Tag Archives: Apple

Testing Times for the Under Tens

When my son came home from school with a list of one hundred words to learn (thanks Michael Gove) I wondered if some technology could help. Somewhat hesitantly I started searching Apple’s App Store hoping to find something that wasn’t tied to a US-English dictionary. My search turned up a range of apps, the one I settled on was Super Speller by a husband and wife software team – Quiet Spark. One of the reasons for this was their sensible approach to privacy and an absence of adds (well worth paying £1.99/US $1.99 for).

Creating a test is child's play - literally in some cases!
Creating a test is child’s play – literally in some cases!

Don’t let the clean interface of this app fool you into thinking it is too basic. It is deceptively powerful. Essentially you create a series of tests by typing in  words, then use the iPad or iPhone’s microphone to record yourself saying them.  That means your children will hear the words spoken in the local accent. So far so good…

Spelling test
One Week’s Words

The list supplied by (to?) the school doesn’t just contain words that are tricky to spell (like achieve or rhythm) it also contains words that sound alike. The question that initially troubled me was how can you use an auditory cue to help the listener differentiate between the potential responses? That’s where (with a bit of lateral thinking) this app excels. Rather than just saying the word and stopping, you can follow it with an explanation, e.g. recording the phrase “aloud – as in speaking out loud” or “allowed – as in permission to do something”. This way the meaning of the word as well as its spelling can be reinforced each time the test is taken. Equally, you could include it in a sentence and say something like  “Spell allowed, as in ‘you are not allowed to pick your nose'”.

Once a test has been set up, there are a range of delivery options. Most are what you expect – the ability to shuffle the order, ignore capitalisation and, if you really feel the need, to set a time limit. Something that isn’t part of the enterprise testing solutions I am used to (think QuestionMark, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) but perhaps should be is Super Speller’s Smiley hints option. Essentially this feature adds a Smiley at the top of the screen that provides the user with regular clues whether or not their spelling of the word is on track. This is particularly useful when learning a new list of words. Whilst helpful, achieving full marks in a test using this feature means you miss out on the reward offered under “full test conditions” – a screen full of balloons to pop.

Check your spelling - the Smiley hint isn't smiling any more!
Check your spelling – the Smiley hint isn’t smiling any more!

The app also offers a Study the Test mode, where a link is added exposing the iPad’s dictionary. Just remember to set up the appropriate language for your iPad and enable/disable the dictionaries before hand!  The app will honour these settings – an important feature as it should be your teacher, not the device that has the last word in how a word is spelled.

A definition is offered using your default dictionary
A definition is offered using your default dictionary

Unlike some apps designed for mobile devices, this one supports multiple students, making it great for families who have chosen not to issue everyone with their own device. Before you take a test, you are prompted to enter your name, and the results are saved against your name.

Often it can help to add a few words not on the test list. This doesn’t need to be an attempt to trip them up – inserting the name of a favourite toy or TV character can add a bit of light relief and remind them that learning should be fun!

The app has a lock option you can use to prevent access to the Manage Test (a.k.a. the See the Answers) page. Whilst locking it down might initially seem appealing to parents, if you leave the app unlocked, then children can have fun making up their own tests, challenging each other (and who knows, even their parents!) Creating extra tests has proved much more of a draw to my children than the built in word search and scrambling tools (though your results may vary!) It also provides some insight into the breadth of their current vocabulary and a chance to pick up any misunderstandings or mispronunciation early on.

Test Results - showing the alternative whiteboard display option
Test Report – showing results of each attempt. This screen shot has been taken with the app in its alternative whiteboard skin, in case you are not a fan of the blackboard look.

It provides good reporting tools if you want to check on your children’s progress – you can step through the responses in each attempt. I’ve yet to explore the tools for sharing tests with others via email, but I can see the advantage, particularly if I was a teacher wanting to use this for practice in my class.

This app was written by parents to help their own child and I think this focus on making it appealing to children is the key to its success.  Only time will tell whether the balloon popping will retain its appeal with my children, but Super Speller has already proven to be a good way of getting them to complete their literacy homework. If I could change one thing, I’d like to add the ability to record an introductory or congratulatory video clip for a test, to make it feel even more personal.

CC BY-SA Image: No Technology in Brighton – taken by Sammy0716 and shared on flickr using a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.


No more writing on the wall?

For the last ten years, electronic whiteboards – such as those produced by Promethean and SMART Technologies – have been standard items on any classroom refit and usually enthusiastically received by staff and students (see Smith, Higgins, et al. 2005). Every day when I drop my children off at primary school, they walk into rooms where the electronic whiteboard is up and running. Any parent who arrives late and has to take their child into the classroom is likely to see them all performing a 5 minute exercise routine following instructions on the board! For examples see this Pinterest site or the Activityworks website, the latter includes some explanations of why some people believe this approach is effective.

