There's an App for That!
by Susan Brooks-Young
Applications, or apps, for tablet computers and mobile devices may be the next great technological find for the classroom. Learn how to sort through the thousands of choices to find those which provide real educational benefits.
This morning while eating breakfast, I skimmed several news articles, read and answered a couple of emails, watched a weather forecast, and checked out a book from our local library. I did not actually pick up a newspaper, boot my laptop, watch a television program, or drop everything to run to the village. What I did do was turn on a tablet device and use four different apps that allowed me to run quickly through the tasks listed above. I didn’t even open a Web browser to get the jobs done!
Mobile devices are changing not only the way people communicate with one another but also when and where they use hardware and the internet. It wasn’t too long ago that technology-supported tasks such as shopping online or using a word processor to write a report were confined to those times when it was easy to use a networked desktop or laptop computer. Rapid adoption of wireless and cell phone connectivity gave users more flexibility. But these days, smartphones and tablet devices make it possible to engage in technology-supported activities literally anytime, anywhere.
Why does this matter to educators? Our students’ use of technology outside of school continues to increase—in large part due to mobile devices—and there is growing pressure to embrace use of these technologies in the classroom, particularly tablets. One factor driving interest in tablets is the app. This column provides an overview of apps, strategies for selecting appropriate apps for use in school, and suggestions for apps educators can use for both personal productivity and instruction. The information discussed here is platform-neutral whenever possible, including mention of apps that are available on multiple platforms.
Apps: An Overview
The term app, short for application, refers to special software programs used on mobile devices including smartphones and tablets. Unlike traditional software programs designed to handle a variety of tasks, apps are created to carry out specific functions. Some apps require an internet connection while others will work with or without the internet. Mobile devices generally come with a few pre-installed apps such as calendars, maps, games, calculators, and address books. These are just the beginning.
Hundreds of thousands of apps created by third-party developers are available for use on a variety of mobile devices. Unlike computer software that can be purchased on CD-ROM discs, apps can be downloaded only from online stores. For example, owners of iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads use a computer or the mobile device itself to access
the virtual iTunes store where they purchase apps using an iTunes account. Owners of Android smartphones or tablets also use a computer or mobile device to access online app stores including the Android Market and the Amazon App Store. Research In Motion (developer of Blackberry products), Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard host app stores for owners of their mobile devices as well.
Most apps are no- or low-cost, with prices typically ranging from $0.99 to $10. There are a few apps with much higher price tags, but these tend to be very specialized in nature. For instance, Proloquo2Go, an app that turns an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad into a full-featured communication device for users with speaking difficulties, runs $189.99. Although most educators probably won’t need to spend nearly $200 on an app, it is important to keep in mind that the ongoing cost of even inexpensive apps mounts up quickly. As a result, any plan to implement use of mobile devices on campus must include policies for purchasing apps. Apple does offer an App Store Volume Purchase program for educational institutions. To learn how to take advantage of education discounts, visit bit.ly/o6dRNq. At this time, sources for apps running the Android or other operating systems do not offer educational discounts.
Finding the Right App
It’s easy to succumb to the glitz of the app world. A slick interface can be more attractive to a user than the actual benefits derived by using an app. Educators must be particularly aware of this pitfall. There are thousands of apps that are interesting, engaging, fun, and inexpensive, and yet have no place in the classroom. In many respects, early ventures into classroom use of mobile devices are reminiscent of the early days of classroom use of desktop computers when, due to a lack of high-quality instructional resources, available software often drove instruction when curricular needs should have been informing software selection.
There may be thousands of “educational” apps on the market, but their quality varies widely. How do educators identify top-notch apps? There are two strategies that are very helpful. The first relates to identifying apps to explore more fully, and the second relates to use of a rubric or checklist to evaluate apps prior to use with students. The first strategy is probably adequate when looking for apps to use for personal productivity. Both steps are necessary before using an app for instructional purposes.
Step 1: Price is not necessarily an indication of quality, so it’s important to do your homework prior to purchasing apps. There are several ways to vet new apps before buying. Online app stores invite customers to rate their purchases, and this information can be helpful to potential customers. App reviews frequently appear on a variety of websites. A quick internet search using the title of each app of interest will almost always result in one or more reviews. Finally, some apps are available in “Lite” versions that allow potential customers to try out an app before buying the full version, and the Amazon App Store has a feature that allows customers to try out an app online before making a purchase.
Once you’ve downloaded a new app, put it through its paces. If it’s an app for personal productivity, try out the various features to see if it will work for you. Use the app in a work-related activity as soon as possible. It’s probably best to tackle new productivity apps one at a time to give yourself a chance to integrate a new app into your work life and to avoid becoming overwhelmed. If it’s an app for instructional use, definitely take the time to work through Step 2.
