Category Archives: iPads

Driven To Distraction: ICTs in the Classroom

When I first started teaching there were no iPads, mobile phones or laptops in the classroom to distract students’ thoughts away from the matter at hand, but make no mistake there was still plenty to distract. Instead of surreptitiously texting each other, students would pass notes, which would snake their way across the class from hand to hand under the desks, or glide in paper aeroplane format gracefully over heads while my back was turned. I know this happened because I have intercepted quite a few in my time, and because I was a student too.

I haven’t seen any notes passed in quite a while, but I know that students in my class don’t always use their devices to take notes, or work on the task at hand. Any teacher who tells you that students are never distracted in their classroom is seriously delusional. Electronic devices are particularly prone to distraction because they form such a part of the fabric of our lives. Just as bad habits gained watching television at home has made talking in the movie theatres so annoyingly prevalent, so our capacity to multi-task with our devices has made classroom distraction emerge from the surreptitious art it used to be and blossom into full-blown addiction.

In the old days when you caught a student passing a note they were apologetic. They knew they were doing wrong and accepted your admonition to get back to work with easy grace. These days students seem genuinely puzzled and sometimes indignant that you are insisting they stay on task! “I was just checking my emails!” To be fair, they still see games play as something the teacher has a right to interrupt!

Some schools, or teachers, of course simply ban devices from the classroom, confiscating cell phones when they surface. Others have policies which stress the need to turn them off when they are not being used, or at least to switch off the screen. These are all very sensible, of course, but when so many use tablets for note-taking, even this policy is hard to implement at times. I agree that there should be switched off moments during any lesson, and I uphold this approach in my own classroom, but there are those messy grey areas, those moments when some students are using devices productively for sanctioned work, and others are clearly just getting distracted. The other day I was moving from group to group as my students were working on producing a news report from the trial of Shylock: part of our study of The Merchant Of Venice. Some were editing footage they’d shot in the previous period on their iPads, Others were trying to find the script they’d written on Google docs and now couldn’t find.

One student was playing a game.”The others are editing, sir,” she said innocently.

“Aren’t you part of the group?” I asked reproachfully. She shrugged, and reluctantly closed her iPad and slid across a vacant seat to rejoin the group. If I hadn’t checked I might have fondly thought she was searching for a graphic to use, or downloading some music for the soundtrack. I wanted to use the moment to help her combat her distraction, though. “What game was it?” I asked. I didn’t know the game, but I persisted. “What level are you on?”

She became quite animated, and told me she was close to the end of the game. I can sympathize with that. So close to completing the final level and to have to work on some silly project. I almost wanted to tell her to go back to her game, and apologize for interrupting! Compared to the epic win, any question about Portia’s mercy, or lack thereof pales into insignificance.

It struck me that blanket bans on devices, or strictly enforced switch-offs, while clearly necessary at times, are not very helpful in teaching students to manage their distraction. This sounds odd, but we live in a world where multi-tasking is seen as a virtue, and the value of focus is in peril. If we want to help students focus when we need them to, we need to go beyond simply imposing periods of digital silence, we also need to help them manage the ability to set distraction aside when they need to. If we don’t, they will never learn this skill. I don’t think this can be done when devices are forcibly switched off: the device needs to be on, and you need to be managing your impulse to play with it. We need to be engaging in discussions with students about device addiction, and stepping in and helping them get back on focus when they slip. We should be gently, but firmly, vigilant about distraction and steer our students towards greater ability to set a device aside when appropriate, and leaving it switched on, still stay focused on the activity of the moment.

To this end, I would like to suggest a slightly different policy towards device distraction: a three-phase approach, much like a traffic light. Student devices are then in one of three phases: The phase gives a guideline as to whether devices should be switched off completely, available for use, but with screens off, or are on and in use. The phase also determines what sanctions are in place for infractions.

traffic lightRed: All student devices are switched off. Maximum focus is required on a task which does not require devices in any way. Any digital distraction is policed by the teacher and there are sanctions for infractions. Devices may be confiscated for the duration of the lesson, for example.

