Preview of iPad Classroom Management (or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Candy Crush")

There are about 75 school days left this semester. That gives me roughly 180 class periods to prepare myself for next year, when all the students will have iPads. While they aren't required to have an iPad until next year, they nearly all have something this year: smartphone, tablet, or laptop. That gives me plenty of opportunities to practice one aspect of this transition for next year: classroom management.

When I see a student on their laptop when they clearly aren't taking notes, playing Candy Crush on a tablet, or Snapchatting their friends, it's tempting to just take their device away from them or otherwise "punish" them. And I've taken more than a few cellphones and kept them for the duration of the class. But that "solution" has never sat well with me, especially if I'm thinking about next year. When all the students have purchased an iPad specifically for school, spending time collecting them during class feels counter-productive. And how does that prepare them for the real world? I have my iPad at every faculty meeting. When I get bored and start looking at Twitter, is my principal going to come take it away from me, to remove the distraction? Probably not.

Tuesday was a typical example of this in a class of juniors. There was a student clearly distracted by her cellphone, so I simply walked up, held out my hand, and she gave me her phone. Her neighbor, who is often distracted as well, though not at that moment, had her cellphone sitting on her desk. I held out my hand and she gave me her phone too. Student #1, now sans-cellphone, started playing Candy Crush on her tablet. Did I take her tablet as well? Nope. Did I call her out several times during class, highlighting the fact that she was trying (and failing) to multitask? You bet. Later in that same class, the students were working in groups, and Student #2 came up to my podium and asked for her phone.

Student: Can I have my phone back?

Me: Sure. You could've had it back whenever you wanted.

Student: Really?

Me: Yep. I was just trying to help you avoid distractions. But if you can handle that on your own, go right ahead. It's yours.

Student: Ugh, I hate when you do this. (She walks back, empty-handed.)

To be clear, I'm not claiming I handled this perfectly–or even particularly well. I'm still trying to figure out how I will deal with these situations next year. This is just one typical day of interactions.

When I notice somebody playing Candy Crush in class, I don't get angry. But I will, with a smile on my face, remind them of the choices they're making. Are they going to "get away with it"? Probably. But I remind them that the consequences are entirely theirs: they are the ones who are choosing to use their time that way, and they will deal with that when attempting the homework, taking the next test, etc.

And while I'm not above keeping a pile of devices on my podium, I rarely say, "Give me your phone." Since the beginning of the year, I've tried to ask them, "Is your phone helping you right now? Want me to keep it so you aren't distracted?" Now by this point in the year, they'll just hand it over when I walk by and gesture for it. I really don't want it to be punitive. (Yes, obviously there are times somebody is using their technology in completely inappropriate ways–like cheating–and there can be more severe consequences, but those times are rare.) Rather than have them think I'm punishing them, I want them to trust that I'm trying to help them do their best. That's usually their goal too, to succeed, and they respond well when they know we're on the same team.

I know several teachers who often ask the students to put all their devices in a box at the beginning of class. There are days I'm tempted to do the same, but I'm trying to resist that urge. There are certainly times and places when I'll ask for all devices to be put away, but I'd rather assume they'll do that when I ask, rather than require me to take them. I've also read about teachers who have a "stoplight" in their classroom: green light means it's OK to use the devices, red light means put everything away. Again, I understand the impulse, but I really want the kids to be engaged throughout class, and for some that will mean more technology, for others less. They're better off learning how to make those decisions themselves.

I've been very open with my students regarding my thought process on all this. I tell them honestly that I struggle with wanting to be strict and "make" them to pay attention to me, while at the same time trying to give them freedom and hope they'll learn to monitor themselves. Next year will have a learning curve for sure, both for me and, more importantly, for my students. But the technology isn't going anywhere, so if I don't help them think about how to use it effectively, who will? I didn't get to have these lessons in high school, which is why you can find me in the back of the faculty meeting checking Twitter.

Bring Your Own Context

The gears of change are turning at my school, as we continue moving toward the 2014–2015 school year when all students will be required to have iPads.[1] At a conference this summer with around 500 other teachers at Jesuit schools, seemingly everybody I talked to was at some point on this same path, either their students already had a device or they were moving in that direction. The big question I heard over and over: iPads or BYOD/BYOT (Bring Your Own Device/Tech)?[2]

In those discussions, the individuals pushing for a BYOD deployment had various practical reasons (i.e., projected cost savings by having students bring their own device), but the pedagogical defenses of BYOD almost always boiled down to this: the device doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it. Or as the staff at one school likes to put it: “It’s about the verbs, not the nouns.” As much as that argument fit how I generally think about education, I found myself unable to really buy into BYOD as a solution.

For a while, I wasn’t able to articulate exactly why that argument didn’t sit well with me. It is about the verbs, the new styles of activities that this technology can enable, more than it is about the technology itself, right? Yet it occurs to me now that it’s precisely because I agree it’s about the verbs not the nouns that I can’t (yet) advocate for a BYOD deployment.

What do I mean? Well, it’s pretty obvious to any teacher who has started to think about these new technologies that once all students have powerful, network-connected devices in their hands at all times, the classroom is going to change. It has to. At many schools, those changes have been underway for a while now–it’s well-documented. For many teachers, that’s a scary prospect. Sure, some are excited by the changes, others are more hesitant, but I think most would admit to at least some fear. We teachers didn’t learn this way, so we have to chart this new course on our own. That’s not a simple task.

Changing our curriculum and pedagogy is a long-term, labor-intensive task. It’s not going to happen overnight, or even over one school year. It will take a lot of time and energy. I’ve only scratched the surface of this, but I’ve talked to enough teachers who are further down this road to know that it’s not a small job. For all those reasons, the actual technology, the hardware, needs to disappear as much as possible, so that teachers and students can focus on those other pieces.

