Digging for Educational Apps

I have spent the last few days digging around for educational apps to review for my class webliography. My focus is partly on apps for English Language Learners and partly on apps that I would use myself as a teacher, such as a student dictionary reference. Now having spent the better part of two days searching, I have been feeling like an app prospector, that is: panning for gold and finding mostly gravel. Or perhaps, since I am focusing on ELLs, finding garnets and rubies and the occasional rare pearl instead of the particular precious material I’m looking for.

There are not many apps or products targeted toward ELLs that are targeted toward older students. Basic apps are often too babyish and simplistic for the older children, much less high school students. Many of those apps are as easily accomplished by other means as well.

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking for a digital dictionary source to use with students. I’ve been a little frustrated by my search because many options seem to include either too much or too little information. My favorite one thus far is the Merriam-Webster educational website. I’m pleased to notice that they have a variety of dictionary resources for a variety of age levels. I do like their Learner’s Dictionary for Students of ESL, EFL, and the TOEFL Test. They have digital dictionary references for younger students as well.

I also tried out Dictionary.com, which is a free app available through the Apple App Store. If I were to buy an upgrade, that would get rid of the ads and add example sentences, both of which would be necessary or useful if the app were to be used by students. Dictionary is a little more pared down, which I think would be useful for distractible students.

I found Grammar Dragon or Grammar Words Types Quiz,  which looked promising untilI realized that their company, Always Icecream and Clever Dragons, also promoted other less-school friendly apps with any of their product line. I would not want children clicking on tempting games while trying to practice grammar unless they were grammar games! I found many colorful but hokey games.

I’ve been using several sources to search for apps and resources. From Edudemics, I found several links, including this list of The 200 Best Special Education Apps. I thought it might include some apps for ELLs. If I were looking for tools to use with Special Ed Students, it would have been fantastic. They offer a scrollable Scribd doc with the apps categorized by area. The first ones I investigated were related to helping students verbalize or communication simple needs, such as Communication Skills and Everyday Social Skills, both found in iTunes. The series by Mobile Education looked especially promising. They include Sentence Builder, Story Builder, and more. I watched several product demos to assess their suitability for ELLs, but not really. The Mobile Education apps are actually designed for children with special needs, and were originally developed by a father frustrated by lack of effective educational materials for his daughter with special needs. So the Mobile Edu apps are great for children with auditory processing or aspbergers or other developmental challenges, but not as useful for ELLs as I had hoped (unless someone was additionally learning challenged).

Another source I’ve been intrigued by is this “Padagogy Wheel” of apps arranged by how they coincide with Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is also used in the Common Core Curriculum. I especially like how I can find apps that correlate with the different verbs from Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy that are often used when writing lesson objectives. By the way, Padagogy is not a typo; all of the apps are available for use on the iPad, hence the ‘Pad.’ The developer seems very responsive to feedback, and has issued an update in the last week since I first saw it. My only quibble about the wheel is that is seems mostly about apps that I might not use with ELLs or younger children. Still, it’s an interesting arrangement with lots of ideas, some of which overlap with other arrangements.

I’ve also looked at Kathy Schock’s Web 2.0 Apps to Support Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, another take on sorting for lesson objectives. The two apps I looked at from there are podomatic and photobabble, both which seem to be apps for adding student-created audio. Interesting, but not quite what I am looking for.

One app that seems promising for ELLs is Pocket Artic by Synapse Apps, LLC, which features common phonemes for practicing pronunciation. I was a little disappointed by the price tag, though, nearly $10, and the reviews complaining about the need for additional upgrades. It is available for both iPad and iPhone, so it would be pretty versatile for older students to carry around, but I think it’s a little too technical to be useful for younger children.

I love, love, love Scholastic’s Read180 for ELLs and other struggling readers, but it is considerably out of my price range. Does a it count as a resource for teachers if I would have to lobby my school to license it?

