A Letter to Educational App Developers: A Call for Action

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Dear Education App Developer,

Although you have wonderful intentions with supporting student learning and engagement, I think your app can be improved. You might be wondering why I would know what I am talking about? After all, I am not a graphic designer nor do I know how to program. I couldn’t explain to you how Objective-C works and I don’t know the first thing about iOS SDK. But what I can tell you is, I am an educator. I am the teacher of a long history of students. I open my door each morning and greet 25 eager second graders. I am responsible for roll call, bandaid dispensary, bulletin board designing, data entry of grades, collaborator, web developer, and recess duty whistle blower. But most importantly, I am a lesson developer of art, music, physical education, reading, writing, math, social studies, science, and character education.

In addition, I also manage 30 iPods, an iPad, and a small computer lab. I decide what apps are worthy of my students educational experience. Before an app can be uploaded onto one of my students’ iPods, it must meet a high standard for what I determine to be a quality app. In a perfect world, an educational app should have the following qualities:

  • Tied to Learning Targets/Standards – The app must be relevant to what my students are learning and tied to a learning target or standard that is necessary for my students to be successful.
  • Promotes Critical Thinking– Far too many apps require students to follow the old “drill and practice” method. While this may be good some of the time, most of our students’ time should be spent promoting 21st Century skills such as collaboration, innovation, communication, and self-assessing. The app should promote problem based learning.
  • Provides Feedback/Assessment– The app should be able to provide instant feedback to the learner and to the teacher. In addition, the app should be able to collect a history of the student’s work and progress.
  • Multifaceted– The app should be able to adapt to the learner as they progress. Scaffolding and differentiation should be provided within the app to allow the learner to have success, but just enough challenge to move them further ahead in their learning. An app that has only one learning level will be quickly outgrown.
  • Ability to Share– Students should be able to easily share their work with other devices, desktop, email, and social networking sites.
  • Engaging/Student Motivation– Just because they are working on an iPod does not necessarily mean students are engaged. Remember, we are competing with other technologies they are accessing at home, like the Wii, which provide more of an entertainment environment. The power of “gaming” is strong. Students who feel like their learning activity is fun, are far more likely to have better learning outcomes. An app that successfully motivates a child is an app in which students will continually choose to access on their own.
  • Age Appropriate– The app should have qualities that are appropriate for the age level of the students who will potentially be accessing the app.
  • Reliable– Nothing is worse than an app that continually shuts down. The app should be free from bugs and upgrades should actively seek to fix any problems. Upgrades should never clear a child’s data history.
  • Research based– App developers should be testing their apps with students and working in collaboration with classroom teachers. Apps should be able provide data that demonstrates student success prior to the release date as well as on-going data after the release of the app. In addition, the design of the app should be based in some form of sound educational theory.
  • Intuitive– An app should be so user-friendly that it is intuitive to use. In addition, a good app should include user instructions or a support page that a child can easily read or follow. In this case, if an app is designed for an emerging reader, the instructions should be provided in a format that an emerging reader can access.

Why should you worry about the quality of your educational app? First and foremost, a teacher’s time with his or her students is precious and society holds us accountable to use that time wisely. Secondly, educators have a limited amount of funds to purchase applications and funds need to be used to purchase only the most educationally sound, research-based apps.

In addition, educators do not want to just layer on old teaching practices on top of new technologies. Education is in a time of great change and there is a shift in teaching philosophies. In order for our students to be successful in the future they must be able to utilize the four C’s:  create, collaborate, use critical thinking skills, and communicate. Your app should strive to enhance all four areas while keeping the learning in a context that is accessible and relatable to the learner. Therefore, the design of your app should enhance a child’s learning experience and provide a platform which promotes project/problem based learning.

So here is what I challenge you, the app developer, with. Can your company rise to the standards I have set here in this letter? Can you ensure you are working in collaboration of the education community to create the best possible apps for our students? An app created without the learner’s needs at the forefront, is like creating an app for an empty desk. When designing your educational app, please keep the child and the learner’s need at the top of your priority list. Remember, your apps will potentially be purchased with tax dollars to educate the very people you may one day want to hire.

