Our Flexible Friend
The idea of students sitting in front of PCs learning how to use Word is as dead as the proverbial dead parrot. It is already an antiquated model of learning – like chalk or fountain pens with ink-wells; it has a whiff of the twentieth century about it, rather than preparing our students for the future. Whilst the DfE dithers about what they should do with technology (Mr Gove clearly wants to reboot the chalk and talk bygone age), schools are left with a rapidly changing world, where budgets are at a premium and ICT often stretches what budgets now allow. All the while, students are learning on their iPads, Android tablets and smart phones, writing more in texts and tweets daily than in their collective writing experience during the school week. We aren’t harnessing this expertise, never mind guiding it to a place of higher learning!
Clearly, the Microsoft model of a straight-jacketed suite of programmes, with little synchronicity between devices, is a thing of the past. Students want to instantly access information and media (whilst editing, adapting and creating their own) and we need to harness and shape this creativity. Whatever subject we teach, we also need to guide students towards a digital literacy that helps them source the best information, filtering out the European food mountain style piles of rubbish that litters the web. Sitting in front of an ageing fleet of PCs isn’t going to do the job. The flexibility of students working in groups filming with an iPad, or making a presentation with ExplainEverything, for example, then seamlessly showing their films through Apple TV or AirPlay, is an instantaneous way of making the learning visible. It also has the added bonus of making the learning feel more ‘real’ and more familiar to students.
No longer should Geography teachers, or Maths teachers, or Art teachers, or indeed teachers of any subject, have to traipse across the school to find a computer room – losing fifteen minutes of the lesson in the process, gaining a moist folder and a raucous group of excitedly damp students. We shouldn’t have to struggle to make advanced room bookings that then become superfluous because we didn’t follow the gold plated plan! The byword for new technology must be flexibility – flexibility in how and where students can learn.
Familiarity breeding contentment, not contempt
Educational luminaries such as John Hattie and Dylan William have found little concrete evidence to support the view that technology has a transformative effect on learning. Indeed, what we know is that key is the teacher – they are the nexus for learning, technology is just a tool. But what if the tools teachers use actually has leverage into a wealth of expertise and learning already possessed by students? The research on these mobile and flexible devices is still in its infancy which makes finding an evidential ‘answer’ problematic, but if we know that students understand new things in the context of things they already know, then it stands to reason that we should make the unfamiliar familiar by using familiar tools. Hattie and William have inevitably been looking to research from the past – where the older fixed model of technology has never truly enriched learning in any transformative way. We have all been guilty of looking backwards: whole class ICT, perched impassively in front of some poor imitation of a game, or a clunkingly slow VLE is a weak version of what is truly familiar to students – therefore it is dismissed as phony by students. With some degree of teacher expertise (I don’t think the teacher has to be an outstanding technological expert – have you seen a five year old navigate a mobile phone or an iPad quicker than their grandparents ever could?) we can tap into a world of familiar knowledge and skill possessed our students – not only that – we must do if we are to help shape their crucial digital literacy.
For good or ill, students live with technology as an integral part of their lives; how they communicate and socialise, and of course, how they learn. If we could harness the impassioned determination to master the latest incarnation of Fifa or COD in Maths or Science lessons, or even ICT itself, we would most definitely be onto something. Now, I’m not suggesting the ‘gamification’ of our curriculum – but on the iPad for instance, there are a wealth of apps, such as: ExplainEverything, iMovie, ComicLife, Notability etc. which can take the written word and transform it into something more real and make it multi-modal like the texts with which they engage with every day and will do so in future.
If you making using ICT tools something special, a treat, then students are in danger of not learning the knowledge you are seeking. Instead they may only remember the novelty of the change in their learning, they may remember playing with the tool, not learning the knowledge being leveraged by the tool. Students learn and remember more effectively when their emotions are stimulated – it they are even momentarily elated by using iPads, then that has the potential to override their long term memory – and the tool becomes obstructive to the learning. Put simply, using flexible, mobile ICT devices must be done frequently and as an integral part in how we teach and students learn, otherwise they will become another novelty or gimmick. Using iPads may have an initial prestige, but when that wears off the real learning will begin, and with the right pedagogy, the learning can be amplified by the skilful applications available. In short, if we use the tools a lot they will lose their gimmick factor and become very valuable tools that can stretch and enhance learning.