Amber: Devices are on, but with screens switched off. they may be used if necessary for note-taking, checking a fact, or making calculations if necessary. Distraction is still policed by the teacher, who tells students when they may or may not use devices, but no punitive action is taken, and the focus is on students managing their own need to use a device. The teacher assists by identifying when use is appropriate or not, and advises when the screen should be switched off, but devices will not be confiscated.

Green: Devices are integral to the task at hand and students are encouraged to use them freely. Self-management is essential and any off-task behaviour is flagged, but not policed. Ask students to report on and reflect on how well they managed to stay focused and avoid distraction. Students are being encouraged to manage their own behaviour. In group work, the group may become jointly responsible with the individual. If the teacher spots off-task behaviour they may ask the individual or group to remember to report it in their reflection.

The desire is to have a system which both makes plain whether devices may or may not be used, and to encourage self-management.


Laptops vs iPads Revisited

IMG_9707A number of years ago my school looked at the question of whether to introduce laptops or iPads as part of our IT strategy. The junior school went for iPads and bought a class set which can be booked out when needed, but in the senior school our response was more cautious. We felt that iPads did not give us the kinds of opportunities to enable students to author digital products we were after, and that laptops were too expensive. We have therefore been adopting a BYOD policy favouring a mix of pupil-owned smart phones and laptops enabled on our network, with a small number of school-owned netbook computers supplementing the desktop computers in our media centre and computer rooms.

My gut feeling at the time, after limited exposure to iPads, it must be admitted, was that iPads favoured consumption rather than production and hence were unsuitable at a more senior level. The apps that I looked at seemed suited more to presentation of content than to digital authoring. And my question was, since laptops could do both multi-media content presentation and allow for powerful authoring programs, why would one choose an iPad over a laptop, even given the extra mobility of the iPad?

As the holidays loomed, however, I booked out an iPad to play with – just to see if my views had changed, of course! It is a wondrously sexy machine, I have to say. It sits easily in your hands, and is sleek and seductive. The touch screen appears fabulously Science Fiction to someone of my generation, and the rotation of the screen still wows me every time! But that is pretty much where the wow factor ends, I’m afraid. I can see that it is useful because of its weight and size, and if all you need is to surf the Internet, or view content, it is great, but the moment you need to do anything, it becomes a cumbersome monster of a machine, as clunky and ham-fisted in execution as it is sleek and sexy in looks. When trying to activate the right part of the touch screen I kept getting it wrong – the calibration seemed slightly off. There was not enough storage on the machine to download files either, and typing was an absolute nightmare, especially where I needed a mixture of numbers and characters! I found typing my passwords the worst!

I tried to use Garage Band, but couldn’t because there was not enough memory! And for me that clinched it. My views have not changed. I can see that iPads are useful pieces of kit, but their expense is not justified in terms of what they can actually deliver in a classroom. If a student has one that’s great, but I would not recommend a school going out of their way to purchase them.


Kahoot! is a Hoot!

kahoot2I don’t particularly like quizzes. The snobbish English teacher in me hankers after meaty critical essays or compositions worthy of Steinbeck or Faulkner! But they can be a fun way to revise some quick content, and they certainly can stimulate that all elusive student engagement factor if made interactive and taken online, then gamified and given a competitive edge! That’s exactly what a free web-based application called Kahoot! does!

You need to sign up for an account, but can then easily set up a quiz by typing in a question, selecting possible answers and indicating which is correct. You can add images to your questions, and even videos, although this facility is currently in beta version. Once saved, your quiz is posted online with a pin number. Students can access the quiz using a pin on their laptops, tablets or phones. they give a user name, but do not have to sign in. They then take the quiz (which is timed) and receive scores, competing against others.


