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Teaching with Mobile Tech
May 14, 2015 | Volume 10 | Issue 17
Table of Contents
H.A.C.K. Your Class with Mobile Devices
While serving as principal in the fall of 2013, I was approached with a grant opportunity that would make 17 new iPads, or a 2:1 student to technology ratio, available across all three sections of our 5th grade student population. Mobile technology in the classroom was a new pursuit for me, but I was willing to try anything to help our students, particularly those who were struggling academically. My background in pedagogy, curriculum, and instruction gave me some confidence, but in reality I had no idea where to start with mobile tech in the classroom.
Teachers Don't Learn Through Osmosis
School administrators often find themselves in a difficult position. They know technology is an ever-present part of students' lives, and they know it can be a powerful tool to help students excel. Yet, they find themselves underequipped when it comes to implementing these technological tools in the classroom. I often hear administrators say, "I just want technology to be a tool in the hands of teachers." Teachers can't learn how to use technology through osmosis, however. It takes specific, skilled planning and professional development to see results.
After weeks of struggling, I realized that we would have to do something dramatically different if our mobile devices were going to influence our students' learning. Then one of our teachers came up with a radical idea. She was going to H.A.C.K. her entire classroom.
H = Highly Structured Activities
This teacher began by replacing classroom activities that she had previously completed using paper and pencil with educational apps on her mobile devices. To initially identify relevant apps, she first tried experimenting with free apps. This wasn't a very successful approach. After attending an Ed Tech Teacher iPad Summit, however, she came back with about a dozen apps that worked well across content areas. For example, rather than solve math problems on paper, students used apps such as Screenchomp or Educreations to screencast their calculations. Occasionally, students would also suggest new apps to try.
These highly structured activities had clear, simple objectives and provided ample time for modeling her expectations. The teacher demonstrated how to use the iPad applications in small, deliberate steps to build her students' capacity. This also allowed her to reinforce her classroom management skills and bolster her student expectations about operating mobile devices.
If you are trying to integrate iPad technology into your classroom, I recommend starting with about six apps, looking for apps with cross-disciplinary capabilities, allowing time for students to adjust and master the new technology, and then deciding whether to branch out. Find a list of apps—sorted by device, learning activity, and price—here.
A = Allowed Choices
After a week or two, the students could confidently use the mobile devices and a small number of apps they had learned. Now they were ready for assignments that would give them choice in how they expressed their learning. For the next assignment, the students could choose between three apps to demonstrate their learning. If they had to take notes on an assigned reading, for example, they could do that using Evernote, Movenote, or Educreations. The choice was completely theirs, as long as they met the objective. This greatly increased student engagement and continued to build students' capacity with the devices.
C = Consistent Application
After several weeks of allowed choices, the confidence level of the teacher and the students was at an all-time high. They were ready for full integration. The teacher began by designing rubric-based projects that required students to analyze and evaluate information. For example, students were asked to review and analyze the Declaration of Human Rights to find similarities to several class readings. Students began to use the mobile devices to research blogs, watch videos, and find new applications that weren't previously introduced in class. To report their findings, students could use an application of their choice. Students used podcasts, green screens, augmented realities, written reports, and oral presentations to demonstrate their learning.
K = Knowledge Centered
By this stage, the students were highly independent learners and this sparked a new type of instruction. First, the teacher developed knowledge-centered projects that pushed classroom and subject-level boundaries and allowed students to access topics of their own interest. These complex projects required students to make connections across content areas and converse with experts while wrestling with real-world issues. The intent was to have students step outside their classroom, whether physically or virtually, to encounter experiential learning that would deepen their understanding.
To kick off these projects with a concrete experience, students took a field trip to a local museum to begin researching their chosen topics. Next, students were provided with an objective and a rubric to help clarify their research. After that point, the students would be responsible for their own learning under their teacher's facilitation.
For example, in a language arts unit on human rights, the teacher asked students to make connections between the Declaration of Human Rights and past human rights issues here in Idaho. Students chose a specific subject—such as art, science, social studies, or math—and studied how Idaho's human rights history affected one of these areas. To research their topic, students could interview museum staff, e-mail experts, or conduct independent research. One student studied how Chinese immigrants who worked in the mining industry were crucial to Idaho's economy, and how their hardships related to what students studied about human rights.
After researching their topic, students used their choice of mobile technology to demonstrate mastery in their area of interest. Whether they used e-books, green screen presentations, or podcasts, students showcased their learning in varied and profound ways.
By the end of the school year, mobile technology was here to stay. The teacher piloting the H.A.C.K. shared her work with colleagues. The students were also some of our biggest advocates for extending mobile technology into other classes and grade levels. Kids began suggesting alternate ways to demonstrate mastery and requesting to use iPads in other classes. Their enthusiasm generated a buzz that motivated other teachers to request mobile technology for their classrooms. School leaders convened to develop a strategy for funding more devices. We applied for a small grant, received a donation, held a yard sale, did a fundraiser with our PTA, and used the remaining amount of our discretionary funds to come up with $11,000 to purchase more devices. Because our initial implementation was so successful, the Doceo Center and our district chipped in even more funds, which allowed us to purchase about 120 additional devices. About half of our teachers were eager to begin using the devices, and another quarter were at least willing to experiment with integrating mobile technology.
Teachers were invigorated by these new instructional tools, but our students were the biggest beneficiaries. Engagement and achievement soared, and students who typically produced work below grade level were excelling. Frontloading the structure to give students the support they needed to get comfortable with the technology, and then gradually releasing responsibility so that they could take charge of their own learning, ensured that our students had the tools, confidence, and motivation to succeed. The H.A.C.K. model of instruction gave our teachers a clear, replicable framework for implementing mobile tech and a new method for driving successful, student-centered learning.
Gregg Russell is an instructor of innovation at Northwest Nazarene University's Doceo Center in Nampa, Idaho, and a former elementary school principal. See a H.A.C.K. classroom in action here.
ASCD Express, Vol. 10, No. 17. Copyright 2015 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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