One area that I have not written much about on this blog is educational apps. This is mostly due to the fact that my school has one first generation iPad and two iPod Touches for the entire school. We also ban cell phones and other electronic devices, so these are not available for use in the classroom unless the teachers specifically plan for the kids to use them for a lesson or activity, hand them out to the kids and collect them at the end of the lesson. I won't pretend to be an expert on apps in the classroom, which is why I haven't covered their use here.
However, with more and more schools investing in iPad carts, iPods and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, it's an important topic. I don't want this to be one of those "top 10 apps" posts, so I will share a few thoughts about apps in the elementary classroom, some implementation ideas for certain apps, and an obligatory list of resources. This information is based on my own knowledge that I have built through talking with colleagues, through my experience implementing the limited devices that I have access to, and through attending conference sessions devoted to apps in the classroom.
What is the Role of Apps in the Classroom?
Why should we be using apps in the classroom in the first place? What's the difference between sitting a kid in front of a device and sitting them in front of a television or a video game? Well, honestly, there is no difference if all we do is put the device in a child's hand and say, "Go" -- without any particular plan. Devices can be great babysitters just as computers can be great babysitters when implemented poorly. As I have stressed in other posts, it's important to choose a digital tool of any kind only after we have already pinned down the learning goal. Next, it is important to decide if we want our students to practice a skill, access information or create a product. This will help decide the role of the app in whatever we are teaching, and it will guide our selection of the app. It is also important to think about the ratio of devices to students. This will help define how the apps and device(s) can be best used to meet learning goals. Should students be paired up or should they rotate through a center, or are there enough devices for everyone? This will affect how we select an app -- if it requires a long period of time to create something or if it's a simple review of skills. The role of the app should be defined by the learning goal and the app's functionality.
What Does It Look Like to Bring Apps into an Elementary Classroom?
Depending on the amount of devices you have deployed in your classroom, apps could be used as tools for calculating or recording data, accessing information and reference materials, or creating a product that meets a learning goal. The first two uses are the easiest to implement, as they are fairly passive. All a student has to do is open the app and either compute or record data, or consume information within the app. Once students begin to create content within an app, the teacher must know what the app's functions are, what it's capable of and how the students will hand in/display their work.
In addition to the functionality of the apps, it is important that procedures and expectations are in place for how apps are used and for students staying on the task at hand. While that is more suited for a discussion about using mobile devices in the classroom, it is hard to separate the apps from the devices they are accessed through.
While there are a ton of free apps out there, as with any product, it's sometimes worth it to pay for quality and functionality. Some schools with schoolwide device implementation programs link up a payment method with the iTunes account they created for the school. However, if a school only has a few devices (like mine), the easiest thing to do is to set up an iTunes account without a credit card and use prepaid iTunes gift cards for app purchases.
The management that goes into syncing devices and apps could take up a whole other blog post, but that gives a basic idea of the two ways to pay for apps.
If you're not sure whether an app is worth paying for, the resources below should help. Most of them list the price and the functionalities of each app, making that decision a lot easier. Also, some app developers offer their apps free from time to time. By following AppShopper (or downloading their free app) you can keep abreast of sales and freebies.
Some Resources for Educational Apps
With Apple's Education Store growing every day, there is no shortage of apps. However, knowing what they do, whether they are worth the money and for what kinds of purposes they can be used is another story. Luckily, many educators have made it their mission to simplify the process of finding the best apps out there. Here are a few of them.
- 60 Apps in 60 Minutes -- Brandon Lutz not only has a great wiki, but also does a great presentation of apps at conferences all over the country. This wiki has links to all of his presentations and includes great overviews and tables of apps for education.
- iPads in Schools Livebinder -- Mike Fisher has pulled together a ton of resources on using iPads in the classroom. There is a tab for "App of the Week" as well as a tab for "Best Free Apps."
- Android4Schools -- This site, started by Richard Byrne (of Free Tech 4 Teachers fame), is dedicated to all things Android. It's a great place for educators not using iOS (aka Apple) devices or those involved in BYOD initiatives.
- Edutecher -- A website and an app itself, this site is created and maintained by Adam Bellow and allows users to search for apps by subject area and grade level.