Friday, March 23, 2012

All in all it's just another brick in the wall

One frustration with trying to exclusively use an iPad is that everyone else around you is not doing the same. This is having a very bad impact on my social life. Or rather, if I had a social life, this would be having a very bad impact on it.

As it is, my colleagues' and students' lack of iPadness (iPadity? IPaditude?) inevitably forces me to steer every conversation towards an exhortation on the wonders of the device. I mean, I must do so, right? How else will they learn how great this thing is? It's a public service.

Oddly, people now seem to run the other way when they see me coming, and mysteriously finish their lunches when I sit down in the cafeteria. Must be a coincidence.

The fact that everyone else doesn't exclusively use the iPad is also leading to another frustration, besides my iPad induced hermitage. I can see the potential of it in the class but so much of what I can see I can't realize, because I'm the only one using it. One of the changes I can envision is partially illustrated by this (very poor quality) picture of a picture:

This is a quick photo I took of a Keynote slide during a presentation at a tech conference--thus the crummy quality. The red circle shows kids sitting around a table with laptop computers. The green circle shows the same set-up, but with iPads. It is shocking (or it would be, if you could see the picture fully) how isolated the laptop kids look compared to the iPad kids. The simple removal of the "screen as barrier" makes for an inviting collaborative space.

This is something that I don't hear iPad proponents or detractors talking about enough--the physical/spatial change that an iPad (or, to be fair, ANY brand tablet) can bring to the class. Standard computers, by their very nature, close us off to others. We Ed-Tech proponents like to say that computers are really just another educational tool, like whiteboards, calculators, and pens. But I'm not sure that's always accurate. When I look out at a class with screens up, I see students with walls in front of them and Pink Floyd starts humming in the back of my brain. It's an emotional response, but that does not make it any less true.

Tablets, on the other hand, have the potential to be there on the desk without cutting a kid off from the class. Sure students will be distracted by it just as they would by a laptop, but at least it is less physically intrusive.

The physicality, if I can call it that, of the iPad is a big part of why it impresses me so much. I wonder if resistance to iPads in the class might be coming because its detractors focus too much on what it doesn't do "computer-wise" and don't appreciate what it does do aesthetically. Teaching is an emotional and aesthetic endeavor as much as it is a logical one, and we need our classroom tech to reflect this.

Thus, if the revolution is to come, maybe we need to start it by putting some art teachers on computer adoption committees.

Monday, March 19, 2012

I'll be on your side forever more; that's what friends are for.

Isn't it funny how one single decision to change can have a snowball effect? I made a commitment to try to bring the iPad into my class, and now I'm friending my students on Facebook.

Sort of.

Before you lambast me about how unethical, unwise, and just plain unsmart friending students is, hear me out. I haven't crossed the line you think I have.

It all started when I found out that one of my colleagues had set up "secret groups" for her classes on Facebook. The group itself looks like a regular facebook wall, but is only available to the other group members. Once someone posts or comments everyone (depending upon their notification settings) gets a heads up message and/or email. Best of all, being in a group with someone does not make you "friends" with them or allow them access to your Facebook presence.

The only special ingredient you need to create a secret group is one student willing to create it. She must be friends with everyone in the class, including you. She creates the group, makes it "secret", and types in everyone's name. That's it. No one needs to "accept membership"; they just automatically have a little link on the left that gets them to your class wall. And, once you are part of a group, you can unfriend the person who invited you and still remain a part of the group. Therefore I am not currently friends with any of my students, though I had to be for one to two minutes (a fact that made one 10th grader a little too giddy. I'm interested to find out what kind of picture tagging she was able to pull off during the two minutes she was "my friend".)

What's the benefit of a Facebook class wall over a standard portal like moodle, haiku, or finalsite? The most important benefit is that students check it...a lot. Putting out notices, updates, and documents on our old class portal was a tedious process (involving many mouse clicks and page loadings) and I often got the feeling (later confirmed) that students weren't even seeing what I was posting. Moreover, my students complain that "all of their teachers" have different web presences and they can't keep track of which teacher is using which web hoster (the "official portal" vs. "haiku" vs. "moodle", ad infinitum).

Facebook is simpler and you know that your students are going to see what you post. This makes having a "no excuses" policy much easier for the online portion of your class. Most of my students catch up on class notices or homework assignments on their phone, before they even leave the building. Moreover, when a student poses a question on Facebook, everyone sees it and a) can help him before I even get to it or b) can learn from the responses that he gets to his post.

I'm not a huge Facebook fan, but if my students become more engaged at home because of this, I may just buy stock in the company.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Cat in the Hat Comes Back...Again

Short and sweet today. This has nothing to do with using the iPad in my classroom (a high school English class, by the way), but everything to do with iPads and education. In the picture is my three year old reading The Cat in the Hat.