So here is my open and honest letter to you and a call for action. I hope you find this advice worthy of your time.

Sincerely,

Jo-Ann Fox, M.Ed.

To find even more resources for evaluating apps using checklists or rubrics see Tony Vincent’s webpage LearningInHand.com. His post titled “Ways to Evaluate Education Apps” was an inspiration for this letter. Tony posts his own rubric and several other rubrics/lists he has collected.

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Best Uses for iBooks: Turn Your Keynote or Power Point into an iBook

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This is one of the best digital learning tools for your iPods! You can easily turn any Keynote or Power Point presentation into an iBook. Imagine the possibility of creating your own books for your students to access. Even better, your students can write their own books and publish them onto iBooks for everyone to read. The possibilities of using your Keynote or Power Point presentations as iBooks are endless and the process is simple (once you get the hang of it). Anyone can do this.

First make sure you have downloaded iBooks into your iTunes account and onto your iPod or iPhone. It comes built in with the iPad (and also has some newer capabilities that differ from the iPod/iPhone version). This is a free app: iBook Link.

Next, create a Keynote or Power Point presentation on your computer (preferably on your syncing computer). You can add pictures, text, and as many pages as you like. When your presentation is finished (and saved) you are going to turn your presentation into a pdf file. Here is how to do that:

1. While your Keynote or Power Point is open, go to file and select print.

2. At the bottom of your print window you will see a pull down screen that says PDF. Click on it.
3. You will then select “save as PDF.”
4. Name it, select the location where it will be saved (I usually select desktop), and click save. You will want your title to end in .pdf

Now you have that Keynote or Power Point saved onto your desktop as a PDF file. Now open up your iTunes. Simply click on that PDF file you made of the Keynote or Power Point presentation and drag it to the “Library” section. When the Library section turns blue, drop the PDF file in place and that file will go straight into iBooks (if you have downloaded that into your iTunes library as previously mentioned). Now sync your iPod, iPad, or iPhone and your Keynote or Power Point will be accessible in your iBooks bookshelf.

However, when you open up your iBooks on your iPod you may not see your Keynote or Power Point right away on the bookshelf. You will probably see an empty bookshelf (if you have never used iBooks before) or you will see books you have already purchased. In my picture you can see a book on my bookshelf that I have purchased in the past.

To find your Keynote or Power Point PDF file, click on the word “Books” on the menu bar at the top. When you click on “Books” you will be given two choices: Books or PDFs.

Select PDFs and viola! Your Keynote or Power Point book will be there waiting for you.

You could spend hours creating personalized books for your students. You can create books using their vocabulary in reading. You can create books that review phonics skills. You can create books reviewing social studies or science facts. You can create social stories for your students with special needs to access. You can create an iBook of a class book the class created together. This part is left up to your teacher creativity!

You are probably thinking, “Ha! When do I have time to build all these Keynotes!” But have no fear. The great news is that there are many teachers out there with plenty of spare time to do all the creating for you (wink wink)! Do a simple Google search using keywords such as “Power Points for teachers” or “Houghton Mifflin Power Points.” You will be amazed with how many results you get. One resource that I have been accessing is Pete’s Power Points. http://www.pppst.com/ This site is full of educational Power Points from all academic areas.

I have been downloading Keynotes onto my students’ iPods regularly and they love reading the books I make. We have been using them to review phonics skills, grammar skills, and to review vocabulary. I have seen an increase in my students’ understanding our vocabulary words since using iBooks in their iPods. I can’t wait to go to the next level and teach my students how to create their own Keynote presentations so they can publish their own stories to share with the class.

Jo-Ann Fox

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Storyrobe

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Storyrobe is considered a CREATIVE app. A creative app is an app that can be used in a variety of ways. (Versus some apps that only allow you to practice one skill like grammar or math facts.) This app is open ended and is only limited to your own teacher creativity.

