OCTs use new technologies in class to enhance students’ educational experiences.

But many teachers retain a healthy level of skepticism about the role technology should play in education. Sure, tablets and smartphones offer a new way to impart information and help children learn essential skills. But what about the risks? Do students understand the dangers of sharing data online? Does the technology trend widen the gap between children whose families can afford tablets and those who can’t?

It’s a difficult balancing act between perks and pitfalls — and it’s something teachers all over Ontario have to consider. We dove in to find out what sorts of technologies would best benefit educators and students. Are laptops better than tablets? Have interactive whiteboards had their day?

We also discovered a number of educational apps and put them to the test in the hands of teachers across the province.

What did we learn? Despite the breadth of options, educators lean toward one company’s products more than others (hint: “A” is for…). We found that not all apps live up to the hype. And we uncovered a few truths about teaching in an always-connected era.

Comparing the hardware

Which device makes the most sense in which situations?

Laptops

Pro: Versatile
Con: Expensive

Lightweight and powerful, these all-around capable machines give students and teachers access to a wide range of software options. But laptops can be expensive ($500 to $2,000). Some school boards are eyeing laptops based on Google’s Chromebook system. At about $250 each, these devices provide quick connections to Google’s online apps, including Docs for word processing and Drive for file storage. Richard Grignon, OCT, a business and French teacher at Earl of March SS in Kanata, doles out Chromebooks for students to use in class. He notes that since documents are online, kids can access the information from their home computers.

Smartphones

Pro: Ubiquitous
Con: Not as powerful as tablets

Smaller than tablets, smartphones are popular among students. “The kids have them in their pockets,” says Todd Wright, OCT, a curriculum administrator in information communications technology at the York Region DSB. “And some of the screens are bigger than they used to be, so they’re more useful.” But smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy S III and BlackBerry’s Z10 aren’t as powerful as tablets and laptops, which limits the software these hand-held devices can process. Still, users can access hundreds of thousands of apps on iTunes and Google Play. There aren’t as many for BlackBerry and Windows Phone 8 (yet).

Tablets

Pro: Portable
Con: Not as powerful as laptops

These touch-screen devices offer users access to all sorts of apps from online stores such as iTunes, Google Play and BlackBerry World. Users can buy keyboards to transform tablets into pseudo-laptops. Prices range from $150 to $800 for Apple’s iPad, BlackBerry’s PlayBook and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. Tanya Morton, OCT, a technology resource educator with the Upper Grand DSB, relies on her iPad daily. Like many tablet-toting teachers, she chose the Apple device because it offers access to more than 700,000 apps. Morton has found many to be useful, including Notability for note taking, Popplet for sketching out ideas, and Typ-O, which helps students find the right word at the right time.

The low-down on four downloads

74% of Canadian children spend between 1 and 5 hours per week on the Internet.

Snapseed (free): Voted Best Mobile Photo App 2012 by the Technical Image Press Association, Snapseed for Apple and Android devices lets users enhance, transform and share photos with ease. Nicole Powell, OCT, a communications technology teacher at Mary Ward Catholic SS in Toronto, says this app is truly useful for budding and experienced photographers, enabling students and educators to zoom in on specific areas and enhance photo colours and contrast. To get full use of it in class, however, students would need individual iPads or Android tablets.

Group Games ($1.02): This reference app for Android devices presents rules and how-to’s for more than 50 games, promoting teamwork, leadership and trust. Although the developer says the software offers activities suitable for a range of maturity levels, Sarah Feddema, OCT, says it’s best for Grade 4 and up. An occasional teacher of numerous subjects (including physical education) in the Durham DSB, Feddema likes this easy-to-use guide for warm-ups and icebreaker activities, but the games are no substitute for phys. ed. curricula.

ClassDojo for Teachers (free): For Apple and Android devices, ClassDojo is meant to help teachers improve comportment in their classrooms. Educators can use it to store information about student behaviour, reward good behaviour and generate reports to share with parents and administrators. Kathleen St. Aubin, OCT, who teaches Grade 8 at École élémentaire catholique Sainte-Thérèse in Windsor, says ClassDojo is easy to use and easy to customize. It’s only available in English — nonetheless, she was able to make notes in French.

Notes for Little Composers (99¢): For many children, starting music lessons is exciting, but less fun as they progress and lessons grow more difficult. This Apple app enables teachers to introduce a bit of entertainment to the process. But Kelly Webster, OCT, a music teacher at Southwood PS in Windsor, says Notes is off-key. The app doesn’t cover the bass clef, so students learning lower notes won’t get much from it. The quiz function shows the answer before the user has the chance to respond. Webster prefers another app, Music for Little Mozarts.

