Collaborative Technologies | April 2013 Digital Edition

Teachers List the Very Best Apps for Turning Your iPad Into a Collaborative Device

A host of apps are helping the iPad realize its potential as a collaborative device.

students working together

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's April 2013 digital edition.

We often read that there are 4 C's in a true 21st century education: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation. The iPad is a success at engaging individual students in critical thinking and creativity, but how about collaboration? After all, tablets are consumer products, designed to be used by one person at a time, not by teams of students. It's up to teachers and instructional technologists to figure out how best to deploy them in the classroom in a way that supports project-based learning and fosters teamwork. We asked several teachers involved in iPad initiatives which apps they've had the most success with on the collaboration front. Here is what they told us.

Creativity and the Common Core
Jennie Magiera is the digital learning coordinator for the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a network of 25 Chicago public schools. She helps deploy iPads and other digital devices and also coaches teachers on their use. She is currently helping 31 classrooms that have 1-to-1 iPads. Her new favorite app to foster collaboration is Schoology, a learning management/social media system similar to Edmodo. She says she chose Schoology because it offers all the features she needed for free, including important discussion features. For instance, teachers can see who commented when in a timeline, and Schoology allows students to reply directly to each other.

Magiera cites a typical elementary school math class to describe how iPads and Schoology might be transformative. Instead of photocopying word problems and having students work on them individually on paper, she likes to pull ideas from curriculum designer Dan Meyer, whom she calls "a math ed rock star." In lieu of a word problem, for example, Meyer's approach might have teachers show students a picture of a crowded room with 40 people and three pizzas on a table divided into eight slices each. The teacher then asks the students, "What does this picture make you wonder?"

Rather than wait for students to start shouting out answers, teachers use Schoology as a back-channel chat room. "Students start raising questions," Magiera says. How many slices per person? How big is the diameter of the pizza? Some will comment that size doesn't matter. Some will suggest drawing a picture to solve it. They then vote on each other's suggestions and approaches to solving the problem.

"This also allows the teacher to record and see the types of questions and answers all the students are offering," Magiera explains. "You could walk around 30 students and try to assess that, but Schoology records it and it levels the playing field for the teacher, who can see the wallflowers as well as the children who are yelling over the other kids."

The teacher uses this information to assess the quality of the questions that students ask, and this gets to the metacognitive thinking skills in the Common Core math standards, "such as modeling, critiquing arguments, using tools strategically, and reasoning abstractly," she says. "And the teacher can read all that post-conversation and assess the interactions, so that is valuable."

Magiera admits that there are still some assignments where it's easier for students to work together using Google Docs and Chromebooks. "We try to remain device-agnostic and use the right tool for the job. But there are things that the iPads are much better at," she adds. "You can't do the kind of 'Madden NFL' screencasting type thing and annotating using the Chromebook and a mouse." She says teachers try to come up with assignments that take advantage of mobility, such as going outside and taking pictures, where the iPad has the advantage. "With iPads, you do lose a little bit of collaborative capability, but you can still collaborate."

For instance, students are working together with their iPads on project-based grant applications. "As with any project, we break it up into parts and different students handle different parts," Magiera explains. One will shoot an iMovie trailer, one will take photos, one will work on the text introduction in Keynote. Then they bring it all together in Schoology or Dropbox to share.

The Swiss Army Knife Approach
Kim Overman, an intervention teacher at St. Marys Intermediate School in St. Marys, OH, is always on the lookout for apps to make her students' classroom experience more collaborative. With a grant from the state of Ohio, she recently got a set of 10 iPads that students share in classes of 20 to 25. "We want the students to work collaboratively, and every day new apps are appearing that allow them to work together," she says. Overman takes a Swiss army knife approach, choosing a handful of tools tailored to specific tasks. Her current favorites are Scribble Press, Popplet, and Educreations.

Scribble Press allows students to work in groups to create their own e-books, including text and illustrations. "We had students create one the other day using multiplication in a story," Overman says. "Then when they were done, they posted it in iBooks for teachers and other students to read."

Popplet is a graphic organizer that allows a teacher to project images from an iPad to a whiteboard. But more important, it's a great way for students to work in groups and organize their ideas into "webs," Overman says. They can incorporate photos they take or add freehand drawings as well as text. "The other day, our students had just gone to an assembly to hear an outside speaker," she recalls. "We came back to class and had them work on Popplets to share their impressions of what they had learned from the talk. Then they presented them to the class--and we can save them in portfolios of their work."