The display shows whether they are correct or not and shows what other students guessed. The colourful displays and the use of a count-down timer is pretty engaging, giving a game-like sense missing in many polling or quiz applications.

What looks promising also is the ability to make quizzes public, and share them, allowing access to a considerable library of quizzes. I took one created by another teacher, but the possibilities of getting students to create quizzes for each other is exciting. Once the link is shared anyone can take the quiz.

I seldom use quizzes as a quick feedback mechanism at the end of a lesson – usually because I’m running out of time! I like them as an introduction though, to find out what the class already knows, and to focus attention on the teaching point. Where a significant number of students disagree about an answer, there is an excellent way in to a lesson. As part of a flipped classroom, it is also an excellent way of revising content accessed outside the classroom, and ensuring that everyone has adequately covered the material.

In my own classrooms, though, not everyone has a smart phone or tablet. Most do, but concerns about equity have meant that I have only ever tried this exercise in a computer room, where all had access to desktops. Doing quizzes in pairs though, might ensure that all have access.



stoodle2Stoodle is a web application which allows you, without any download or registration, to create a quick classroom space. By sharing the URL of the classroom you can invite other participants. You can use microphone or text based chat, and upload files (images) to discuss.

It is a somewhat crude platform compared to Elluminate or other classroom spaces, but it is so easy to set up, it is great for enabling student group-work sessions online, or conducting quick seminars! What I like about it is that it so quick to launch, and the interface is clean and straight to the point.


You can only upload image files to share on the “whiteboard”, but you can add text and are able to add extra pages. This allows you, in effect to build an impromptu slide show, You can also record video.

The site itself presents as a tool for both students and teachers to use, and this, to my mind, is one of its most exciting aspects.

All in all it looks like a powerful and promising educational tool. And, best of all, it is free to use! You can’t argue with free!


The Tablet Wars – The Kindle Fire

The launch of the Kindle Fire, rekindles the debate about what mobile platform is best for education. Honestly, I don’t think there is an answer to this question. Here is a demo of the new Kindle, for what it is worth.

The issue is not really about whether the iPad is better, has more apps, or whether the Kindle Fire is cheaper. The software applications, the price, are both vital issues for schools to consider. What formats each device supports are also vital. You really want a solution which is as open as possible. It is absolutely no good if a device does not support a wide range of formats.

The Kindle Fire lacks a camera, which, in a classroom environment is a huge disadvantage. Nevertheless, it is clearly a player, and will have its proponents amongst the teaching fraternity.

To my mind the best solution lies in supporting all devices, where possible, within a Bring Your Own Device policy. The IT Department at my school has been informally registering students’ mobile devices as they have been brought in, and the policy appears to be working, allowing students to access their emails and access Internet from anywhere on campus. This programme has proven popular with students and goes a long way to create the kind of anywhere, anytime access that a 21st century School needs without engaging in the expense of initiating formal 1:1 mobility programmes.

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Posted by on September 29, 2011 in 1:1 Computing, iPads


iPads – it’s all about the app in appeal

I have just seen a demonstration Science lesson in a grade 7 class in which iPads were used most successfully. I have to own up to my prejudices here. I am an iPad sceptic. I am not convinced that iPads are the way to go in terms of 1:1 programmes. I cannot for the life of me see why an iPad would be preferrable to a netbook, for example.

The lesson I watched was all about the digestive system, and it used an app called Organs which combines graphics, text, sound and video files, as well as interactive quizzes. The students worked enthusiastically, and stuck to the task, which was to use the information learned from the app, to prepare a presentation on the digestive system. They were reluctant to leave when the period ended, even though all they had really done was to “digest” a great deal of information, potentially a very dry task. The iPad clearly scored high marks for engaging the students.

I wonder, though, to what extent it will continue to do so as the novelty wears thin. I did not really see anything on the app itself, which could not have been accomplished on a laptop connected to the Internet. Indeed, once the task shifted to preparing the presentation, which I was not able to watch, I have a feeling that the advantage of the laptop would have been pronounced.

