Apps for Education

(Note: This was originally a post in the blog, but it’s use among staff and others has necessitated it become it’s own page. It is now updated as needed.)

One of the most important steps my school has taken in developing a 1:1 iPad program was coming up with a set of “common core” apps. These are apps that teachers have decided will be the universal standard among 9th grade students starting in the coming year. The group of teachers I’m working with has spent most of the first semester playing with a number of apps and coming up with what they believe to be (for the near future) the most user-friendly education apps. The reasoning is that any teacher who has a class of 9th graders can be reasonably confident that all students will have a (relative) proficiency with the apps because time will be dedicated during student orientation to these apps.

The process of determining apps was built upon the core technology belief of the school: “pedagogy drives technology.” Instead of deciding which cool apps we’d try, we broke down the classroom experience for a ninth grader into five activities that were (relatively) common between all their classes. We then looked at apps that facilitated that type of activity and chose an app from there.

Below I’ve listed the five apps and why we chose them. As a quick note–this list does not preclude teachers from using any other apps they find or deem necessary for their classes. This core set of apps will just provide an anchor to less iPad-experienced teachers and operate as a technological bridge between student and teacher.

Activity One: Sharing of Materials (Teacher to Student)
App: Evernote
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The praises of Evernote have been sung all over the EdTech world, so I’m not necessarily going to repeat them here. Most of our students already use Evernote as an online binder to keep their materials. We’ve decided to have every teacher of 9th graders create a folder for their class and share that folder with the students at orientation. Then, anytime a teacher has materials to hand out to the students, they will simply place it in their class designated Evernote notebook. This will hopefully cut down on unnecessary copying and allow teachers to act on those “epiphany moments” that inevitably occur two minutes before class starts by being able to immediately get materials for class to the students.

Activity Two: Collaboration (Student-to-Student and Student-to-Teacher)
App: Google Drive

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While Evernote is great for individual work as well as storing and sharing materials in a read-only manner, it’s collaborative features leave something to be desired. Being a Google Apps for EDU school, we went with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” idea for a collaborative app. The Google Drive app, since coming out last year, and continually improved its functionality and now is a great option for sharing material. It also doubles as a great place for storage of other types of files. Now that you can save movies shot with the iPad to Google Drive within the app, Drive has finally made training students to use Dropbox unnecessary on the class-wide level (although I still love Dropbox as an individual).

Activity Three: Assignment Calendars
App: Edmodo
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Obviously, Edmodo does a lot more than act as simply an assignment calendar, and most of our teachers use it for a lot more than that. However, one of the essential features we decided was necessary for 9th graders (most of whom are still working on those executive functioning skills) was a common place where all their assignments could be seen on one calendar. Moodle has no reasonable iPad app,so we looked at creating a common google calendar, but that was a little too labor intensive (for a single function). Edmodo, which many teachers have already been using to do online quizzes, chats, and assignments, was the next choice. The additional social functionality it provides made it a solid choice, although Schoology would have been equally solid. Given that we felt the two were equal, but many teachers had already adopted Edmodo, we decided to stick with it. Next year, all teachers of ninth graders will at least list their assignments on Edmodo so that students have one-stop shopping.

Activity Four: Student Presentations
App: ExplainEverything
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Students at our school are expected to spend a lot of time speaking in front of their peers; if you ask most of our graduates, they would tell you that our school does a lot to eliminate the fear of presenting one’s ideas to a large group of other students. Therefore, we wanted a digital means to present ideas when we were doing it in-person. Additionally, those subjects that were more process driven (math and science) wanted the opportunity for students to not only write answers, but explain the process by which they got their answers so the teachers could understand how they came to it. ExplainEverything was the obvious choice here. It’s incredible functionality, ease of use and integration with virtually any other app, and the ability to record voice slide-by-slide (rather than having the re-record an entire presentation if a mistake is made) distinguished it from virtually all of it’s competitors in this area. It’s more than worth the $2.99 per app cost.

Activity Five: Writing/Notetaking/Annotating Documents
App: Notability
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This one was a tough one. Goodreader, Paper, iA Writer, and Paperport Notes are all solid choices in this area, and Penultimate’s integration with Evernote made it a competitor too. Our teachers really liked Notability’s interface, the integrated voice recorder giving a student the ability to take audio notes on a document, and the Google Drive integration. Our math teachers were particularly excited about the ways in which text could be quickly and easily expanded or minimized, which is great for working with geometric proofs. Overall, like the choice of Edmodo, this was a close one, but Notability won out.

So those were our “Final Five” (pardon the uber-nerdy Battlestar Galactica reference). We are still discussing the academic and pedagogical needs of our teachers and students, so we may need to add more before our next school year. However, I think the most important take-away from this is that our greatest area of expertise collectively was in our knowledge of teaching, and from there we began. We decided to find apps that fit our educational needs, not the other way around. After all, that’s what teachers know. I’d be interested in finding out if others out there are having similar conversations, so feel free to share your own ideas in the comments. If we start from the right place, no matter where we end, it will probably be for the better.

 

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