I am a big fan of educational technology -- that should really be a pre-requisite for being a teacher these days, simply due to the nature of the student experience in Australia today --- but I get frustrated when I see it being used poorly in schools. I’ve lost count of the number of schools that I’ve walked into where computers are used as ‘rewards’ or for entertainment, rather than education. Even those are better where there are whole blocks of classrooms filled with computers that either don’t work or are untouched.
The reality is that, for everyone but especially young people, screen time is on the rise. Mobile phone ownership is saturated. Computers are omnipresent in all aspects of our life. Apps are advertised on TV regularly. Mobile devices make more and more of an impact on our lives everyday -- from managing our budgets to looking after our health to lots more.
This technology is finally beginning to infiltrate its way into schools. Already there are many, many schools that have a 1:1 device program. Primary schools, high schools -- even universities are getting into the act, like UWS which launched iPads for all of its first year students. Gradually more and more universities are publishing content -- free on iTunes U.
The educational value of technology -- as measured by test scores -- is, of course, still a hotly contested issue. Schools are slow to change, and what changes there are will be heavily scrutinised because everyone has a vested interest in education -- from politicians to parents to students themselves. It’s a tricky subject because learning is neither simple nor easy to measure, and the use of educational technology is almost as varied as education itself, which means it’s hard to say what effect it has.
I'm not going to contribute too much to that debate except to comment on one hugely successful example from this week of why the iPad specifically is a great device for junior high school students.
Using iPads in History
One of the most important things that we can teach students is how to learn. In many ways, I think that’s one of the purposes of subjects like History. It’s not so much about the Ancient Romans -- although that’s a fascinating topic in and of itself -- but more about learning to gather information, critically analyse it and think for yourself.
After all, if you can do that well, you can apply those skills to a whole range of other subjects and later careers. So in my history classes, I like to focus on teaching these skills as much as the content.
The first unit in almost every syllabus in history always has some element about what is history. It’s pretty dry stuff, I’ll be honest. But using the iPad, you can actually have a whole lot of fun. Here’s what I did:
- We started by listing all of our keywords from the unit.
- We then added these keywords to a mind map using Popplet Lite.
- We then took photos (using the camera) of the mind maps, and emailed them to someone else in the class.
- Using Skitch, that person annotated the mind map, and then sent it back.
This built in a whole range of different skills. Students had to revise what they learned, synthesise it into a new form, then review someone else's work and critique it. All in the space of 40 minutes, using 2 different apps (4 if you include the camera app and email).