Straight talk on Smart Boards

Most wished-for classroom technology? Interactive White Board, so says our Facebook poll.

Pro: Proven technology
Con: Often misused

Teachers have been using interactive white boards (IWBs) since about 2003. However, educators don’t always get the most out of these electronic display systems. Sometimes teachers simply used IWBs as projectors, but it’s better when students and educators embrace the interactive part of the device and use it to demonstrate thought processes or illustrate ideas. “As long as the kids can get their hands on them, they’re fantastic,” says Upper Grand’s Morton. “Otherwise, you might as well just have a chalkboard.” Wright at York Region has explored technologies such as Apple TV and AirServer, which enable teachers to link IWBs to tablets and smartphones. That connection ramps up the in-class interactivity and incorporates devices kids already own into the IWB experience.

Who’s in control?

Instagram, the photo-sharing web service, attracted the wrong kind of publicity late last year for its terms of service. The service changed its user agreement such that Instagram would effectively own the photos people uploaded to its servers. That meant the company would be able to use the photos in any way it wanted — without permission from the photographers.

Instagram has since amended its terms of service to limit its use of users’ content. Yet the situation raises a question for educators: What about the content teachers and students upload to educational software services? If an educator creates a digital lesson plan and uploads it to an online teaching service, does the lesson plan still belong to the teacher? Or does it belong to the service provider?

Most online services spell it out: content belongs to the creator, not the service provider. Still, teachers should ask. They need to decide for themselves if they’re comfortable with the terms of service. Teachers need to be able to discuss this issue with students, so they also understand what they’re agreeing to when they sign up for web or “cloud” services.

This question is particularly important when using free services. Sometimes providers offer services for free because the companies plan to sell user information to other organizations to earn revenue. Read the terms of service. What is the service provider allowed to do with the content uploaded to its servers. Watch for any language suggesting a “third party” (an individual or organization aside from the user and the service provider) may access the content.

Class Apps

Teachers browsing mobile apps markets will find thousands of educational programs for smartphones and tablets. But which apps work well — and which ones should teachers ignore? We sifted through the app stores and came up with some to help educators, and some for students. Read on to find out what these electronic aids are all about, and how teachers rate them.

Educreations (free):

Accessible online or from an Apple device, Educreations enables users to create and share videos. Students and teachers can develop short video clips incorporating voice narration and even handwriting to illustrate lessons or to make presentations. Think of Educreations as a recordable, interactive online whiteboard. The company specifies that content creators retain ownership of content uploaded to the service. Janet Vander Ploeg, OCT, a Grade 2/3 teacher at Grand Valley and District PS in Grand Valley, incorporates Educreations into her classes. She finds it helps students explain their thought processes. Although she recommends it, she also notes that the app doesn’t let users edit their videos. Any mistakes, and students have to start from scratch.
(FOR TEACHERS)

Flashcardlet (free):

Designed for iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices, this free studying app pops flashcards onto the screen for quick drills across a number of subject areas. Users can use flashcard content providers such as Brainscape and Quizlet to populate their decks, and share decks with others. Kelly Smyth, OCT, a teacher in Oakville, says Flashcardlet is excellent for lesson reviews and she likes the fact that users can share decks. She also finds it easy to flip through the cards. But she finds it difficult to input the information in the first place and notes that the “delete” and “done” keys are so close together, users may inadvertently erase entire decks. Still, the pros outweigh the cons with this app.
(FOR STUDENTS)

Grades: Student Organizer (99 cents):

This Android app is designed to help students stay on schedule, organize homework and complete assignments on time. Users can tally their test scores and track their grade point averages. Student Organizer integrates with Google Calendar, making a single schedule accessible from any Internet-connected device. Marc Paradis, OCT, a geography and world issues teacher at St. Pius X Catholic HS in Ottawa, says Student Organizer isn’t worth the price of the download. He found the app difficult to navigate and hard to set up. “There are so many other marking programs out there, I wouldn’t give this one a second thought.”
(FOR STUDENTS)

Clipix (free):

Accessible on the Web or as an app for Apple or Android devices, Clipix lets users organize and save web links, images and videos. Users can also share clippings with others — perfect for group projects. Tanya Morton, OCT, the technology resource educator with Upper Grand DSB, says Clipix is fussy to start with. “I can’t see kids setting it up on their own.” And although the app is excellent for collecting online information, it seems ill-suited to an iPad, the device Morton used to review the software. Images appear fuzzy on the screen, as though the app were designed for the smaller iPhone instead of the tablet.
(FOR STUDENTS)

Tech tidbits

82% of parents say their child has a mobile phone so that they can stay in touch

Student-friendly blog platform

Developed by teachers, Kidblog (kidblog.org) is touted as a different kind of blogging platform. Educators can use the system to give students their own blogs, where they can post items and participate in discussions about lessons and assignments. The creators say Kidblog helps students learn digital citizenship and practise their writing skills. Also worth noting: The service is ad-free, and students need not submit their personal email addresses to take part.