Step 2: Apps you plan to use for instruction warrant a more systematic approach to evaluation prior to using in class. Just as with any other apps you download, test all the features of the app. If there are ways to make correct or incorrect responses, test both to see what happens in each situation. Work through one or more levels to make sure the progression of levels of difficulty is instructionally sound. Look for ways to monitor student activity while using the app. Most importantly, throughout your review, ask yourself how this app supports the curriculum. It is helpful to have a checklist or rubric to use while evaluating apps for student use. Samples are available in the iPod Touch and iPad Resources LiveBinder at bit.ly/rhCs6Y. Open the LiveBinder, click the App Review tab, and review the first four links provided on that tab.
It’s also a good idea to ask a couple of students to test apps for you. Not only will they find ways to push apps to their limits, they also will be able to give you an honest assessment from their perspective of apps’ staying power in terms of student engagement. The additional reviews take time, but they are critical to effective classroom use of mobile devices.
At least initially, educators new to mobile devices often find themselves asking, “So what will this gadget do for me?” There are many free and low-cost productivity apps that adults can use to help keep up with paperwork and other managerial tasks. Here are a few readers may want to explore:
• Evernote (Evernote Corporation, evernote.com): This multi-platform app runs on computers and a variety of mobile devices and offers both free and premium versions ($5 per month or $45 per year). Use Evernote to take and save notes, clip Web pages, grab screenshots, and more. Evernote also helps users organize and search their stored items.
• Dropbox (Dropbox, dropbox.com): This free multi-platform app runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, and several mobile devices. Offering 2GB of storage space at no charge (or up to 100GB for a monthly fee), Dropbox allows users to store files on a secure website which can then be accessed via the secure site or by using the app on a computer or mobile device. Dropbox also supports file sharing.
• Dragon Dictation (Nuance, nuance.com): Another free app, Dragon Dictation converts voice to text. This is handy for classroom observations, field notes, and other times when it may be easier to speak than write something that must be in text format eventually. One drawback is that the note must be emailed or posted prior to closing the app, otherwise the information is lost. Dragon Dictation also works on Blackberry devices.
• Free App Tracker by StuckPixel, Inc. (bit.ly/pidFza): Keeping up with the best bargains for apps can be a daunting chore. Free App Tracker makes it easy for users to check for reduced-price apps in the iTunes Store as well as those that once cost money but now are free. Apps are categorized for quick searches. Users may also create personal lists to track price changes for specific apps. It’s a great resource for educators on a budget. Android users may want to give Apps for Kids a try (Appsfire, appsfire.com).
When mobile devices initially hit the market, many education apps consisted of drill and practice activities. Fortunately that’s now changing. It’s important to keep in mind that with built-in microphones and cameras and apps that support recording and writing, it’s increasingly easy for students to use mobile devices to create content as well as consume content developed by others. Here are examples of apps students can use in creative ways.
• ShowMe by Easel (showmeapp.com): This free app (iPad only) allows users to record screen captures which are uploaded in video format to the ShowMe website and then can be shared. Because it is easy to incorporate images and live annotation, ShowMe is a great tool for students to use when explaining their understanding of a concept. It’s also a good platform for creating brief tutorials.
• iTalk Recorder by Griffin Technology (bit.ly/qzNDLu): Students can use this app any time it is appropriate for them to make an audio recording of something: recording audio notes during a classroom experiment or on a field trip, practicing language fluency, or producing simple podcasts. Once a recording is complete, files up to 2MB can be emailed or transferred to a computer using a free companion app called iTalk Sync. iTalk Recorder is available in a free version or a premium version for $1.99. An equivalent Android app is Tape-a-Talk Voice Recorder (free) or Tape-a-Talk Pro Voice Recorder ($5.64).
• Camera preinstalled app on iPad 2 and other tablets with built-in cameras: Tablets equipped with cameras (usually dual cameras) also come with an app for controlling the cameras. The app makes it easy to change from one camera to the other and also to switch between taking still photos and recording video. Editing of photos and video can be done right on the tablet, but you’ll need to download other apps to do this. There are a number of useful low- and no-cost apps for iPad, Android, and Blackberry that can be found by searching the appropriate app store.
• Overdrive Media Console by Overdrive, Inc. (bit.ly/na8I2g): Mobile devices can do double duty as ebook readers. The free Overdrive app works on computers and various mobile devices, enabling educators and students to download audio and ebooks. If a school library does not offer Overdrive services, the local public library may be another option for accessing audio and ebooks.
The first-generation iPad and the original Samsung Galaxy Tab were devices designed primarily for consumption. Users could go online, listen to music, watch video, and play games, but the expectation seemed to be that the devices would be platforms to deliver information or entertainment to the end user. Now that the iPad 2 and other tablets include dual cameras, and with the development of apps that encourage user creativity, it becomes even easier to make a case for exploring use of these devices as tools for teaching and learning.
A former Catholic-school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. Her latest book is Teaching with the Tools Kids Really Use (Corwin Press, 2010). Susan invites your comments at SJBrooks@aol.com.
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