A BYOD program solves this problem by letting everybody, teachers and students, use whichever device with which they are comfortable. In theory, everybody can focus on the learning (the verbs), because they already know how to use the device in front of them. That only works, of course, if most of the faculty and students are already comfortable with some appropriate piece of technology. In my context[3], the school I’m at now, that’s really not the case, either for the students or the faculty.

So, for my school, choosing one device for everybody will, I think, help us focus on the verbs. I happen to think the iPad, for all its flaws (and I’m able to enumerate its flaws better than most), is well-suited for letting the technology get out of the way. But even if the iPad weren’t an option for some reason, I would really push (again, talking only about my context here) for all faculty and students to be on the same device, whatever that may be. And then, in two years or ten, once the faculty and students have all become accustomed to a new way of learning, perhaps the device, the noun, can truly become unimportant.

There are multiple paths to success here. The key is understanding the endpoint–a classroom truly transformed by the new opportunities technology presents. In some contexts, BYOD may be the clearest path to that goal, in others it’s important to choose the correct device. The point is to expend as little energy as possible on the technology in order to focus on the real challenges.


  1. I’m trying to avoid saying “We’re going 1:1 with iPads.” How long before the term “1:1” feels out-of-date? When the printing press was invented, how long did Cambridge brag about going 1:1 with books?  ↩

  2. Interestingly, those were really the only two options a heard. A handful of schools had been using laptops for a while, and were sticking with them, and one school was going with the Microsoft Surface (to the dismay of some of the teachers), but the vast majority saw the choice as iPad or BYOD.  ↩

  3. The other piece that I have come to grips with is as obvious as it is important: my opinion, if it’s valid at all, is based entirely on my own experience and context. There is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution for taking this leap.  ↩

Battery Life: The iPad's Killer Feature

One thing that didn't happen during my iPad trial? Tripping over charging cables. The battery life of the iPad, including the iPad mini that's become my primary device, is taken for granted a bit. But in a school, knowing that your device will last all day, no matter how you are using it, is transformative. I'm currently at 10 hours of use, and still have 32% battery remaining. All hardware requires trade-offs (like the non-Retina display I'm using right now), but I for one am glad Apple has prioritized battery life. Less than 10 hours would be a huge disappointment now.

Transient

iTunes U and Edmodo

The Info tab for my AP Latin course. Lofty goals.

For this school year, I have been using Edmodo as the LMS for all of my classes. It’s worked better than I had anticipated, and certainly better than our school’s current system. For the period my AP students were a part of the iPad trial, I wanted to test out using iTunes U, so I created a course just to use during those five weeks.

There are enough great walkthroughs of iTunes U out there that I won’t go into much detail, but there are a lot of things that I, and my students, liked about it.

Positive:

  • The teacher interface for managing the course was easy to learn and pleasant to use.
  • The ability to easily add content was very helpful, particularly when adding content from the iTunes Store. I added (free) apps, iBooks, and podcasts to the course, and the students had no problems finding them. In general, the students seemed to have less trouble accessing any of the posted resources than with Edmodo.
  • Most students took notes in their preferred note-taking app, but the ability to take notes on books, podcasts, and lectures and have them all in one place was very slick.
  • So long as the students had Notifications enabled, I could be reasonably certain that if I posted something, they would see it.
  • Several students commented that they simply liked using iTunes U better, because it was so well-designed. That "delight" factor is tough to quantify, but not unimportant.

Less-Positives:

  • As a teacher, I could only update the course from my computer. Not a huge problem, but as I am using my iPad more and more, this was annoying.
  • Communicating with the students was easy, but that communication was only one-way. There was no way for students to turn in materials or communicate with me or the class (other than email, of course).

So, when all of my students have iPads, would I prefer iTunes U or Edmodo? I’m still not sure. I have a lot of issues with Edmodo. For one, I’m wary of any free service whose business model is unclear to me. What happens if/when Edmodo is purchased by some textbook company? I’m also not a fan of their iOS apps, which are buggy at best and non-functional at worst. Still, Edmodo does a lot of things well. Namely, it is easy for students to interact with me and their classmates. That has been even more useful this year than I would have anticipated. In addition, Edmodo’s ability to do some basic polls, quizzes, and to collect assignments can really make it a one-stop shop for most teachers. With iTunes U, I would continue to use other sites (like Quia) for online quizzes and Dropbox or Evernote for assignments. That being said, for an iPad-centric environment iTunes U is a powerful, well-designed app whose design alone makes it a great option. Fortunately I don’t have to decide today.

Using iTunes U for five weeks did really highlight one of its strengths: the ability to create a self-paced course. While my course was created as “In-Session” so that I could attach due dates to assignments, it was obvious that iTunes U would really shine in creating a self-paced learning environment. While at first that doesn’t seem to apply to a high school classroom, I began to think about how it really could help create a more student-focused environment. What if my Latin 4 class had different units, that they completed at their own pace? There could be a “War Unit” with excerpts from Caesar, Nepos, and Vergil. There could be a “Love” unit with Catullus, Ovid, and Vergil. Students would work in class, but at their own pace, on whichever unit seemed most interesting at that time. I would love to create a course like this (cf), and iTunes U would make it very doable for the teacher. Summer enrichment courses or AP review would also be great candidates for a self-directed iTunes U course.

For now though, both Edmodo and iTunes U are pretty good options for teachers. Now if our grade book and SMS software would finally enter the 21st century, I’d be in good shape.