Although I am a sceptic, I do want to give the iPad, and any other tablet, a chance to prove itself. It is an extremely sexy machine, with a great deal of appeal. But ultimately it is the app in appeal that will determine whether the iPad earns a place in our schools or not. Its price will have to come down too. The iPad does not seem to be a very good contender when it comes to enabling digital authoring. This may change, and I hear that students can become very fast typists on the iPad. But as things stand I have to say that no matter how engaging they are, they just lack the power to create content, and schools need devices which encourage creating rather than simply accessing content.

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Posted by on September 19, 2011 in 1:1 Computing, iPads


Laptops vs iPads

I have to say that I have no idea where I stand on the issue of what kind of mobile devices we should be putting in our classrooms: laptops or iPads? Mobile phones? Something else? I cannot afford an iPad, so I have not really had the chance to look at one, or not long enough to do it justice, and likewise, my mobile phone is so archaic, I have never really used a smart phone, so I cannot really judge how useful it might be in the classroom.

I have embedded a poll in this blog, so that you can have your say, and I would love for you to comment. My school is in the process of making this decision, and we are desperate for quality input!

I do feel there are certain criteria we need to bear in mind when making this decision.

Equity. Firstly, we need to ensure that whatever we do conforms to standards of equity and equal opportunity. We need to ensure that all students, rich or poor, have access to mobile computing devices, and that this access is equivalent. This said, we need to ensure also that we do not move at the pace of the slowest, so to speak. Equity and equivalence does not necessarily mean a one-to-one correspondence. Just because student A can afford a really fancy device, and student B must be contented with a device supplied by the school, does not mean we should shy away from introducing a mobile computing programme. To do so does not benefit student B in the least. We do need, however, to make sure that student B’s device is adequate for everything required of it.

Access. To my mind the greatest factor in ensuring equity is that all students have access to their mobile computing devices for equivalent periods of time. I cannot see a programme which includes trolleys of devices available only during school time as constituting equity. Access must include home use. This would be my second criterion for any mobile computing programme in a school. Trolleys of laptops or banks of iPads available for occasional use will not really be effective. Access needs to be 24/7 to be effective. Given that schools can often command a better price by buying in bulk, or through some kind of subsidy programme be able to offer devices at a better price, this is an arrangement that is likely to be popular with parents.

My reasons for arguing that 24/7 access is important lie in the fact that so much of the pedagogical argument in favour of using mobile computing devices in class rests on the notion of any where, any time learning, of standing the classroom on its head, doing what used to be done in class at home, and what used to be done at home in class. This requires students to access content from home, and requires digital authoring at all stages, home and at school. Laptops, or iPads on trolleys just don’t meet this requirement!

Versatility. The third criterion is that whatever devices we use, be versatile enough to perform a range of digital authoring tasks, whether based on software programmes, apps, the networked drive or the Cloud. It doesn’t make sense to me to base a mobile computing programme on simply the ability to take photos, shoot video, answer a poll or tweet an answer! Students will need to create documents, will need to perform digital authoring tasks of all kinds, text and graphic-based. Versatility will also include the ability to embrace a mixed economy, a variety of solutions rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Reliability. Whatever solution is found will also need to be robust and reliable. Murphy’s Law states that any lesson involving technology will involve minor catastrophes ranging from power failures to network outages, but this aside, devices used in the classroom will need to be supported by a sufficiently rugged infrastructure to minimise down-time. This includes issues such as being able to re-charge batteries and having technical support on an ongoing basis.

Security. In a perfect world one would not need to insure against theft, loss and so on, but any mobile computing programme will need to think very carefully about liability and lines of responsibility and ownership. This includes questions of acceptable use and corporate responsibility.


Posted by on July 27, 2011 in 1:1 Computing, Hardware, iPads

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