Friday, February 17, 2012

iPad based social media in the classroom part 2

So this one will be a bit obtuse, because the social media site I'll refer to here (the name rhymes with  "Macelook") doesn't like it when this project happens.  It requires students to create fake accounts, which the social-media-site-which-can't-be-named, hereafter to be called "Voldebook," actively tries to discourage. In fact, I have a student who created a page for a school project in another class and was subsequently banned from using Voldebook...So I shall not attract their direct attention by using their name, thus incurring their wrath and risking my own account...

In any event, my students are tasked with creating Voldebook pages for the explorers/travelers Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Zheng He and Rabban Sauma.  They are to imagine that these men had access to Voldebook, and then replicate status updates they would have made on their travels.  Students compile biographical information, pictures, maps, video clips that demonstrate what they would have seen/done/thought along the way.  Students work in groups of up to 5 (depending on class size) to create and populate the pages.  Each student must post at least 10 times, posts begin with the year and their initials (so I know who they are) and posts must happen in chronological order.

Students have 4 days of time in class (never a whole period, usually about 20 minutes) to coordinate the posting of the status updates (Voldebook won't allow simultaneous log-ins from more than two or three devices before it sends a message demanding a cell phone number to confirm the poster is a human being...if the cell number matches another one on file, they shut down both the new page and the old one...) assign years for research, and check in about progress. On the 5th day, students are required to have the pages done and ready to be assessed. Many groups establish a Google Doc, input their posts there and have a designated student make the actual posts on the Voldebook page.

Once the pages are populated with the status updates, the students then comment on each others' trips in the character of their explorers.  For instance, Ibn Battuta, the Muslim legal expert, responds to Rabban Sauma, the Nestorian Christian Mongol envoy, and so on.  Students are assessed based on the realism of their posts, the depth of their research (demonstrated in the wall posts), the clarity of their posts, usefulness of the images/videos/maps they used, and meeting the required numbers for posts.

The students seem to get pretty excited to be using Voldebook for school, and they display a great deal of versatility in making use of the capacities of this form of social media; they regularly exceed my expectations with the creation of these pages, and demonstrate their understanding of the material in very creative ways.

Benefits for students include:
#1 They come as close to walking in the explorers' footsteps as we can get and still stay home.
#2 They gain a very detailed knowledge of the explorers' journeys, and compare and contrast them.
#3 They have to articulate their understanding publicly, concisely, and in more than just printed words
#4 They then have to "inhabit" the explorer's minds in order to reply in character, developing empathy with a person very different from themselves.
#5 They work collaboratively to do research and develop a consistent voice as the explorer.
#6 They get to articulate their understanding in a medium in which they have a great deal of fluency and expertise.
#7 They have fun finding groups to join, music to like, friends to make, relationships to establish for imaginary, yet historically very well defined, characters.

Drawbacks for students:
#1 The aforementioned restrictions and sanctions of Voldebook make some students have some trepidation about risking their own personal access to it--it is a vital part of their communication, so the loss of it is quite scary.

#2 A small number of students are forbidden by parents from using Voldebook. They also are not permitted to have their own email addresses.  The parents are attempting to remain in control of their child's access to social media and electronic communications, usually out of fear of predators and pornographic influences present in the inter-webs.

Benefits for the teacher include:
#1 A very creative project in terms of outcomes, with no material costs to me or my department. (No paper, glue, scissors, markers, etc. needed.)
#2 Products which are impossible to contain in a folder are highly portable and easily assessable.
#3 Students are motivated, excited and enthusiastic to learn about long dead men.
#4 Students learn geography, history, political science, religion, and economics in a hands-on manner, and express that understanding in a manner that is comfortable and accessible to them.
#5 The interconnected-ness of the world is demonstrated in a way that helps students understand that the contemporary notion of globalization is not a new one.

The apps used for this were My Pad and the social media sites' own app, neither of which was satisfactory for the students.  Many ended up logging in to the page through the iPad's various browser options, as that enabled the website's greater functionality.

There are alternatives to Voldebook, like Fakebookapp and Myfakewall, but those don't allow for interactivity, just the creation of a mock page.  Twiducate and edmodo have some shared functionality with Voldebook, but again fall short and aren't great with the iPad.  I'm hopeful to find a viable alternative, but as yet, one eludes me.

iPad-based Social Media in the classroom, Part One

I've been using social media in the classroom for the last two years, so here's an example of how I make use of Twitter.  For the iPad, the Twitter app is fine, but I wish it did more.  I supplement that app with HootSuite and with TweetDeck.

