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I read a blog post recently about the use of smartphones in the classroom, and it was thought-provoking enough to make me want to flesh out some ideas. I submitted them as a comment two weeks ago, but they didn’t appear on the blog. My inquiry about whether the comment was rejected or simply lost in the ether also went unacknowledged, so I thought I’d post it here.
Smartphones Work Well In My Classroom For…
I really appreciate when students take photos of the board, so they can pay attention and join the conversation instead of copying what I’m writing. A document-scanning app (e.g. CamScanner) can correct parallax and improve contrast, making it look like you own a scanner the size of the whiteboard.
If students are working on team-sized interactive whiteboards, it can also be a great way to capture what they’ve come up with as a group, instead of having to re-copy it into their notebook.
Tablets are extra-useful for this since the larger screen makes it easier to read and annotate the photos — especially useful are EzPDF and Freenote, although obviously cross-platform support can be an issue.
I also like having students take videos of themselves solving problems or demonstrating experiments — a big help when I don’t have time to see each person or group “live.” Plus, hearing their voices as they describe their thinking gives me a better feel for what they’ve understood vs. what they’ve memorized.
The interesting thing is that many of my students, contrary to the received wisdom about digital natives, are surprisingly reticent about this. It takes a significant amount of direct instruction for students to try these approaches, even when it seems to me that it would be a huge time-saver. If I give an online and a conventional option for an assignment, the students overwhelmingly choose the conventional route (using a paper notebook instead of a blog so that their essay research is searchable… or submitting written assignments instead of screencasts… or typing instead of using speech to text for dictating papers, for example — even Windows 7 has native support that is reasonably good).
My students, for various reasons, don’t have much time for adjusting or troubleshooting their devices (figuring out where the camera stores its pictures so that the pics can be attached to an email, for example) and often do not understand that folders are hierarchical.
But I Can Drive Without Understanding Engines, Right?
The good news is, teachers who fear that their students far outpace them in skill probably have less to fear than they think. The bad news is, I suspect that we (including the students) tend to overestimate the degree to which using technology (as opposed to understanding it, or directing it) is inherently useful.
It’s a bit like knowing how to drive a car but not understanding that pressing on the accelerator is what uses up gas and increases the braking distance. You can make the car go fast, but you probably can’t figure out whether going fast is a good idea at the moment. Maybe you follow the speed limit diligently without being able to judge whether it’s prudent under the conditions; maybe you don’t follow the speed limit because you don’t know of any reason for its importance. Besides being dangerous, both approaches are unthinking — abdicating responsibility to either the rule-makers or other drivers.
Making Vs. Using
One approach that seems to be having a lot of success is systematically teaching students to become makers and fixers of classroom technology instead of users/consumers. I’m also excited about making programming accessible to kids. Besides improving conceptual understanding and critical thinking, this approach can help us broach the idea that it’s not good enough to be a “native” of a society in which someone else holds the reins of power. My question to them is not whether they are “digital natives” but whether they are “digital serfs.” In other words, time to start paying attention to who are the programmers, and who are the programmed.
A week before school started, I smashed the connector off of my USB stick. Although I had a recent backup, I’d had enough of forgetting it places, incapacitating my computer doing 8GB backups, forgetting it places, forgetting to do backups, forgetting it places, worrying about someone stealing it, etc.
The storage space my school allocates to me is properly backed up (not like my klugey USB stick system) but it’s too small to be useful. I’ve used Dropbox before because our school email system also will not allow me to transfer files the size of scanned assignments in PDF form, photos, video, etc. And anyway, email isn’t the right tool for the job.
I decided to go whole-hog with Dropbox, and it’s improved my workflow. Because it automatically syncs to the cloud, I can save a file on my office desktop and have it magically appear on my laptop at home. (Or at a coffee shop. Or anywhere I have wi-fi.) I can also walk into any classroom in the school, log in to the website, and have access to my entire repository of teaching-related stuff. The sync is fast (less than 1 minute from login to finished, for my volume of document changes).
All of this depends on reliable network access, of course. But since the files are physically copied to any computer on which I install Dropbox’s software, I can work on the local copy if I’m out of wi-fi range. It also plays nice with many Android apps, including Camscanner — I no longer have to export my scanned file to EZ PDF, then save it, then transfer it to a USB stick. Camscanner uploads to Dropbox directly. I can create folders to share with students, if I want (think document revisions, assignments handed in, screencasts they make, photos of them working in the shop, etc.). And for an extra $4/month, an infinite revision history.
Downside: it has some frustrating corollaries for working with SmartBoards(tm). If I open the cloud copy of a document, it is not editable, and the SmartBoard(tm) will refuse to ink on it (even if I don’t save). The solution is simply to save a local copy of the document (a dialog box prompts me which option I want). The file ends up in the Downloads folder of the local computer, is local and therefore editable, and gets erased when the machine reboots. I’ve decided that this is actually a feature, since it prevents me from accidentally saving the ink layer on my original document.
The other downside is that I need more storage than Dropbox offers for free. I’ve decided it’s worth it to me to pay the $10/month for 100GB, even though I only need about 10. (Want to join Dropbox? I’ll be happy to “invite” you so I can get credit toward my storage limit. Or, just join — you get 2GB for joining.
In other back-to-school product endorsements, I love my Auspens (thanks to Kelly for the tip). Refillable white-board markers mean getting that juicy new marker feeling every day. Because the ink flows freely, I don’t mash on them, so the nibs stay sharper (which makes my handwriting less bad). Plus, 6 colours. Who can resist?