tools and gadgets

A year with the iPad in the classroom

A year in, I thought I’d reflect on what I’ve learned a little about the iPad as a teaching tool and what next directions in education technology look most promising.

The iPad is certainly a great tool in lots of ways. It’s light, robust, with good battery life and longevity. My Year 9 students were into their third year with the device and almost all of them were still working nearly all the time; albeit a couple with cracked screens and bumped corners.

I was easily able to share content via our LMS (Schoolbox) and they could submit work, research and had a set of ebooks for their core subjects (the Jacaranda pack)

You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘write’ on them, for while students planned presentations on their iPads they didn’t really take notes. I did show them OneNote a couple of times (I used it constantly as a teaching tool too) and three or four students immediately took to it in a big way, loving the organisational features. The others figured that since they had a paper English book they might as well write in it and, if they’re using the ebook on the iPad it’s pretty tricky to write anything down on the iPad at the same time. I didn’t push it too much; it’s not yet the dominant culture, especially in the middle years.

Also, if you’ve ever spent any time at all typing anything substantial at all (even a Year 9 English essay) on the iPad screen, it isn’t that much fun. Ergo, one interesting moment late in the year with the students working in groups putting together a presentation on their chosen book. In one of the groups a student had bought in a MacBook and all the students in that group gathered around her in designing their Keynote presentation. For some reason (I’m thinking keyboard) that was a much more natural place to do that task.

All this has happened as I’ve noticed the rise and rise of Chromebooks, particularly in the US educational context. Chromebooks are cheap, robust, secure, loved by the bursar and the IT manager. They’ve got keyboards and (I hear) work better offline than they used to. Student A can log out and Student B can log in. You could write an essay with ease and, if you were in a GAFE context a whole lot of other things might happen. I’m thinking of buying one myself to see how good they actually are.

Meanwhile, we’ve decided to offer teachers a choice for the first time next year for their replacement notebooks. The current laptop is an HP running Windows 10: slow to start up and would be an ideal anchor for a small yacht. Next year teachers can choose between a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and a MacBook Air. I think some of the Maths teachers particularly will be interested in the touch and draw features in the Microsoft choice.

There’s certainly plenty of good choices; of course, in the end it will be all about the teaching that goes with these tools.

Life with a smartwatch


Just before Christmas I saw an offer on a Pebble Smartwatch. $100AU from Amazon (+ postage) for the basic model, in black. I’d been a little jealous of a friend’s Apple watch for six months so decided to take the plunge and see how much value there is in a watch.

I’d been wearing a Fitbit for a while and that buzzed when the phone rang and gave information as to who was ringing, which was handy, and the Pebble does that too, and that’s the essence of it. It syncs via Bluetooth to your phone and any notifications come to your wrist.

I’ve been using it now for three months and thought I might reflect on the idea of the smartwatch, and the Pebble specifically. I’m not trying to do a full-on review, there’s lots of sites like Mashable and iMore that do that kind of thing; this is a more personal kind of reflection.

On the positive side, I’ve actually been impressed with just how handy it can be have a snippet of information on your wrist, rather than pull it out of your pocket, and not just for the ‘persons liked your post’ notifications, but messages, Google updates, and more. I like the way I can alter the watch faces and I like some of the customisation and apps you can buy (including AFL footy score updates!) I seem to get just under a week’s battery out of the Pebble, which is also pretty good.

On the negative side, the Pebble is still a bit limited. You can’t make calls or record any audio. My black and white screen is pretty basic. It’s one of those things that’s useful, not essential, nice to have. It might be a different thing if I was looking at the Apple watch, but at $500AU minimum that’s in a different price-bracelet to the Pebble.

So, are there any educational possibilities beyond the slight paranoia around watches and exams? Maybe not. I’ve yet to see a compelling use-case for the watch as a learning tool, but it may come. Field trips supplemented by GPS, quick messaging to groups on the run, the kind of quick updates, alerts, hat might prove useful for students out on an excursion.

I’m still wearing it; at $100 it’s been worth it, but I’m not desperate to spend $500 for something with the current feature-set.

Talk and Tek (the way I teach now)


This week I was finishing up my planning for a unit of work in Literature loosely called ‘Views and Values’ and focusing, in this case, on the poetry of Adrienne Rich and the kinds of viewpoints about the world, as well as the underpinning values that emerge, in her work.

Rich is an American poet with strong feministic beliefs so, besides being an excellent poet, she’s ideally placed in this aspect of the course. Students need to work with the poetry but also unpack and analyse the way the author critiques society. It’s challenging, but also really interesting.

This is a senior Literature class, mostly of self-motivated students who are interested in the material and want to be there. It’s a privilege and makes teaching a pleasure. My teaching in this subject involves a lot of talk: discussion, student presentations, me talking (sometimes too much), students talking (in groups, pairs, or whole class) reading aloud, annotating, summarising, synthesising, analysing, coming to judgement and personal evaluation. Developing a reading, by talking it through, is the key I say.

