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The education technology industry is one of the most quickly growing industries in the United States. Billions of dollars are spent annually by tech juggernauts such as Pearson, Kaplan, and Apollo Group as they develop Learning Management Systems (LMSs), mobile apps, tutoring services, online course offerings, and digital textbooks. In terms of sheer dollar amounts funding for ed tech industry companies surpassed $500 million per quarter in the year 2014.
As a result of this exponential growth, teachers, schools, and districts have been inundated with propaganda to encourage experimentation and use of technology in schools. Subjected to these highly funded messages, schools and teachers have fallen victim to calls for implementation of transformation technology. In one highly publicized story, the Los Angeles Unified Public School District gave in to the propaganda and set out to spend $1.3 billion on iPads to implement in a district-wide 1:1 program. After realizing that research on the actual usefulness of iPads to learning is mixed, and that the district needed to prioritize the use of the billion plus dollars elsewhere, LAUPD pulled its contract with Apple.
While the LAUPD - Apple case presents evidence as to how education is being influenced by technology for the sake of engagement on the macro level, further embedded in this industry is the micro level growth of the increasingly popular app. While most commonly associated with mobile devices, most apps these days can be used on any platform - desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone. Apps present teachers and students with a variety of opportunities to build skills, demonstrate mastery, creatively complete assignment requirements, and collaborate. For these purposes there is no shortage of available tools. Apple boasts that it has over “80,000 education apps — designed especially for iPad — that cover a wide range of subjects for every grade level and learning style.” It is easy to imagine how an iPad with hundreds (thousands?) of apps is an alluring item for a teacher.
And why not: With an engagement factor seemingly well beyond the typical lesson “hook”, and classrooms bursting at an average of 30+ students at many schools, teachers need all the help they can get. iPads and app collections can be a go to for remediation, management, blended, flipped, differentiated, and other types of teaching/learning. But, what is the goal with all of these app collections? Particularly at the secondary level, are we in dire need of relying on apps to engage students in learning?
As a teacher and counselor in a school that encourages technology use through its 1:1 laptop program, and open mobile policy, I often feel the undue pressure (mostly from students) to leverage a sizable variety of apps in my practice. In fact, when I presented a poster at the 2014 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Atlanta, GA, the number one piece of criticism I received was that I did not show my “app list”. I had found some success using tools such as Socrative, Edmodo, Storybird, and Haiku, but ultimately, I did not really have an extensive “list”. What I did have was collection of student feedback regarding their use of apps in my classes. After some initial creative engagement and bolstering of my ability to manage student assignments effectively, I found that I was losing a great opportunity to build technical skills by continuing to throw new apps at my students.
So, despite the call for more apps, I decided to go opposite and get rid of nearly all of the apps that I had been using. I focused on a core handful that I thought would be most applicable to my students’ futures; apps that would help build skills that could cross disciplines, and that students could use well into their life post high school. I then decided to become personally well-versed in these apps with the goal of creating mastery amongst my students. I eventually settled on 7 apps and 3 pieces of hardware to roundout my collection: Google Drive Suite, Google Earth, iMovie, GarageBand, Pages, Vimeo, student Smartphones, Yeti Microphones, and laptops through our school’s 1:1 program.
These 10 pieces of tech would drive my output options for students, in which I would ask them to demonstrate sufficient mastery over the select few they found to fit their creative needs. I did not make any changes to my enduring understandings, or content selection, but augmented my instruction to include some sessions that involved each of the pieces of tech. I pushed myself to record podcasts, create maps using Google Earth (instead of paper), video record lesson intros using my smartphone and iMovie, and use Google Drive to facilitate notetaking and collaboration. By pushing my boundaries, I also modeled for students the possibilities that are available if a person has some interest, creativity, and a bit of tech-know-how.
Most importantly, however, by limiting their use of apps I asked students to consistently practice skills with a core group of productive, perpetually useful, and applicable pieces of technology. By the end of the school year, students were producing high quality video, high quality audio, collaborative project guides, posters, brochures, interviews, and much more. Moreover, their engagement was amplified by their sense of expertise.
As you consider your use of technology in this fall’s classroom, also consider the goals you have for your students’ futures. While the use of apps can offer a short-term solution for engagement, the true engagement is in building student mastery.