I'm not going to put quotes around the word "reading" when writing about kids reading ebooks any more. There is no doubt in my mind that she was learning how to read the way a three year-old does when she is fully engaged with a book.

The book reads a page to her, highlighting each word as it goes. Then the page becomes interactive; she can touch objects and the word pops up. Moreover if the object is one of the words in the text, the word will slide from the text over the object. This is meant to help the reader associate printed words with things, and I could tell it was working. Look at what she started doing, on her own, after each page was read to her:

She deliberately touched each word (in order) to hear it spoken again. Then, when I asked her which word was "Hi", she diligently hunted for it until she found it.

I don't know how clearly she associated printed words with spoken words before, but I can say she definitely gets it now. And she gets it more clearly than she would with a printed book. When I read to her, I try to point to the words as I say them, but am only really successful half the time. Often I get lazy or she gets tired of me obscuring the pictures. Here, the iPad does the pointing and makes the connections for her.

I know I sound heretical: an English teacher favoring an ebook over printed matter. I probably sound objectionable too: a parent favoring the pre-recorded book to the father-daughter read aloud. But technologies change and, sometimes, make life better. There were those who scorned the use of paper rather than stone. After all, paper burns so easily, why would you want to keep permanent records on it? This new medium may be the game changer.

(By the way, I will still read to my child, have no fear. Even if the iPad is better--jury's still out on that one--I'm too selfish to give up story time with my girl!)

Monday, March 12, 2012

How did they teach you to be, just a happy puppet dancing on a string?

This blog is starting to become a chronicle of my conversion to all things iPad, so I suppose I'll just continue the trend here. Today's exciting topic: "Easy Content Creation." No really; it's interesting. I swear.

The reasons people love or hate the iPad are often ironically the same. The lovers only buy apps from the the Appstore and movies from iTunes and they will happily do so for the foreseeable future. The haters want to jailbreak the devices or (better yet) promote Android and have Apps freely flowing and movies flowing and free. The lovers exclaim how easy it is to surf the net and check email, while the haters wail that these underpowered content consumers will never replace the power and functionality of a "real" computer.

But no one (much) seems to be talking about iPads creating things. I got the iPad because it is a wonderful device to hold and watch things with. But, as I've said above in the blog, I'm beginning to see exactly how powerful a tool this little baby will be.

(Please allow this digression; I will get back to the point soon.)

An annoying byproduct of technology is all the different ways it doesn't work. When the tech has been planned well, and you get to your classroom ten minutes before your kids, and the Internet gods have decided to smile upon you, Voila! A futuristic educational performance awaits.

And that happens at least once in every teacher's life.

More often then not, unfortunately, you hit a snag somewhere. Snags are normal and happen with lost books, broken DVD players, inkless whiteboard markers, etc. Technological snags seem more difficult though, perhaps because so many of us teachers are not really digital natives. And we seem to remember the tech snags longer too, creating a negative feedback loop that discourages us from ever trying anything computer-y again.

Enter the iPad as a CREATOR of content in the classroom. I will never claim that the iPad works flawlessly. I've had Apps crash, connections get dropped, and...well...I'm looking for a third thing that has gone wrong, but I can't think of one right now. In any event, things will go wrong with it. But the beauty is that this a) rarely happens and b) is easily fixable.

So when you ask kids to do something in class with their iPads, you won't be waiting for 3 minutes while they boot up the machine. You won't have to worry about whether they'll record things correctly. You also (if you have an Apple TV) won't have to worry about whether they'll be able to share their work.

Case in point: Puppet Pals. Again, a full disclaimer, I know nobody who is a part of making or selling this App. I heard about it at our recent tech conference. Several teachers said their schools had bought it for their elementary kids, but then they found that their high school kids were using it too. It is an amazingly easy video production device that creates a narrated puppet show with preset characters or pictures of characters. Want Maeve to present to the class how the water cycle works? Send her off to a corner for five minutes to record a puppet of herself doing just that, and then have her upload it to the class portal from her iPad.

Just how easy it is to use this App was proven to me by my three year old. She watched me play with it for no more than one minute, asked to use it, I gave her about 30 seconds of instruction, and (by herself) she made this.

Now I'm not planning on entering this movie into the Academy Award race. That would be foolish. Everyone knows they give preference to films released in Fall and Winter. But her intuitive ability to tell a story with this tool the first time around tells me that we are on the verge of something big. That something doesn't necessarily have to be the iPad, but with 60% of the tablet market cornered and blue skies for Apple's foreseeable future, I wouldn't feel so excited to be a traditional computer company right now.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Why'd You Have To Go And Make Things So Complicated?