My observations of whiteboard use in schools is very different to that in universities, where the boards now usually sit switched off (in some cases hidden behind larger projection screens)!  Even in areas for group work – e.g. booths where students sit around a table with a laptop and an electronic whiteboard at one end – more often than not the whiteboard is unused.  The question is why?

This is a technology that showed a lot of early promise. A study by two staff at the University of Pittsburgh published in 2012 has caught the attention of SMART (in that they add a link of dubious legality to it on their website).  Jang and Schunn watched the way groups of engineering students interacted with/were constrained by the technology. The authors contrast what they term “individual tools” such as a computer or a person’s notes, with “shareable/collaborative tools” such as an electronic whiteboard or a physical prototype. Their results suggest that students who used collaborative tools from the start, and continued to use them throughout the project, were more likely to deliver. There’s a bit of circularity here, and I don’t feel you can unpick whether the availability of the boards increased communication, or if it just shows that people who were already experienced at group communication made good use of the available collaborative tools. SMART certainly hope you take the former view as you can see in this infographic they published summarising the findings. Opinion remains divided – e.g. this 2010 study by Torff & Tirotta suggests that some of the motivation-enhancing effects often associated with electronic whiteboards are overstated.

From my personal experience of using the boards, I have come across a couple of problems (ignoring the high cost of these devices):

  1. They are usually poorly placed in rooms (particularly “meeting rooms”) , meaning that many people sit with their back to the board and have to turn away from the rest of the group to see it. This has the effect of inhibiting conversation, or favouring their use in small groups. The worst example of this is putting them at one end of a table in a booth, making them essentially off-limits for everyone but the two people nearest the board.
  2. They are often too small, making the content hard to read and annotations blocky. Too often they are not as good as a plain whiteboard, failing even at the first substitution stage. If you are trying to project a high resolution image, often projectors aren’t up to the job – with neither the resolution or the contrast. Solutions that can make use of an LED or plasma TV can give much better results – digital versions of microscope slides can finally look as good as  old Fujichrome slides!
  3. Pens and the erasers can go missing, and the on-screen tools you can drive with your fingers are always a bit clunky.
  4. Most boards only support one “touch” at a time. This means two people can’t really draw at the same time – which is something I’d hope would be a key part of collaboration. Users  accustomed to navigating with multi-gestures on their phones and tablets will find the electronic whiteboard a frustrating experience. Suppliers are catching up, but I still think the model is wrong.
  5. The boards can do strange things with other USB devices connected to the same computer (e.g. blocking voting system dongles or some slide remotes). Collaboration tools should play nicely together in my opinion and not restrict you to the tools built into the board.
  6. The required software can be a bit flaky, and some versions are not as backwards-compatible as they should be. Furthermore, the developers seem to write the code where the tools are deployed using helper apps that launch on start up, do they really expect staff to always shackle their laptop to a whiteboard?
  7. Finally, and in my opinion the worst feature, is that they only work when you stand in front of them. If you fix them at a height where most people can reach both the top and bottom of the screen, then you probably won’t see much if there is someone sitting between you and the board. It is difficult to use them without turning your back on the rest of the room. Yes I have seen setups linked to an interactive tablet, but this still needs tethering via USB and so is rarely passed around the table. Perhaps in response to this failing, some boards are now available as “tables”. Whilst the videos of people flicking through and rotating photos look slick, I’m not sure this really is the action most conducive to learning in a tutorial or seminar setting. If the table becomes the screen then you can’t put things on it – what good is a meeting if there is nowhere to put your coffee cup?  How will you take notes?

Despite this list, I have seen people use them and use them well. By capturing a carefully designed “board-centric” activity, the focus of participants can shift from trying to record what is happening, to actually making things happen. That has to be a good thing. They also allow annotation of figures on the fly, which can help address any issues that were not anticipated when you prepared the materials.

Whilst I was initially attracted by the large number of page templates, I think there is a danger of over-preparing the session. Students need to be free to contribute to the session and take it in a direction that, whilst still meeting the learning outcomes, may not be exactly what you had planned. I find that if I have spent a lot of time preparing particular slides, I am more resistant to deviating. That is wrong.

I think the answer is probably to stop trying to write directly on the board. There have been a lot of advances in educational technology since the first electronic whiteboards were designed. The two key ones for me are the rapid growth and availability of wireless networks and tablets. Technologies such as Apple’s Airplay (sharing content from an iPad or Mac newer than mine via an AppleTV) are very slick and free you from the constraints of a single app/program (no matter how good it is). Connection is literally child’s play which should encourage staff and students to have a go. Rather than ask a student to come up to the board, or try and pass them a tethered tablet, surely it is better to get them to take control of the screen from their device. If someone wants to suggest a minor change, pass the tablet. That said, I think this model may be more suited to “serial collaboration” unless the app you are sharing support live collaboration (e.g. a wiki).

The cloud is also changing things –  if someone takes a picture with a phone or tablet (perhaps the result of a particular experiment, or something that illustrates a point they want to make), how easy is it to get it displayed on-screen? Do you need to swap devices, or is there some common repository (be it Flickr, Dropbox, OneDrive or iCloud) that you can use to facilitate instant sharing?