So I’m still looking for my second app. I’ve scanned and looked over scores of apps and Web tools (more than I can even write about here!), but I’m just not finding one that seems to fill the ESL gap. I’ll have to decide soon. Maybe I’ll go back to assessing a non-ESL resource. There are plenty to go around. I just have to dig through a lot of “gravel.”

iPad-Centric Classrooms?

At Edudemic, I saw another interesting article by 4th grade math & science teacher, Nikolaos Shatzopoulos, iPads In The Classroom: The Right Questions You Should Ask. The article seems written out of the concern that we are making our classrooms more “iPad-centric” than “student-centered,” a concern I share.

In an especially apt quote (no pun intended), he says,

The truth is that that no device can match the value of human interaction with real life situations or with other human beings. The iPad can be a tool of immense value in the classroom. However, it should remain just that: a tool that complements instruction, and offers learning opportunities for situations and learning concepts that are impossible to be accessed, observed, or analyzed in a classroom setting without the assistance of technology.

I might say the same about other pieces of technology. How does technology (or how do certain resources or applications) contribute to the learning goals for a class?

Mr. Shatzopoulos offers an intriguing observation:

[W]e have to move away from the question “how to use an iPad in the classroom?” and think more in terms of “why to use the iPad in the classroom?”.

Then he surprises me by saying that before we even start to plan a lesson, we need to ask not just one but both questions as a movement along our developmental path.

I think this is right. It’s not that we want to keep technology out of our classrooms, but it’s more that we want to find just the right applications for our purposes, and the fact that there are so many options makes it more likely we will grab onto something that seems to work well on a given topic, is easy to use, and has an attractive GUI or interface.

An application may not be the best, but we have only so much time and energy to sift through our options, and additionally, to learn how to use them. We are all (well, many of us), trying to operate in a new language – the language of technology – and we have to think twice as hard to juggle all our cognitive tasks.

The people creating the content are also working away. Yes, I’ve seen apps that address student’s unique learning styles and challenges. I’ve also seen good ideas in half-baked development. I’ve seen productivity apps that are little more than a glorified scratch pad, albeit with cross-playform capabilities. I’ve seen “educational” apps that seem more game glitz than learning practice. Even well-developed apps sometimes contain glaring bugs or omissions. Not every resource can serve all ages and populations.  (See my next post for more on sifting!)

I think the real trick is finding those unique capabilities that a given resource can offer to the learning process. So for the iPad, what can it offer teachers and students? Or what unique capabilities do Interactive White Boards offer, a question I’m considering as I’m planning a sample IWB lesson plan.

I think part of what makes it so challenging is that technology applications offer a dizzying array of possibilities, and we are caught in learning them all, or enough to make use of them. Maybe we are so engrossed in learning about the “how” that we lose sight of the “why.” Mr. Shatzopoulos also points out that it’s been a scant few years since the iPad has been introduced into the classroom, so of course, we are still adjusting to its very presence. This reminds me of the learning curves I’ve experienced with each new technology I’ve encountered, such as my first computer with email, my first chat rooms, my first data processing applications and encounters with social networks. It’s the same with blogs, RSS feeds, and asynchronous collaborations. I’ve lost a lot of sleep while investigating each new technology. It was and is exciting, but exhausting too.

Don’t we all just take in big gulps of information as we try to take it all and find our footing? After a while of thrashing about and losing sleep while working with the new capabilities, we settle down and really focus on what role a given technology can fill in our lives. Some applications become incorporated into our workflow, while others drop away as insufficient.

I’m sure we won’t wait to implement new technology into classrooms until we work out all the bugs. We’ll continue to take in our big gulps of new exciting Web 2.0 tools. I hope we will soon finish the “big gulp” phase, though, and move onto tailoring the applications for our actual needs. As the author says, we’ll work on discovering the “potential roles” and “meaningful ways” of addressing learning needs.

My hope is that someday educational apps and Web 2.0 technology will include educational ratings to help guide their use, much like Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (and the Common Core Curriculum derived from it) help to guide our lesson objectives and learning goals. Until then, we’ll continue to swim about in our sea of new apps. Happy swimming!