The excitement of my new iPad keyboard has led me to do what I've never done before: extend a blog beyond the first breathless and hopeful post.

I just started my plan to completely "iPad myself" last week but knew that I wouldn't be able to quit my PC cold turkey. Therefore I decided to keep track of when I had to go to the PC to accomplish certain tasks. I tried to keep to the rule that if I could do it on the iPad I would. Moreover, if something about the iPad was keeping me from getting work done, I would look for a solution before caving in to the PC.

That worked for the first thirty minutes or so.

The problem that confronted me is the one that might prove to be my most difficult to surmount. I couldn't print from my iPad. (Environmental disclaimer: As a general rule, all of my class stuff is electronic. The bulk of what I print is my daily lesson plans--two pieces of paper. I've tried to find a good electonic replacement, but so far no luck.)

This is not to say that the iPad doesn't print. It has this feature called "airprint" which sounds like a wonderful way to get things onto paper. "Airprinting" conjures up images of iCherubs floating among the clouds, lazily scooping up an electronic document from the tablet and languidly dropping it into the printer. Effortlessly and almost magically the printer would then take this stuff of air and make it tangible.

And that is how I imagine it all works.

Unfortunately, I have to imagine this scenario, since I have no Mac at home, no Mac compatible printer at home, and the network at school is based on PC stuff.

The workaround is mundane and tedious; I must boot up my HP Tablet PC (a great machine, but as it whirs slowly to life it's just mocked by the always on-ness of the iPad), email the document from Pages (exported as Word) to myself, open the email on my PC and print. This is not the end of the world, but it is enough of an annoyance to make me pause in the experiement. Moreover, it gets me to turn on the PC in the first place, which then makes the machine all the more tempting when I hit another iPad roadblock.

Not surprisingly I have found several apps that claim to fix the problem, but I'm not sure they will work with our school network. And I'm basically too cheap to shell out the three bucks to see. (Which reminds me, is anyone going to figure out a way to let people demo apps for 24 hours?) If anyone else has solved the printing problem, I'd love to hear about it.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Welcome to the Thunderdome

I've probably drunk the Kool-Aid.

It's an over-used and in certain circles offensive phrase that, nonetheless, accurately describes how I'm feeling about Apple products right now. Two years ago I was a blackberry phone, Asus netbook, and Dell laptop guy; now I have an iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV--the other machines gather dust in a drawer. Oddly, I have no Mac computer, but I suppose it is just a matter of time before one finds its way into my house.

I like the iPad. A lot. But I didn't get that it wasn't just for browsing content until I read the recent Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. I read it because I was nosy and wanted to know just how strange he was and because everyone else seemed to be reading it. While I certainly learned a great deal about him, I also was impressed by his Apple philosophy. For years I railed against the closed nature of Apple (though it didn't stop me from buying iPods) and championed Bill Gates as a designer who gave functionality and power to the user. While a part of me still yearns for PC freedom I am starting to get the Apple ethos. Sure it's limiting, but it's also simpler. And the devices are so pretty. And when you set out to make something it just works.

It's this last point that has started me on the experiment. I work at the American School of Bombay, an excellent school and a wonderful place to work. We pride ourselves as being one of the leaders of change in education, both pedagogically and technologically. We've been a "one to one" school for almost a decade and have hosted several technology conferences collectively called ASB Unplugged. Our most recent conference (along with my Steve Jobs bio ephiphany) has inspired me to try to go it exclusively as an iPad teacher while everyone else around me is using PC equipment. I'm professionally curious to see if I can deliver the same or (hopefully) better instruction to my students and if the cloud has finally made it possible for an institution to host a diversity of products. Moreover, I'm personally curious to see if I can finally untether myself from traditional computers completely.

I'm not sure I'll be 100% successful and have already hit a few roadblocks. But one thing I've noticed in the "there's an App for that" mentality is that if you wait long enough (and complain loud enough) the iPad manages to evolve to meet your needs.

In case you are wondering, yes, I am writing this blog on my iPad, just as I'm trying to do everything else on it. No, I am not using the virtual keyboard. I find it useful for quick emails or notes, but it is frankly cumbersome for writing and (especially) editing large chunks of text. My keyboard (purchased yesterday!) is the Logitech Zagg case for iPad 2. I have no connection to the company, and therefore feel free to say that this keyboard/protection case is the most useful iPad accessory I've seen. Period. It even beats out (and might make obsolete) my beloved blue Smart Cover (sniff, sniff).

That's this project in a nutshell. Feel free to comment with questions, support, or vilification. Next post: the initial hiccups.