their original state and back in teh proper folders. It takes a bit longer to prepare the new device but once you hand it off to the student, they are all set. 

Another issue that we're dealing with is the Exchange ActiveSync portion of Configurator. Since this tool was designed for mass deployments of iPads, it is curious why Apple does not allow you to set this up to prompt a user for their name and password. You have to enter them manually. Oddly, the boxes you fill in say you should leave it blank to prompt the user, but apparently that only works if the devices is unsupervised. If supervised, you have to fill in those spaces. Such a total bummer.

I'm posting this info again to strongly advise that you carefully consider how you handle your deployment of devices. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Wordle. A quick and fun way to provide feedback!

I love Wordle.

Midway through this year of the 6th Grade iPad Pilot, I wanted to get feedback from faculty and students that describe their experiences using the devices in class. Initially, I was going to have them fill out a survey using Google Forms but decided that a Wordle would provide information at a glance.

I emailed students and teachers and asked them to provide me with three words that describe the iPad in the learning environment. Response was quick and nearly everyone replied with three words. Here are the results:

As you can see, the devices are indeed fun for all but do have their moments of frustration. The feedback from this Wordle is being used as a springboard for ongoing discussions on the sources of frustration and ways that these can be addressed. Since this is a Pilot Program, we anticipated some level of frustration and are working diligently to eliminate some of the bumps that our teachers and students are running into.

It's easy to be overwhelmed....

Apps, apps and more apps.... have you ever been bombarded with people saying "Hey, have you seen XYZ app, it's so cool, you have to try it!" If you tried everything that's suggested you'd never get anything else done. On top of that, you will try out so many apps for a few minutes each that you'll lose track of what you've tried and think "What was the name of that app that I liked?" only to completely forget.

I spend quite a bit of time scouring around for apps and projects that I think middle school teachers will enjoy trying out. Just telling a teacher, "Hey, I found this cool science app called ABC that I thought you might like to check out," is good, but teachers are very busy and they may make a mental note to download the app, they also may just not have time right now.

My solution to that is to not simply throw names of apps at them but to download them, grab a few screen shots and put together a several sentence overview of what it does and how they might incorporate it into their classes. Doing that gives the app more than a name and provides a quick snapshot of its features. Teachers will be able to tell immediately if it is something that may work in their classroom. Providing information in small bite size pieces is a great time saver.