What Now

5 questions for integrating apps in the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Karen Mahon

CREDIT Balefire LabsYou’re on a roll. You have new tablet devices in your classroom or school. You’ve learned how to use them. You’ve done your planning and have an Acceptable Use Policy. And, of course, you’ve selected some instructional apps that sound like they’ll be great for your students.

But now you’re confronted with actually implementing these apps. And you’re wondering, “What now?” These five questions will help get you started.

There aren’t too many perfect apps out there. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still use them meaningfully.

  1. “What does this app teach my students to do?”

Never mind what the description in the app store says. Use the app yourself and describe what skills the app teaches. Pay no attention to what the students are expected to “understand” or “know.” Put an action verb in there! Does the app require students to spell words by sequencing letters correctly? Does it ask students to multiply single digit numbers and write, using a finger, the correct answer on the screen? Does it demand that students estimate angles by dragging onscreen lines? Write a sentence that describes that performance.

  1. “How have I been teaching this skill up to this point?”

Now that you’ve identified what skill the student should be able to perform by the time he or she finishes using this app, think about how you’ve been teaching this skill previously. What was your lesson plan? What were the resources that you used? How did you assess student work?

  1. “Which parts of what I’ve been teaching does this app replace?”

Here’s what we know for sure: it’s extremely unlikely that an app will replace your entire lesson plan. So review your lesson plan and see where the app fits in. Which parts can you drop now that you have the app? Which parts need to be tweaked if you include the app? Is there an additional part that you can now add because the app saves time or teaches something new that you hadn’t included before? No need to start from scratch—take what you’ve been doing and modify as needed.

  1. “This app isn’t exactly what I wanted. What can I do?”

There aren’t too many perfect apps out there. Many of them are missing some pretty important instructional design elements, such as error remediation or performance reports with actionable data. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still use them meaningfully. Once you figure out what’s missing from an app, think about how you might offset its shortcomings by recruiting a student helper. For example, if an app is missing error remediation, might you have a less skilled learner “drive” the app and a more skilled student helper provide error remediation for mistakes? In the case of an app that does not include performance reports with actionable data, why not have a student helper observe the learner using the app and take data, using pencil and paper, on both the correct and incorrect answers given. By recruiting student helpers to augment the use of the app, you’re not only improving the experience for the learner who is using the app…you’re providing valuable learning opportunities for the student helper as well.

  1. Using Apps in Different Instructional Arrangements

It’s still the case in the United States that the majority of classrooms do not have 1:1 tablet implementations. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that teachers restrict the use of apps to rewards and free time. But having a greater number of students than you do devices offers the chance to use apps in small groups. What if one student drives the app and the other four students in the group participate in other, related ways? Perhaps the app is one in which a learner must place historical events in order on a timeline. What if the other students in the group drew timelines with pencil and paper and made their own predictions of the order in which the events should go? Then, collectively, the students try out the predictions using the app? Or perhaps in an English Language Arts app the learner must match words to their parts of speech. The student driving the app could say their prediction out loud and the rest of the group could vote on whether they think the prediction is right or wrong.

The point is that with a little bit of creativity, we can come up with ideas to use apps in small groups, with every student participating meaningfully. Don’t let a shortage of mobile devices discourage you from jumping in and trying something new!

Karen L. Mahon, Ed.D., is the founder of Balefire Labs, an educational app review service for preK-12 that evaluates apps for instructional quality. To learn more about the integration of educational apps in the classroom, watch the free webinars with Karen, sponsored by the Center on Innovations in Learning at Temple University, now available On Demand on Balefire Labs’ Professional Development page.

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