Friday, June 24, 2011

A Wonderful Awful Idea

“Then he got an idea! An awful idea! THE GRINCH GOT A WONDERFUL, AWFUL IDEA!” - Dr. Seuss

Yesterday I went to my district iPad training. Most of my colleagues who attended had not yet received their iPads, so the event had a Christmas morning type of feel to it, that buzz of excitement as twenty five or thirty people exclaimed to one another as they fiddled with and explored the devices. For the most part, the training covered the basic nuts and bolts of working with an iPad, a mix of new and familiar territory for me. Our facilitator made some wise suggestions about organizing the apps so the ones the students will have access to are on the first page and gave us some tips about features that might have escaped me: how to bookmark a website and add it to the homescreen, or how to enable toggle voice over so that the iPad reads highlighted selections of anything on the screen to the user. Classroom teachers and special educators alike oohed and ahhed as they worked with the iPads' two cameras, microphone, touch screen and easy accessibility to thousands of apps.

I have been thinking about my reaction to the iPad and how it has differed from my colleagues'. I think in part I am hesitant to get too attached to this nifty machine because I know that ultimately it will be a tool that is shared throughout my school and I may not retain primary possession of it in my room. When our school received grant funded laptops many years back, that clunky hp became “mine” until it wore out and I bought my own MacBook. I don't want to get too dependent on a new piece of technology if I can help it, and frankly I am still more comfortable working on my laptop, so the iPad feels like an add on instead of as essential. Technologically speaking, my life has been going on quite fine without the iPad so its arrival on the scene hasn't felt earth shattering, hasn't made me wonder, “How did I ever live without this??”

That being said, there is a dizzying amount of technology packed into this small apparatus, and when I think about the development of technology in my lifetime, I realize once again that we are living in the middle of a technology revolution that will be studied as part of world history long after we are all gone. I am overwhelmed to realize that my job as a teacher is shifting sand, changing right underneath my feet. How can I possibly prepare my students for what the world is becoming in the midst of this revolution?

Our facilitator has worked with the first generation of iPads in his school district during this past school year, and was able to recommend several apps that have educational potential. My homework in the coming weeks will be to check out these sites and others and think about how they will enhance learning in my classroom in the coming year. One thing I noticed, sitting amidst as many special educators as classroom teachers, is that there seems to be a more immediate, obvious understanding of how the iPad can be used in a 1:1 situation than in a classroom situation where there is one iPad and eighteen or twenty students. Knowing I have one student who is not on a special education IEP but does have some distinct individualized needs, I am planning on trying out the free Dragon dictation app with him in the fall. It is amazingly simple to email the text you have dictated. This student could compose his writing via dictation and then rework the draft in Google docs (already used by fifth and sixth graders at my school) when the rest of the class is typing their writing in our school tech lab. I am not sure how Dragon works when there is the background noise of a classroom, so this is one kink that may need to be worked out.

One other app to mention right now: the top free education app this week is the National Science Foundation's Science 360 for iPad. Using a “unique 360 view” users can choose from hundreds of science video and images. The following exchange got me thinking about the Grinch.

Classroom teacher (not me): How can you search for specific topics?

Facilitator: You can't.*

CT: That's awful!

F: No, it's wonderful.

I see both sides of this short dialogue. It's amazing and wonderful to have so many high quality, engaging videos at ones disposal. The whole world, accessed through the iPad.

But it's awful, too. As a parent (and teacher), I have to be so diligent making sure my children are not spending too much time in front of a screen. At my house, screen time is like a sugary treat, doled out carefully and leaving my children always wanting more. I can imagine how easy it would be to say to myself, “Well, these are educational videos, so it's ok if my five and nine year old watch these.” But for my parenting style, it is so much more important that they get outside, play kickball with the boy who lives down the street, explore the stream out back with their father, go on a bike ride with me. Maybe that's because I know how easy it is to fall down the rabbit hole and spend hours on the internet, chatting with friends on facebook, reading the dozen blogs I follow, catching up on email. As amazing as those science 360 videos are, I can see how easy it would be to get lost in their visual dazzle; there will be few situations when I set up a student with the iPad and let them loose on that app, just to see what's out there. It feels very grinchy to have this reaction to such a cool app, but that's how it feels to me; I was glad to hear another teacher see past some of the ooh and ahh in consideration of practical classroom applications.

*And now for the happy ending/postscript on Science 360: you can do a two finger tap and get to a menu that allows you to search the videos by tags. So a teacher could search for videos about amphibians, decibels, or hydrogen bonds. Or any of the other alphabetically arranged tags. This gives me hope for its usefulness in the classroom.


  1. I agree: the iPad is less "Earth shattering" if you are already used to portability. It's kind of like how people were "wowed" by SMART boards, but what they really appreciated was the addition of an LCD projector to their classroom.

    You also remind me that reading the App instructions can be handy... something I am not prone to doing!

  2. I'm not a educator, but I am a software developer. And, I've been trying to figure out how one would use effectively a single iPad in a class of 18 or students. I look forward to hearing more about what you discover. Also, if you have thoughts for applications that you'd like to see, but that don't exist, I'd love to hear those too!