I would like to note that our faculty is undertaking an iPad pilot, which began this year. We have already seen some outstanding learning in evidence, with student motivation raised by using the tools, because of their prestige, but also because of the teacher using the tools to make student learning instantaneously visible on a regular basis. We have honed in on teachers becoming expert with a smaller range of apps, whilst using the devices as a collaborative tool for group work, with some capacity for a one-to-one technology model (this is inessential, however, as we have planned to use the tool in groups). It hasn’t all been plain sailing – there have been issues with saving student work; with failures with Apple TV etc., but our use of ICT as a tool for learning has multiplied nearly exponentially – frequency and familiarity matter. We are moving beyond the ‘distraction stage’ of the new technology, where students may be at risk of remembering only the use of the new tool, rather than committing the knowledge and learning to long term memory. We are moving into a stage of greater familiarity, and with sound pedagogy, we will continue to make marginal gains in our teaching and learning using these powerful tools for learning.
Imagine the very typical scene of a class in an ICT suite. I am sure you would simply visualise each individual student working away at their own computer – such is the basic paradigm of ICT use that we have all internalised. What is typical is snapshot of the near catatonic bliss of individual students disappearing into a virtual world of ICT – their terrain, their world! In my experience as an English teacher, students would often use an ICT room to be researching on the web, perhaps some aspect of the social context of a given text, like researching Great Depression America when we study ‘Of Mice and Men’. Each ICT room is built to encourage purposeful individual learning; group work is a concept left for our usual classroom spaces. When working with ICT simply putting students in pairs can have a radical impact upon their learning. A good teacher knows that group work is key – collaboration can lead to greater creativity – students can better enhance their knowledge base and understanding by working together. When working in pairs on the same task as mentioned above students can synthesis their ideas and judgements, debating and evaluating their evidence. Why can’t the new technology of tablet devices, like the iPad, and mobile learning more generally embrace the same principals of effective group work and collaboration?
With any education technology it is important to put great thought into implementation and how it will shape effective pedagogy. The iPad is clearly leading the charge for mobile technology in the classroom. Now, issues of price and effective usage are abound with the iPad and other similar devices. By making the iPad a tool primarily for group work and collaboration it can greatly enhance learning in a myriad of ways – not only that, it is highly cost effective. In a time of fiscal austerity good pedagogy may well be a way of preserving dwindling budgets.
Here’s an example I made earlier:
Now, there are many ways in which students can use the iPad as a collaborative tool to enhance learning. Take a single task in my subject area of English – related to the aforementioned ‘Of Mice and Men’ – the filming of dramatic monologues created through purposeful group work. As a group, students can formulate effective open and closed questions for a range of the key characters in the text. Students can then hone their questions to a top four or five, thereby evaluating their understanding together, synthesising the best of their ideas. These can then be streamed and shaped by the teacher or other students through critical formative assessment of their ideas. Also, if needs be, they can use the iPad to search the text or the web for useful supporting information as they learn. Each of the group can then take a role as one of the characters being hot seated and answer their formulated questions. They can then use the iPad as a tool to film and record their performances using iMovie. These films can be streamed instantly to the class projector, with other groups peer assessing the quality of the questions and the appropriateness of the answers relative to their understanding of the novella. Their film can be saved and stored in Dropbox to be used again, recycling the learning easily where necessary (repetition is the one of the keys to mastery). Now, this task could be done with a video-camera, but the iPad does it with ease and is brilliantly multifunctional. It is a camera, a Visualiser, an Interactive Whiteboard and a PC all in one! The film can be made simply and quickly, edited by students as they film.
The iPad is simply a great tool to record, store and share, annotate, assess etc. It functions brilliantly for group tasks – allowing for group annotation, shared reading, shared writing and a tool for oral presentations (ExplainEverything is my favourite app which can record oral commentaries over presentations – you may never need PPT again!). Coupled with the ability to stream work instantly to the projector using Airplay, it is a great way to formatively assess their group learning with immediacy, whilst heightening the sense of purpose for almost all students.