Last week, we were discussing the Incan society, and I was surprised at how little my students knew about both Aztec and Incan empires.  So we set out to learn more than what the textbook had to offer, which was neither very much, nor very deep.  As an in-class assignment, I had the students use Twitter to develop a comparison between the roads built by the Incans, the Romans and the Persians.  I established the hashtag #incaroads and wrote it on the board. (This is not any more complicated than saying to the students, "In every tweet, you must include this: #incaroads." Thus is a hashtag born...)

I should say at this point that my students had all created Twitter accounts earlier in the year, so I didn't have to spend time doing that.  I do have a handful of students who maintain that they are "philosophically opposed to Twitter" for reasons they can't articulate. (All are inveterate Facebookers, so perhaps there is something there that interposes itself? brand loyalty?)

Students were then divided into groups covering one of three categories: Distance, Composition, and Purpose. Their task was to do some quick research to discover where the roads went and how far; how the roads were made and of what; and how the roads were used and by whom.  They then were asked to tweet their answers, including web addresses for information (shortened using or tinyURL if needed) and images to help explain/show their topic.  All included the #incaroads so they could be compiled.

They then made use of their Twitter apps (which got poor reviews) or either HootSuite or TweetDeck to view all the tweets in one place using #incaroads, and looked over each others' research. (I also projected the hashtag's feed for everyone to see--students were excited to see themselves "published.")  Finally, they sent out a new tweet declaring which society made the better road using a new hashtag: #roadsmackdown.  Though it wasn't required, some re-tweeted and responded to their peers in other sections, broadening the audience and providing feedback to each other about their arguments.

This was accomplished in a 45 minute period. (For the research, students made use of apps such as the Google search app, wikipanion, lightspeed browser and g-whizz to reach search engines.)

Benefits for the students:
#1 They got much more information than the textbook provided about a major aspect of Incan society.
#2 They realized that transportation was vital for an empire's growth and success.
#3 They learned that the Incas lived their lives both vertically and horizontally in the Andes.
#4 They compared three different societies use of technology and came to conclusions on their own about which was more advanced in the conception, formulation and application of transportation networks.
#5 They had fun being witty and pithy.
#6 They worked collaboratively to find the information, but independently to articulate it, and collaboratively to provide feedback on all aspects of their work.
#7 They practiced using a growing form of public expression responsibly.

Drawback for the students:
#1 Students who didn't use Twitter posted their findings to their blogs, but weren't a part of the "crowd" and felt left out. 3 of the 5 who initially didn't want to have a Twitter account signed up mid-way through the project to avoid this feeling.
#2 Some students felt confined and frustrated by the 140 character limitation of tweeting.
#3 There was some repetition of content in all three areas that made the hashtags cluttered.
#4 Some students forgot to use the hashtags and had to go back and re-Tweet, and a few students' Twitter feeds are private so they needed to take screenshots of their tweets and email them to me to post via my account.

Benefits for the teacher:
#1 I have a nearly instant ability to see who is getting it and who is not.
#2 Ditto for quality of research being done.
#3 All the student's responses were in one place, where they are easily viewed, discussed and assessed (Though this assignment was un-graded mostly because it was done in-class, which for me is rarely graded, and also because it is still a new way of doing things and I'd rather them get accustomed to it first.) But should I want to assess their work, it is very easy to do so.
#4 Pedagogically, there is the added bonus of a summarizer in place for all stages of the activity
#5 I now have a handy, student-created and vetted digital reference to use with future classes when discussing the Incas.
#6 No paper was used.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A practial iPad perspective

Looking over the blogosphere, peering into the depths of Twitter, and even watching the national media, there is a growing debate about the role of iPads in classrooms, with some siding with Apple's new push to digitize textbooks, and others decrying the presence of a corporate entity monopolizing the field of education and charging outrageous amounts of money for their product.  On that debate, all I will say is that this isn't new! The corporate entities are named Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Macmillan/McGraw Hill. I know products of corporate boogeymen, I work with products of corporate boogeymen, and Apple is just another corporate boogeyman...