 Appstore: Storyrobe
How this app works:
With this app you can take pictures (or retrieve pictures from your photo album) and create a slideshow. With each picture in the slide show your student can record their voice. There is a 3 minute limit to the slideshow.
How have I used this app?
I have used this app across the curriculum from reading, to social studies, to math. In language arts I have had my students take pictures from the story they are reading. First, they take pictures of the main events of the story. Then they record their retelling of the story. In social studies I have used Storyrobe for my students to monitor their understanding of the content area. They take pictures of what they have learned (right out of their social studies book) and then they record their understanding of the content. In math, I have had my students take pictures of each step of a math problem on a small whiteboard (we were working on adding two digit numbers with regrouping). Then they record how to solve the problem step by step.
This app really allows you to have a quick assessment of your students’ understanding. It also provides a safe and secure way for your introverted students to have a voice.
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Voice Memo App for Fluency and Comprehension Development

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You can go out and spend a ton of money and time trying to find the best app to use in your classroom. But stop spending hours in the iTunes store and save your money to spend at Barnes and Noble. One of the best apps that I use daily in my classroom is one that comes free on your iPod, straight from the factory. Go into your utilities file and viola! There it is… the most useful, bang for your buck app of all. Yep… Voice Memos.

The Voice Memo app is simple. There aren’t any ninjas or dancing bears. There isn’t any fancy motion feature or any levels to master. You simply record your voice! I have used this app for personal reasons many times, but I have found so many ways for my students to use this app in the classroom with their iPods, especially to support reading fluency and comprehension.

How often have you heard yourself read aloud? Now think, how often have your students heard themselves read aloud? Never thought about that, have you? Most kids know what a good reader should sound like. After all they listen to you read aloud to them in an enthusiastic voice on a daily basis. They have heard their parents or older siblings read to them, as well. But most kids have no idea what they sound like! Not in my classroom. My students know exactly what they sound like and can even reflect about their own read aloud capabilities. Everyday my students record themselves reading aloud using the Voice Memo app. When they finish recording they title their recording, listen to it, and reflect using a student-friendly rubric. I call this the RECORD, LISTEN, REFLECT model to using the Voice Memo app. I provide my students leveled passages (according to his or her reading level). I have been using the Read Naturally passages as well as the fluency passages from our Language Arts curriculum. They get one passage a week and record every day. My students are beginning to notice (on their own) the benefits of repeated readings! With each reading and recording their fluency rate increases, their intonation improves, and ultimately their comprehension improves. Teachers in my district have been utilizing the Voice Memo app for many years with great results. We have seen student test scores improve and the joy of reading has become the reward for many struggling readers. This is a great ROUTINE for any grade level or any reading level.

Another skill teachers are always seeking to improve is comprehension, right? Students in my classroom use the Voice Memo app to help monitor their comprehension. Gone are the stickies stuck all over the book! Now my students can record their questions, note details, compare and contrast, reflect, and summarize using Voice Memos. One of the many ways I have my second graders use the Voice Memo app is to retell their books they are reading. I have taught my students to use the story yarn to retell a story. The story yarn includes when, where, who, problem, first, next, then, and last. After reading their book (and before they take an Accelerated Reader quiz) they can record their summary on their iPod. Then they can email me their oral summary so I can have a better idea of wether or not they are ready to take an Accelerated Reader quiz. Plus I have a record of their summarizing skills and know exactly who needs intervention. Another way I have used the Voice Memo app to support comprehension is to have my students read two pages, then record what they remember. Then they hit pause, read two more pages, and continue the recording again. They repeat these steps until they get to the end of the book. When they are finished, they have a retelling of their entire book! This is great for them to listen to just before they go to take an Accelerated Reader quiz.

The possibilities of the Voice Memo app are limitless! Get creative and think of other ways you can guide your students towards mastery using this free app. Sometimes the simplest of things can be the most ingenious!

Please share with everyone ways you have found to use the Voice Memo app!

Here is a link to a Prezi I created for a staff development session I did for teachers in my district.

http://prezi.com/lpm9xc4hp3f0/record-listen-reflect/

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Puppet Pals

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Puppet Pals is a digital puppet theater complete with a large array of characters and backgrounds. This is another creative app that can be used in your classroom in a variety of ways in all curricular areas.

Puppet Pals in the iTunes store.