Almost all of the research into mobile devices centres upon the one-to-one approach. This is coupled with the less popular, but emerging, ‘bring your own device’ approach. Both have obvious benefits. Each individual students having a device opens up a host of options that the collaborative approach cannot. However, there are also prohibitive costs related to this approach and the emphasis on individual work can inhibit the deeper learning as shown above. Having seven iPads as a ‘class set’ also allows many more classes to use the devices at any given time, multiplying the potential benefits. By approaching the new technology as tools for collaborative learning schools can make significant savings in a time of fiscal austerity – not only that, the benefits to pedagogy are still clear. It may take a paradigm shift in how we envision the use of technology and mobile devices, but the collaborative approach could be the way forward for many schools looking to implement iPads and new technology more generally in our era of slashing cuts – making a virtue out of necessity.
When the iPad is mentioned as a tool for learning to large groups of teachers I always detect a initial sense of awe and a frisson of excitement, quickly followed by a healthy dose of scepticism and even fear for some. I think the vast majority of teachers see it as a potentially useful tool for teaching and learning, but perhaps too many still see it as something of a glorified word processor! What is crucial is that those teachers have the experience of going beyond the ‘gimmick factor’ to realise the potential of the iPad to transform conundrums which often confound us as teachers.
It is a helpful tool (in my view the most helpful ICT device by a mile), not a miracle cure – but any teacher who witnesses the motivation levels inspired by the iPad will experience how it can engage students in the challenging process of writing and much more. With its myriad of apps, the iPad can harness oral rehearsal like no other technology to aid the writing process. With its capacity to show students writing through the projector at any moment (Apple TV, Airplay or a variety of other apps), it becomes a powerful way to make formative assessment instantaneous for all; helping to make the craft of writing more easily visible, and with good teacher pedagogy, more understandable. With the capacity to make real ebooks the iPad can make the writing process feel more real and more valuable to our students – there is no better way to make students value the crucial skills of drafting and proof reading than to create the opportunity for a genuine audience and create products the look and feel professional.
‘Didn’t we inspire great writers and great writing before the iPad, or other such ICT?’ Yes. ‘Can’t we motivate students to write for the sake of it – can’t outstanding pedagogy exist without the iPad tool.’ Yes, undoubtedly. We should aim for a state of play where students are highly motivated without a reliance on technology; where students develop the core skills of writing both with and without technology – and yes, we must continue to hone their skills with the humble pen and paper! However, we should not ignore the potential gains provided by tools like the iPad, whose multi-functionality provides a host of ways to improve teaching and learning for writing. The iPad, with it’s unmatched range of applications, and it’s reliability and quality, can provide a series of marginal gains that cumulatively can make a significant difference to the learning of students – with writing being a key skill that can be enhanced.
‘It is about the pedagogy stupid!’
Any teacher who has used the iPad with students will know the x-factor it provides (nothing to do with the awful Simon Cowell product I assure you!) – the initial oohs and ahhs and impressed looks; the endless excited questions about it. Like anything, however, those initial awed impressions fade to a level of familiarity. That being said, the raised sense of motivation is palpable and never really goes away – remember, we are teaching ‘digital natives’ who have an expertise with technology (often beyond our own – something we should not fear, but instead harness) that makes them feel comfortable in their learning, often assuming the mantle of the expert unconsciously and with aplomb. When they begin to master the tool their confidence rises still further and they are more engaged than ever. Boys in particular, exhibit greater engagement and focus. One male GCSE student in my school reflected upon his learning with the iPad, stating: “I’m more likely to use technology – I’ll do more and work harder. It’s something different and new. I can make things look better and so I wouldn’t mind showing my work to the class then.” This young man is your archetypal disinterested boy, typically turned off by the process of writing, as he has formed a hardened sense of failure from an early age that is difficult to unpick. The technology gave him a sense of confidence and pleasure in writing that should not be underestimated – in fact, I view it as absolutely crucial to success.
