Yesterday, I attended an Appy Hour held by Common Sense Media. The goal of the event was to inform teachers about technology in ELA, focusing on tablets, and give a few tips on how to incorporate iPad apps into their classroom. I was warmly welcomed by Jennifer, the host, and offered a Shirley Temple (I accepted with pleasure!) Half a dozen teachers trickled into the room – the 3:30 timeslot limited participation for many – and after a brief round of introductions, we dove in.
I took a lot of notes during the process. I’m a researcher, a developer, a business owner, and a writer, but I’m not a teacher. As such I need to learn as much as I can from the few windows I get into the world they work in, the problems they’re running into, and the conversations they’re having about overcoming those problems. This morning I collected my notes and spent time reflecting on them, trying to draw out a few common threads out of those two hours. Here’s what I came up with.
1. Ed-tech Monetization Harms Teachers
The first app that we walked through was a storytelling app called ToonTastic. Students are able to drag-and-drop characters onto a cartoon background, record themselves as they moved these characters across the screen to create interactive narratives, and modify the colors on these characters or all-new objects through a neat, well-constructed interface. After a brief rundown of the concept from our presenter and a fun splash screen, there was a halt in the talk.
“Wait. This wasn’t here before. I just tried this. Something happened overnight. I don’t know why.”
Essentially every option in the program – all but one background, all but a handful of objects – was now accompanied by a cute little padlock. Attempting to use these options led to a friendly page where sets of cartoons could be purchased for $2 a la carte, or the entire app could be enabled for $20.
Later in the day, we practiced with another app – Animoto – where we had the exact same experience. In that setting, a video-creation website, there were backgrounds, songs, and a variety of other options that gave little indication that they were locked behind a monthly subscription.
To me, these are bad signs for the ed-tech ecosystem. Teachers do not know what apps they can rely on from week to week. Overnight, the experience of using a tool can change completely. Everything from the disappointing on-boarding process onward leads to a crumbling foundation of trust between technology and teachers.
2. Ed-tech platforms are beautiful, intuitive and (mostly) empty
The apps that we saw yesterday were polished until they glistened. We saw Spelling City, a slick ensemble of games built upon a core library of vocabulary lists. Later, we were introduced to Graphite, a social platform for app discovery (more on Graphite later). The visual design and even the user experience were clearly well-crafted and they were activities that students could really use.
For all of this work, though, the tools ran out of content criminally fast. Curated content, endorsed by the developers and ready to be pulled off the shelf, was clearly no more than a demonstration, enough to give teachers a taste of what could be done without delivering more than a day or two of material.
Shared material between teachers helps. Another app we saw, Educreations, offered a quick, easy library full of material written by other teachers. They even singled out featured lessons to really showcase the capabilities of the platform. The superstar in this “library,” of course, is Khan Academy, which offers a seemingly endless array of material from the start to finish of dozens of classes, especially in STEM fields.
If the ed-tech marketplace really wants to take off, there’s going to be one factor that makes the difference, and it’s shared creation. Either through a gargantuan effort like Khan Academy, or through a better network through which teachers can share their resources, the status quo doesn’t come close to the almost infinite library of low-tech content coming from textbooks, worksheets, and the content that individual teachers have written in their years of teaching.
3. Kids Love to Create
Creation isn’t just for the teachers, either. Every single teacher in yesterday’s session said this – kids love to create. The same sentence, echoed again and again.
Looking at ToonTastic, we talked about self-efficacy. Students can see the impact of their actions through telling their own stories, using tools to build something new. Kids can be taught real life skills through these tools, too. Skills like practicing public speaking, writing reports, and understanding the feelings of their peers come not through multiple-choice quizzes, but through construction of something new, ideally with iteration through multiple attempts, and collaboration with their peers.
Recall and recognition of facts isn’t enough to drive engagement or let students tap into their emotions or the feelings of others. Prepackaged one-directional lectures aren’t going to build up self-efficacy or enhance skills.
“Our kids get so scared of making a mistake.”
There’s one thing that’s critical in this, though – going back and revising. A teacher yesterday mentioned that she works with Deaf and hard-of-hearing children. On every app, she asked how to undo an action, how to correct a mistake, or how to make sure that you were following instructions.
Her kids, she explained, spent most of their time in school feeling nervous. They’re rarely given instructions that are clear to them, and they don’t know if they’re on track. For many, confidence is a skill that takes time to develop. When letting kids create, make sure that they know what’s expected of them, and let them know when they’re on the right track.
4. The entire teaching process is now in focus
It’s not just kids who are confused by what’s expected of them. Teachers, parents, and administrators are also getting lost in the miasma of standards, goals, initiatives, and plans that are being foisted on them. The more innovative ed-tech companies seem to know this – and they’re doing a good job of helping.
Graphite is Common Sense Media’s platform for finding apps for the classroom. In addition to its filters by grade level and topic, it has at least two numeric ratings for everything in its archives: learning rating and teacher rating. The former tells you what the experts think, looking at objectives of each program and their design to facilitate education. The latter tells you what real users think after they’ve tried it out with their kids. Any dissonance in the two reviews suggests a gap between noble intentions and practical reality.