If we do decide to replace electronic whiteboards, it might mean we can finally get rid of switches like this one that are just asking someone to see what happens if you do!


One Step at a Time

This video is released under the standard YouTube License

A colleague just sent me a link to this video created locally. I hope it helps dispel the myth that multimedia is only for the arts and humanities. It shows people working in the sciences  flexing their creative muscles. It is also great to see them willing to share this resource with others. I wish my lecturers had done things like this. Makes you wonder what the students are doing too…

Learning from Schools

I spent most of today at an iPads in Education event organised by Jigsaw24 (an IT solutions company specialising in education).

It opened with Andy Nagle from Apple. Unsurprisingly he stressed the importance of design and illustrated this with the final sequence of Pablo Picasso’s Essence of Bull.  Some die-hard anti-Apple types might find that title strangely fitting 🙂 He then talked about toasters – an object he claims lie unused in your house for 98% of their life. Thus you don’t just buy them for their function – design matters. [I wonder what he’d make of my “toaster” – an AGA?] Whilst good design is a very nice thing to have, I don’t think he really made it clear why design matters in education. Several presenters gave reasons why it might be over the course of the day. Phrases such as “it just works” and “it has to work first time and every time” being frequently uttered by presenters and delegates alike. Whatever 21st century learners may be like, it seems their teachers are not tolerant of technical compatibility issues 🙂

Andy introduced a couple of models that seem to have been very important in shaping Apple’s thinking:  Ruben Puentedura‘s SAMR model – Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition and Matthew Koehlers’ TPACKTechnological Pedagogical Content Knowledge – where the key is that each of these three aspects is of equal importance. Some people I know may take issue with that, but I can see the sense in this if we are thinking about learning as opposed to teaching.


Although we didn’t see this video today, this “horse’s mouth” video explains these theories well. In the US, many in education see the challenge as moving education “above the line” – from enhancement activities (SA) to transformational activities (MR).

It ends with an interesting set of nine components he thinks should be part of any 21st Century Learning. That is something I should give more thought to in a future post.

Later surfing showed that some people have even tried to apply this framework to iPad apps: http://edudemic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/padagogy-version2.png – I thought that this was interesting but I don’t think any blanket categorisation like this can ever hold up. What is transformative in one situation may be only augmenting existing practice in another.

Andy then left the building Elvis style and we were left in the capable hands of Abdul Chohan from the ESSA Academy.

ESSA Academy


He spoke about the way they had transformed a failing school. It was an inspiring talk and you can get a feel for the impact this whole-scale rebuild of the school, its processes, attitudes and beliefs in this Apple video case study: https://www.apple.com/uk/education/real-stories/essa/

He had amazing clarity of vision. His business, he said was learning. What he was trying to do was reduce the time people spent on “busy-ness” (processes/admin) rather than “the business” – learning.  As well as the technological change, the school had looked hard at the accompanying processes. By moving a lot of activities to the iPad, he felt many became more transparent and more visible. Parents could see content on their child’s iTunesU site being updated at night or over the weekend, helping to dispell the myth that teachers stop work when the bell rings at 3.15. Staff could take registers and the data was instantly uploaded into the school’s MIS.

There were a range of other good presentations, most of which just managed to avoid being an out and out sales pitch. One looked at the networking needs – all this mobile technology will put considerable strains on your wireless network. Networks, it seem are not all the same.  Lots of iPads need management. There are tools for this, and some include a series of content filters and access locks. These can be used so that staff, students and parents can all see what they were used for outside school (so no downloading porn or your kid’s iPad folks, or you’ll get a strongly worded letter from the Head!) I also learned about some of the built in accessibility features in iOS. The Invert Colours feature was clever (though not all apps seem to support it). As an aside, I wonder if switching from a largely white to largely black screen would have any impact on battery life?

The last  major presentation looked at another iPad roll-out from a local school which sounds a bit like a crematorium – Stephenson Memorial Primary School.  Emma Overton spoke about their iPad@myPad project. One of the most interesting things to me was the way they had involved the children, recognising and fostering their skills. They recruited a series of “geniuses” – borrowing from the Apple lingo (who later appointed themselves assistants) – each with declared areas of expertise – e.g. Twitter, blogging, iBooks. This was seen to significantly change the way staff and students engaged with each other, with these geniuses supporting other students, or “bought in” to help staff plan or develop particular aspects of their teaching. I think this is a model that could (indeed should) make the transition to HE. There were also some great stories of how a technical intervention can help stimulate the children to improve through greater engagement. My favourite was using the Aurasma augmented reality app to bring the children’s drawings of dragons to life, demanding better stories.  That might be harder to transpose to the HE setting…

All in all a very thought provoking day that really through down the gauntlet to higher education. If this is how these children are learning now, how can we continue this process and challenge them (in a positive productive way) should they choose to come to a University?
Featured Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aperturismo/4488250788/