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Mobile Learning | Viewpoint

7 Strategies for iPads and iPods in the (Math) Classroom

Touch devices--such as iPods and iPads--represent a fundamental change in computing. They are unobtrusive, powerful, and intuitive devices that support authentic acts of learning through exploration, collaboration, consolidation, creation, and communication. Although the ideal may be a 1-to-1 deployment, even a single device can have a positive impact.

We want to share a series of thoughts and strategies supporting the adoption of iOS (iPod, iPhone, iPad) and other touch devices in the classroom and then focus on the selection and use of apps to support learning. Although our experience is primarily in the math classroom, we believe that many of these ideas are applicable to education generally.

1. Consider Class Sets or BYOSD (Bring Your Own Specified Device)
Just as we experienced with the introduction of graphing calculators in decades past, the 1-to-1 adoption of touch devices will be initially driven by individual preference, cost, philosophy, etc., but practicality will be the ultimate arbiter. To make graphing calculators work in the classroom efficiently, schools eventually adopted policies where a particular brand of calculator was requested (and supplied when there was a need).

We anticipate that the utility and practicality of touch devices and the associated resources will become apparent relatively quickly, and that mechanisms will be introduced to supply all students with their own personal devices to use and manage (BYOSD). Schools will then return to the role of providing access to content (e-texts/iBooks) and the resources (apps and WiFi) necessary to support the educational process. 

Still, it really doesn't matter where in the adoption process your school is. With even a single iPod Touch or iPad you can begin. Start with whole-class exploration and discussion (using a document camera or mirroring through a laptop), then set up an activity center to support further small group exploration, and finally allow individual/pair use to support consolidation, self-directed learning, fluency building, and assessment. 

2. Find Educationally Useful Apps
There are thousands of apps on iTunes designed to support learning in math. Unfortunately, the educational value of a given app is not directly linked to its popularity, ratings, or position on the list of presented apps. Look to your peers to help you find the most useful ones. Searching the web will reveal lists of apps that other educators have reviewed and recommended, on websites like Tap Tap Math.

Here are some tips on what to look for as you filter apps:

  • Those that are easy to understand and use;
  • Those that focus on mathematical sense making (e.g., visual models) and avoid the flashcard apps that focus only on rote memorization;
  • Those that allow you to adjust settings to meet individual needs;
  • The ones that focus on mastery before fluency, and avoid those that focus too much on speed;
  • Those that are truly free (no upsells and ad-free) or have a modest cost--these are much easier to adopt and recommend to parents;
  • Those that allow you to review student progress to support assessment; and
  • The ones with supporting materials (in-app or on a website) to guide classroom and individual use.

3. Organize the Device(s)
If you are using a class set, assign someone to hand out, collect, charge, and clean the devices. Label and number each device. Then create a roster, so that students are able to use the same device from day to day. For younger students, it may be helpful to bury settings and other distracting apps in a folder on the second page with a boring name (utilities). Apple Configurator is a free tool that you can use to install and restore the content on class sets.

For BYOSD, use a blog or newsletter to list the apps you would like the students and their parents to install on their devices. Then describe how you are using these devices and apps in your classroom.

General tips:

  • Guide the students to select unique player names that are helpful and abide by school protocols;
  • Organize your collection of apps into folders and label the folders clearly so that you and your students are able to locate them efficiently;
  • Discuss the practicalities of using these devices in the classroom (collaboratively generate rules);
  • Plan extensions or complementary activities for students who finish with the planned activities early; and
  • Encourage students to seek additional relevant apps to share on the class blog.

For some group work you may need to be able to have everyone viewing one screen. For an iPod touch or first-generation iPad, you can use a document camera. For an iPad 2 or new iPad (3) you can install software, like AirServer or Reflection, on your class computer to allow you to wirelessly mirror your screen through to a data projector.

4. Make Time for Exploring
Give students time to play with and freely explore the potential of new apps. After a few minutes, ask the students to describe the app and how it works--think of it as sharing the orientation duty.

When they get stuck, students should as a matter of habit first ask their neighbors for help. In a respectful classroom, each student should be willing to explain and assist to the best of their knowledge. When they can’t help each other, they should come to the teacher as a group to seek advice, redirection, or clarification. 

5. Let Students Collaborate
Even if you have a 1-to-1 classroom, it is often helpful to ask the students to share one device as they work on a challenge to provide them with an opportunity to share their strategies in a low-stress environment, reflect and absorb new ideas, and receive peer feedback. This works especially well with the larger screens on the iPads.

Once students have had time to work on a challenge (collaboratively or individually) they will be ready to share. Start by asking them to share what they discovered with a neighbor (to develop language and communication skills and to build confidence). Then ask them to share their observations with the class, justify their reasoning, and make connections. As they become familiar with this approach, and the regular expectation that they go beyond a simple answer, the focus will shift from rote learning to concept mastery.

Even with only one iPad in the classroom, you can present the resource/app on the overhead screen and discuss a problem, then challenge students to plan their approaches in pairs or small groups. Give each group the opportunity to share their plan, carry it out on the device, and evaluate the results.

6. Encourage Group Work, Consolidation, and Fluency Building
Set up learning centers where students will use familiar apps to work on extended challenges; to identify, share, and evaluate strategies; and to expand and consolidate their understanding of underlying concepts. 

Teachers may work with individual students to identify the next appropriate challenge (or series of challenges), leading them by degrees (success after success) to mastery of curricular goals. Remind the students that they should master the underlying concepts first and then work toward building fluency. 

For many older students, success with foundational curricular goals may have been missed. Here, apps can be used as positive self-directed remedial tools. Work with students to identify personal goals and supporting apps and provide them with opportunities to practice for a few minutes each day. Here again a single iPod or iPad can prove useful in a classroom.

7. Creation and Communication
Engaging students in activities such as creating comics and animations can take your math class beyond rote and into real learning. Note again that these apps and strategies can be effectively used in a classroom with only one device (with students building, vetting, and revising a paper storyboard first).

Comics provide students with a fantastic opportunity to generate rich, yet concise, explanations of their understanding of concepts and procedures. Comics are especially useful in supporting learners who struggle in multiple domains (writing, math, science, etc.). Comic creation apps like Comic Life allow students to successfully plan and generate pleasing and effective at-grade artifacts to communicate their understandings. Similarly, students can plan and generate animated explanations and stories using a whiteboard recording app like Explain Everything.

About the Author

Tim Pelton and Leslee Francis Pelton are faculty members in the department of curriculum and instruction in the faculty of education at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Their current work involves the design, development, and validation of iOS apps (MathTappers) to encourage the exploration of mathematics and science concepts and to provide individualized opportunities for students to achieve mastery.

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