Educreations is a presentation tool that is great for letting kids show what they know, Overman says. It gives students the opportunity to record themselves explaining something for the teacher and other students to see, and they can work together on the presentations. In a lesson on 2D and 3D geometric shapes, Overman had students collaborate on "What-am-I?" riddles and clues about geometry, including photos and freehand drawing. "The classmates watch the presentations together," she says, "and the students can see from the reaction of other students how well they do at creating the clues."

A Constant Stream of Feedback
Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Pointe Farms, MI, works in a 1-to-1 iPad setting with ninth- and 10th-graders. Until recently, he had been frustrated that the students weren't incorporating the iPads more into their work. "I thought they were using it as a glorified book or search engine," he recalls. "I wanted to find some way they could use it every single class period. I realized it had to be something cloud-based so they could work on their files wherever they had internet access and on whatever device they had with them. Evernote fit the bill perfectly. The accounts were free and it is platform-neutral."

Evernote is a fairly common productivity app, and at first glance it may not seem geared to promote collaboration. But by funneling all of his and his students' work into Evernote, Provenzano has enhanced the iPads' central role in class. Now the students take all their notes in class using their iPads. "I don't even see a pen and paper in class anymore," he says. More important, with the use of Evernote Shared Notebooks, students can share and edit notebooks from their accounts.They can work on their part of a project and add it to a shared notebook when they are ready.

"Evernote has had a positive impact on the flow of project creation," Provenzano says. For instance, in a project he has done many times before, his students are creating Student Declarations of Independence, following the structure of the original US Declaration. Working in groups of four or five, they outline students' rights, their complaints against the Crown (Provenzano or the school), and their threats of what will happen if their grievances are not addressed. In years past, the biggest obstacle to collaborating on this project was the exchange of e-mails and flash drives to piece together the different parts of their document. Evernote solves this problem, he says.

The ubiquitous use of Evernote also enhances collaboration between Provenzano and his students, because every assignment they do is now accessible when he wants to look at it. "I can give feedback as a running dialogue in a constant stream, rather than only at the end of semester," he says. "I see other teachers lugging a milk crate of binders around to write comments in, and I am so glad I am not doing that anymore."

Research Teams

In Nicholas Provenzano's high school English class, even the research papers are collaborative efforts. Provenzano, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade students at Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Pointe Farms, MI, is using the social bookmarking tool Diigo on the iPad to help students share and vet resources, like articles and websites, in the course of their research. While not an app per se, Diigo allows users to save websites into a public or private library and attach sticky notes to highlight or annotate parts of a web page. Students can also comment on each other's bookmarks (for more on how this all works, see this tutorial). "There is some misunderstanding and gray areas over what is collaboration and what is cheating in terms of this type of research," Provenzano says. "But if a student finds 10 great resources, I want them to share with other students. I encourage them to share." (Free)

Intervention Applications

Kim Overman, an intervention teacher at St. Marys Intermediate School in St. Marys, OH, is checking out these collaboration apps for her intermediate school students:

  • Whiteboard Lite allows two students to draw on the same whiteboard screen using two iPads connected to the same WiFi network. No passing an iPad back and forth! (Free)
  • StoryLines for Schools is like the game telephone using pictures. You begin a StoryLine with a common saying. A student grows the StoryLine by illustrating that saying. Another titles that drawing (without seeing the original saying). Yet another student illustrates that title, and so on. It can also be used to review vocabulary words. (Free)

Shared Browsing and Screencasts
On his blog, instructional technology consultant Jonathan Wylie recently recommended a handful of apps that take advantage of the iPad as a collaborative tool, including the following:

  • RabbleBrowser lets a teacher or student host a collaborative web browsing experience on the same WiFi network. There is a chat window to discuss ideas and a file browser that lets you share files with the others in your sessions. ($2.99)
  • Subtext allows classroom groups to exchange ideas in the pages of digital texts. You can also layer in enrichment materials, assignments, and quizzes. (Free)
  • Ask3 offers students and teachers the ability to collaborate using video screencasts. Students watch videos and can leave a comment, which can be shared with the class. Students can even create their own videos and add them as comments to a video lesson. (Free)