Beyond the confidence and beyond the motivation levels of students is the use of the tool to enhance core teacher pedagogy. Why the iPad is the best technology, in my opinion, for students, is that is has such multi-functionality, such flexibility. Actually, the fact that it is keyboardless (you can purchase wireless keyboards of course) I perceive as a strength – as it removes the misnomer that technology for writing is simply a word processing tool. It can be that, but to transform and modernise and pedagogy it needs to be so much more.
‘The ‘How’ – ways in which the iPad can help improve student’s writing:
Oral rehearsal and recording: the iPad provides many applications that allow students to work both individually and collaboratively in rehearsing their writing – a crucial skill to support writing. For example, in devising a scheme for next year’s GCSE controlled assessment on writing a monologue, the students will work together on filming a monologue using iMovie. They will use the variety of camera shots and scene changes to build the narrative structure and sense of voice. They will edit the film, reflecting on the language choices, before showing it to the group to receive constructive criticism. The final process of writing up the monologue becomes cognitively clearer, the students have drafted without realising they have drafted! By using ExplainEverything, students can record their ideas, perhaps commentating on a text they have uploaded to the slide in the application, before they embark upon writing a conventional essay. They can play a presentation to the group and receive feedback on shaping what they have produced, giving then the constructive criticism they need to then write well.
Aiding the planning of writing: iPad has a legion of apps specifically for creative planning, such as Popplet, that are very useful tools. By using the likes of Notability, students can record their notes, save images, draw and be creative in their planning. Websites, such as Pinterest, or the Dropbox app, can be used to share planning, to access shared research or to engage in ‘flipped classroom’ learning. Again, the options are endless, but the teacher should hone their method to best suit their students. Apps like Comic Life can allow students to create comic book style plans for their narrative writing; Puppetpals can allow students to ‘play’ with interactions between characters, to practice speeches or debates in a fun and lively fashion.
Writing models: alongside using their own writing in the process of modelling, by using applications like Goodreader, or accessing documents from Dropbox, students can annotate upon almost any document imaginable! Classic skills of text marking can again be shared and made easily visible for all – the process can become shared, guided by the teacher or other students. Any annotation can be saved and stored, therefore making it accessible for future lessons, or even other groups of students. Although I have not used it, Google Documents can be utilised for creating shared documents and drafting writing across different devices – something I plan on researching soon. Annotation is an age old teaching strategy that isn’t new to any of us, but the iPad can take it up a level or three. The iPad is simply a tool to make the process of modelling and annotating more interactive, more easily visible and making any text more accessible.
Using the device and its applications as a stimulus for writing: I need not explain the potential use of the web or the YouTube app to aid wiring, only to say that it is fantastic to not have to book a computer room, or to organise and undertake the potted journey to the computer room to research the web, or to find some crucial gem of information that the students need for their writing! A range of stimuli for writing is there at the touch of a button – from the music library, the photograph library, iBooks, iTunes U etc. – the options are endless and all ready with easy and flexible access.
Formative assessment – unveiling the mysteries of the writing process: by using Apple TV, or applications like Airplay or Ideas Flight, it allows the teacher to stream the learning from any iPad in the room instantaneously – see Fig 1. Using Notability, students can write their ideas, perhaps a model paragraph or the opening of a narrative. The teacher can stream the writing and embark on questioning to support their writing, garner feedback from others and annotate directly onto the writing on the student’s iPad. The opportunities for guided writing and shared writing are obvious. The visibility of their writing becomes a powerful way to unveil the process of writing explicitly and with simple immediacy. Finally, taking a photograph of the written work of students is a great way to share their work and provide useful feedback for any given task.
What is clear is that the iPad has so many useful tools it can be almost be overawing, like a child flooded with excitement in a sweetshop! Each school or department needs to identify their priorities, harness their shared knowledge and learn together. You can use Twitter to find answers from their PLN (professional learning network) or the host of helpful YouTube video guides to help you through using the device as a teaching and learning tool. Our English and Media faculty have identified key teaching and learning strategies which will enhance our teaching and learning pedagogy – many in evidence above – that we will work together in honing. There will be elements of risk, there will be failures (technology has a habit of doing that at inopportune moments!), but the benefits outweigh the challenges. With some mastery, iPads can undoubtedly improve writing, providing marginal gains at every step of the writing process to result in better writing by our students.