LinkedIn groups for teachers

EmergingEdTech (emergingedtech.com), an online resource for teachers, offers a list of excellent LinkedIn groups for educators, including: the International Association of Academic Professionals, for a global approach to sharing best practices; Teacher’s Lounge, specific to K–12 educators; Technology Integration in Education, for innovative ways to bring tech and ed together; and E-Learning 2.0, dedicated to techniques and technologies for e-learning.

The Web changed everything

Researchers have confirmed what many teachers know. According to a Pew Research Center Internet survey of middle and high school teachers in the United States, 92 per cent say the Internet has a “major impact” on access to teaching resources; 69 per cent say the Internet improves their ability to share their ideas with other educators; 67 per cent say the Web increases their ability to interact with parents; and 57 per cent say it enables their interaction with students.

Buy and sell lessons online

Why not turn your best lesson plan into a revenue generator? On Teachers pay Teachers (teacherspayteachers.com) educators can sell, buy and share teaching materials. TpT claims to host more than 80,000 free resources, 500,000 paid products and more than 1.75 million registered users. Recent items availabel for purchase included a winter activity pack, a bullying prevention lesson and a how-to for an assignment to present a scene from Shakespeare in class.

Make learning more fun

English Idioms (99¢): Available for BlackBerry and Android, this Knowledge Pets game gives players a little creature (a knowledge pet) to care for. Players make their pets grow by answering questions about English idioms. Caterina Cosentino, OCT, a special assignment teacher (literacy and numeracy coach) with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic DSB, says she likes the concept. But adds that with just 30 idioms, the app becomes boring quickly. She recommends Knowledge Pets for students who respond well to multiple choice.

Hungry Fish (free): This Motion Math Apple app helps children learn to add. Users pinch numerals together to solve math problems — and feed their fish, who just can’t wait to munch numbers. Available in English and French, Hungry Fish is engaging for children as young as three years old, says Isabelle Cormier Richard, OCT, a Grade 1 teacher at École Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau in Ottawa. But the price is deceiving: extra features such as subtraction cost more, so this “free” app could set teachers back by as much as $7.

Stick Pick ($2.99): Select a student with a shake of the iPhone or iPad. In Stick Pick, a teacher writes students’ names on Popsicle sticks. When the teacher shakes the mobile device, the app randomly highlights a stick so each students can get a turn. Lorelei Jenkins, OCT, a Senior Kindergarten teacher at St. Bernard’s Catholic School in Orillia, says Stick Pick is fun but pricey for teachers only interested in selecting random names. Educators who want to use features such as tracking answers may find the app more worthwhile.

Apple vs. Android vs. Blackberry

69% of high school students believe mobile devices will replace text books in five years

There are numerous tablets and smartphones on the market. Educators can choose from Apple (iPhone, iPad), BlackBerry (BlackBerry smartphone, PlayBook) or manufacturers using Google’s Android system (such as Samsung, which offers the Galaxy smartphone and tablet line), to name just a few. Which platform is best?

If popularity were the yardstick, Apple would win. More teachers carry Apple products than devices from any other manufacturer. Ipsos Reid, the market research company, says 29 per cent of Canadians carry iPhones, which puts Apple ahead of any other brand. Data compiled by the Ontario College of Teachers indicates the iPhone is the most popular smartphone among teachers as well.

“The apps are friendly, and they got to market first,” says Bill MacKenzie, OCT, president of the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO). But “there are significant problems with doing large implementations.”

For instance, let’s say a teacher loans an iPad to a student for use in class and the student uses the tablet to create a presentation. That presentation is saved on the tablet. Users have no simple procedure for saving the information elsewhere. As a result, the next student using the device would be able to call up the previous user’s work — a potential privacy problem. Administrators also find it difficult to update software on numerous tablets at once, so some students may have to work with outmoded apps.

Despite Apple’s popularity among teachers, some school boards seem to favour the Google platform. Many boards are buying Google Chromebooks — lightweight laptops — instead of iPads for use in classrooms. Chromebooks have built-in keyboards so the devices are far better for inputting information, notes Grignon from Earl of March. “Tablets are excellent for content delivery, but not so much when it comes to content production.”