How this app works?
You can create puppet shows by moving the puppets around while recording your voice. You can also change the background (limited to 3 backgrounds). When you are finished recording it will guide you to publish the puppet show as a movie.
While this app is free and you can enjoy this app as is, I highly recommend purchasing the Director’s Pass for $3.99. Now I am not usually a fan of having to pay for apps, especially if I am using them in the classroom, but in this case, bite the bullet and buy the in app purchase! With the Director’s Pass you have a larger selection of puppets and backgrounds. Plus (and here is the best part) you can create your own puppets and backgrounds. They have made this a simple process of taking a picture with the camera feature then using your finger to cut around the shape of your body. Using your finger is quite sloppy and perhaps a better way to do this is with your stylus. You can also take images from your photo library and use them as backgrounds.
How have I used this app in the classroom? 
We have had a blast in my classroom bringing our reading summaries alive by creating a puppet show! First, my students brainstorm what they will say for a summary of the story we are reading (usually a self-selected leveled book or from our reading anthology). They brainstorm three main events in the story and need to be sure they use transition words such as FIRST, NEXT, and LAST. Then we took turns taking pictures. Each child needed a picture of themselves showing some kind of expression. For example, the Vanna White pose with hands outstretched. The kids can get pretty creative here, but remember they really only need one image. Then they used the “cutting tool” within the app to cut away the background so only their body is left. This puppet will be saved into the app. The next step is to add backgrounds. The app will allow you to choose pictures from your photo library. I have pictures from the story already downloaded into their photo library on their iPods. I do this when I sync their iPods. I have an album in iPhoto labeled Language Arts where I place pictures that we will need for projects such as this. This saves time, but you can always have the students take pictures of the book using the camera feature.Finally, each child created their story summary using themselves as the star puppet and the three backgrounds showing the main events of the story. Each child then published their movie and they all took turns sharing their puppet show summary on the docucam!
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Creative Apps vs. Skill Review Apps

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I have mentioned “Creative Apps” in several posts but I never really clarified what I meant by this. So here is my attempt to define the difference between Creative Apps and Skill Review Apps and inspire a bit of healthy competition between these two types of apps.

Creative Apps are apps that can be used in more than one way and in multiple curricular areas. These types of apps usually foster innovative learning and support students to expand upon what they have learned. Creative apps are excellent ways to integrate project based learning and always have a variety of outcomes. They are easily adaptable to learning styles and can be differentiated to meet the needs of all learning levels.

Skill review apps are quite different. This is the most common type of educational app out there and quite honestly, I have quite a large collection of these apps in my iTunes library (more than I could ever really need). Skill review apps provide a child a way to review a particular skill such as adding, subtracting, letter sounds, rhyming, etc. They often mimic a worksheet, in such a way that once the skill has been mastered, there isn’t much more that can be done with the app. The student outcomes are always the same and there is little to no innovation required. I have found students bore easily if this type of app is used too often. While it does sound like my opinion of these types of apps is a bit negative, I still think there is a place for these types of apps in our classroom. But please hear me out first.

I strongly believe educators need to be providing a platform for our students to access skills they will need to be successful in the 21st Century. We need to begin teaching our students to THINK rather than repeat back they have learned. We want our students to apply what they have learned, use inquiry, be effective communicators, collaborate with others, and be able to reflect about their own learning. If you, too, believe this to be true, then I ask you… what is the best, most effective way to utilize iPods or iPads into our classrooms? Using creative apps or skill review apps?

If you took a peek into my iPod cart (I have 30 iPods) you would not find iPods stuffed to capacity with apps. You will find the following creative apps:

  1. Sonic Pics
  2. Storyrobe
  3. Puppet Pals
  4. Splice
  5. PS Express – Photoshop
  6. Comic Touch Lite
  7. Voice Memos

I do in fact have some skill review apps on my student iPods as well (I know… gasp). However, the skill review apps that I sync to my iPods are based on the standards we will be learning for that particular week and ones that I want my students to review. I try to limit the number of skill review apps to be no more than 10. I never leave these kinds of apps on my iPods for very long. It is always good to keep these types of apps fresh!

So the next time you sync your iPods, think about how many creative apps you have for your students to access that will support their needs as 21st Century learners vs. those apps that just reviewing skills. While there is a place for both in our iPod world, it is always important to reflect about what is most important for your students.

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