In any event, what's missing from what I've seen thus are samples of how iPads can be used in a classroom and tangible, educational evidence of their costs and benefits. What, if anything, is their value-added to the classroom?  Here's a sample from yesterday's World History class:

We needed to cover African geography from 900-1500CE or so.  Students needed to learn where the Kingdom of Ghana and the Empires of Mali and Songhay were; how trade routes, both maritime and Trans-Saharan worked; how the Swahili coast was organized; and how they interconnected and why each was significant. In the past, this involved a paper map, colored pencils, textbook maps/atlases and several paragraphs of their handwriting on sheets of paper that I then needed to collect, take home, read, assess and hand back.  The total time for this process was at least one class period (two if they were doing a freehand sketch of the continent) for the students to complete the map, another class period to write out everything, and then two-three nights of steady reading and commenting on my part before the work would be handed back as a two or more sheets of paper packet.  So a full 4-5 days would pass before closure of the assignment was attained. This year, I used the iPad.

With the iPad, students snapped a photo of a blank map of Africa I posted on the whiteboard. (I could also scan it and share it as a .pdf if the camera images weren't good enough quality to use. But they were.) They then imported the photo into ShowMe, Educreations or VoiceThread apps, which allowed them to draw (using fingers or styli) the items onto the map that they were to locate. (Most used the map in the textbook as their source, but it was mis-labled, and they ultimately had to look up the information to make corrections.) In all three apps, students are able to draw over time; that is, they can put in the items in a sequence and then animate the final product so that items appear one at a time, overlaying as necessary. All three apps also allow students to record their voices and overlay that onto the map.  So as they drew, or after they drew, students recorded their own voices explaining the items, what they were, how they interconnected and why they were important to this period of time.

Students then saved their maps, generated links, uploaded them to their blogs or emailed themselves and me a link.  This process, in all three classes with 20 students at a time using the wireless network simultaneously, was completed in 30 minutes, leaving 15 minutes of class time.


Benefit to the teacher #1: I have reclaimed a full class day plus for other content.
Benefit to the teacher #2: I do not have a stack of papers to transport to and from my home.
Benefit to the teacher #3: I can assess their projects digitally on their blogs or via email--I don't have to worry about them reading my handwriting (or not); I can correct any mistakes I make cleanly without cross-outs; I don't have to read, I can just listen; and I don't have to puzzle through their handwriting.
Benefit to the teacher #4: I don't have to spend time out of my day at the photocopier, copying stacks of maps to distribute, but can use the time more productively. (No paper jams, running out of toner, etc. and no loss of my prep period on such a mundane task.)
Cost to the teacher: None I can think of.

Benefit to students #1: their projects can not be lost, misplaced, ripped or damaged.
Benefit to students #2: rather than get frustrated by markers running out, inadvertent marks being made, or mistakes occurring that would require a total re-start of the activity, they can erase as they go along, replace colors, and edit their work without pulling the old, "I need a new map." which sends me back to the copy machine and wastes their time.
Benefit to students #3: They are forced to put their information into the spoken word and record it, which required them to pre-think the significance and connections and rehearse what they would say, which led to their doing the work at a higher level. Most students jotted notes first to be sure they covered what they wanted to cover.
Benefit to students #4: They all receive high quality, rapid feedback from me (and from their peers as well, all of whom have access to each others' blogs.)
Benefit to students #5: When they go to study for tests/quizzes, the maps are easily retrieved, the information is in their own voices and handwriting, and is better imprinted on their memories.
Cost to the students: Some of the above benefits are also possible through composing a map by hand, and indeed, several students during our de-brief maintained that they preferred doing map work and composing responses in their own handwriting.  Valid, but,

To my way of thinking, this is true of every type of assessment and activity; there is no one-size-fits-all for learning. So pedagogically an argument can be made that sometimes I should do map work with the iPad, sometimes I shouldn't. Or, I should allow students to choose their medium of expression, and let them gravitate toward what works best. Fine.

But the benefits to me the teacher are unequivocal.  I gain time, which is precious in the school year.  I gain clarity in my feedback to them, which is precious to their development. I gain organization, both my own and the students, which is critical to my classroom functioning well. Lastly, I cut down on resources used, which is precious to the school budget, and thus frees up scarce dollars from the money pit of photocopying.

The iPad is only a tool for learning.  It doesn't replace me or my expertise.  It just allows me to do more, better, in less time, at less cost.