But it’s not talk and chalk, but talk and tek, for me in my teaching these days. Quite a while ago now I pretty much stopped using the analog whiteboard altogether and projected the notes and discussion points on a screen via data projector; firstly using PowerPoint as the preferred note-taking tool, and then, as screen resolution improved to Word, and finally OneNote. Where is is today.

OneNote is a wonderful tool for organising and capturing note and research, but I find it also worked really well to organise the notes (and teaching) for a course. I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but my Literature OneNote notebook has a section for each text and pretty much a page for each lesson. It structures itself wonderfully as the lessons unfold. Students would have their OneNote notebook too, and I’d generally email them a OneNote page for homework, or with material to read. Moving notes around from email into OneNote is a bit of a pain, but it was still worth it.

This year, a lot of that approach changed as we’ve been trialling Office 265 and OneDrive. The game-changer here is the possibilities in OneNote Notebook Creator; a tool that takes a lot of the hassle out of setting up and maintaining OneNote as a learning tool, and adds some powerful features that simply weren’t possible or were really tricky to do before: a collaboration space and a personal shared notebook space with each student. You can read about the features on the Microsoft site, but I’ve used OneNote this year for course content delivery, for collaboration spaces for student groups, for a space for students to submit work for feedback and lots more. Its the main teaching tool I use.

Along with that, I’ve got a couple of standard technology tools I use and like. I like Padlet for online brainstorming, and use Schoology, thought not as much as last year, mainly for its assessment and feddback and assignment/homework completion qualities. I put student results up there so students are able to get their results online rather than wait and get the results in class in that social context. I also have used Office Mix to jazz up PowerPoints with audio and video, Office Sway a new tool for delivering information; you can see a Sway on an Adrienne Rich I put together HERE. (However, I’m thinking that the main use of Sway might be in students presenting their own findings and in their presentations, and use Diigo, online bookmarking to set up lists like Resources on Adrienne Rich, to supplement the classroom work and resources.

Funny, that after I’ve been so critical of Windows and the operating system and the Office tools, and am such a fan of the Apple ecosytem that the principle tools I find myself working and teaching with in 2015 are from Microsoft.

The future is blended


I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a presentation I’m giving at two Oxford Conferences soon. The title of the presentation is The Future is Blended, and the descriptor for my session is:

In this workshop the focus will be on blended learning and approaches that extend and enhance the classroom experience. The latest research tells us what we have always felt: that good teaching is critical to student learning and that feedback to students is also critical. New technologies provide teachers with powerful tools to organise, collaborate and give feedback and to re-envision the classroom for the twenty-first-century learner. In this workshop participants will get a snapshot of the latest learning theory and get to play with some digital tools in a range of platforms that that can have immediate application in any classroom. The future is not digital, but it is blended.

The Education Changes Lives Conference is focused on Australian Curriculum but my session is more about technology and blending traditional approaches with new ideas. Last year I presented in the English teachers stream; this year it’s for general teaching audience.

The Melbourne conference is on May 16th

The Sydney Conference is on May 30th

Hope to see you there.

OneNote Unchained

I’ve always said in recent years that the only thing keeping me interested in the Windows platform was OneNote.

Over the past five years or so I’ve gradually re-invested in the Apple platform after abandoning it for the Windows machines of various 1-1 notebooks programs over the years including Toshibas, ACER, Fujitsu, IBMs and others. I bought an iPod, then an iPhone and an iPad and then a Mac Mini. Back to the Mac; since my first computer at work was an Apple 2, and the first computer I bought was an Apple 2C, so sleek and modern at the time. I had a Mac Classic all those years ago.

So I was pretty interested to see Microsoft finally release a Mac version of OneNote this week. At last! And free! OneNote has been my favourite Microsoft Office component on Windows for a long time, (it’s my central teaching tool) and now it’s on the Mac, syncing via OneDrive.

The Mac version isn’t quite as full-featured; is pretty light on features: it lacks tight integration with Outlook, for example and I can’t see sub-sections or a way to move stuff around.  But it’s finally there and a worthy developing competitor of Evernote at last. It’s on the Mac App Store and went to No. 1 straight away.

Makes me want to go out and buy a Macbook, which I’m sure isn’t exactly what Microsoft intended!

If you haven’t heard about OneNote, check out some of the links below:


External links:

5 Ways to make use of OneNote for Students

4 Tips for Students using OneNote

OneNote is a note-taking Power Tool (Lifehacker)

Teaching and Learning with OneNote

Top 100 Tools for Learning

Still on the Cool Tools theme, I liked this list of the Top 100 Tools for Learning from the 7th Annual Learning Tools Suvey

Lots to think about and explore here, including thinking about how is YOUR  school responding to the use of these tools by teachers, many of which involved social networking or the Cloud?