A side effect of this is the nice indication that apps are being designed with spelled-out goals. Being “Common Core aligned” is nice, conceptually, but from what I saw, what’s great is when teachers know exactly which box is being filled by a product. Presenting this information up-front seems to me like it gives teachers more time to think about how they’re building a lesson plan that fits their students’ needs, and they spend less time just ensuring that they’re checking off every box.
Developers are also getting involved. More than once, I saw options in an app to share student creations with their parents, sometimes immediately – parents can get an email during class hours, delivered directly to their work emails. There’s an emphasis on making sure that educational technology is transparent No one wants to see teachers building an entire lesson plan around a gimmick. Everyone, from Graphite to the individual app developers, seems like they know this.
5. Technology access is increasing, fast
Two years ago – 2011 – my research group from Carnegie Mellon went into a school where the technology facilities consisted of a single computer lab. The computers were running, barely, on Intel 486 processors.
Schools in that situation still exist. It’s changing, though – the teachers that I met with yesterday have at least one iPad for each teacher in their classroom. Last week I visited with a district that gave teachers access to laptop carts essentially on-demand; they weren’t a daily presence in the classroom but requiring them for a special activity wasn’t viewed as a stumbling block.
What surprised me was not just the amount of technology access that I heard about, but the recency. Those two teachers received their iPads at the start of this school year. If I had asked around about mobile computing as recently as last year, the answers would have been starkly different. Technology access is accelerating – this year’s classroom doesn’t look like last year’s, and next year’s will be different still.
The term “1-to-1” was thrown around several times in the session – a term meaning direct access to an iPad for each student during within-classroom activities. This is not reality in the vast majority of schools. However, I was surprised by the ubiquity of the vocabulary – teachers from different schools were talking with one another about “1-to-1” without any elaboration or explanation. It’s not here yet, but for the first time, I get the sense that teachers are thinking of it as an attainable goal.
6. Teachers can’t connect and collaborate digitally
For all of this transition, though, there’s a gap where a dialogue between teachers used to be. Digital technologies are enabling individual teachers in incredible ways, but they’re leaving a huge gap when it comes to advice on tips for best results, dealing with hard situations, and the basic human element of face-to-face conversation (and sometimes, commiseration).
“We’re supposed to be using our wiki space, but I don’t know anyone who’s looking at it.”
Tech companies are trying their best to mitigate this gap. Early adopters of new apps are engrossed in social media, especially Twitter and Pinterest. The session yesterday broke down with twenty minutes left, transitioning from a conversation about apps to a primer on twitter, hashtags, and getting ideas in a world gone digital.
The teachers at yesterday’s event agreed, though – progress, both day-to-day planning and “big idea” breakthroughs, doesn’t come in the classroom itself. They come on Friday afternoon, getting drinks with other teachers and talking about the problems that are unique to teaching.
Are happy hours being replicated in the digital space? I’m not sure. It’s an ironic name that this event was labeled an Appy Hour and was built to support this online transition. Some apps are making progress – collaborative content in programs like Educreations is a start. In Graphite, reviews of apps came alongside “field notes” on how real teachers have used that app, and what tips they might give. Users could pin their favorites to “boards” replicated whole-cloth from Pinterest.
Overall, making sure that teachers have a shared view into tools, rather than a fragmented market of disconnected ideas, should be a chief goal. With common experience comes collaborative problem solving. Most importantly, though, is making sure that these experiences can be shared at all, and that this conversation can continue, even as classrooms flip, blend, and trundle their way onto their internet.
7. Graphite is an exciting but early platform
We weren’t introduced to Common Sense’s Graphite until halfway through the event. As a platform, Graphite seems to embody everything about the ed-tech ecosystem that I’ve described here. Graphite is a living microcosm of all of the promise and potential of educational technology; it’s also a microcosm all of the quirks and limitations that are so common.
The design is beautiful; the implementation is solid; the endorsements come from individual teachers all the way up to Bill Gates himself, courtesy of a heart-warming YouTube video.
Content is clear and effective, when it’s there, but as always I felt like I was running out long before I was satiated.
Social integration was emphasized at all levels of design, from 5-star reviews to field notes to pin boards.
The technical implementation, though, was clearly in-progress, from the totally broken search functionality to the half-hearted attempts to connect teachers one-on-one.
I think there’s something really exciting going on in this platform, just like there’s limitless potential to the education ecosystem as a whole. In both cases, I don’t think it’s there yet; in both cases, I’m glad that I’m getting in early.
LightSide is moving automated writing assessment from high-stakes exams into the classroom. We’re shifting the focus from grades to feedback, and getting writing help to students during the revision process, from the first draft onward. We’re supporting teachers by letting teachers prioritize their time away from grading and towards activities where they can help students learn, especially in writing across the curriculum, where teachers are less likely to be comfortable giving feedback on writing.
Soon, we’ll be taking applications from teachers, schools, and districts for our pilot program in the Spring 2014 semester. To hear more, sign up for our mailing list, or get in touch with Elijah directly.