Published Online: June 24, 2009

Adding a Touch of Technology

We were pumped. This was going to be cool.

Our school system was initiating an iPod Touch pilot, and we were one of six schools asked to try them out in the classroom. We knew other U.S. classrooms and schools were already exploring the educational potential of the Touch, so we felt privileged to be able to join the fun─with lots of support from our instructional services and information technology departments.

Seeing a table covered with shiny new gadgets will bring out the tech geek in just about anyone. As we predicted (it was really a no-brainer), the 29 students in Steve’s 8th grade English class were thrilled to get a personal Touch to use at school and at home. But after all the new boxes were opened and everything was handed out, the question became─so what do we do with them now?

Although it shares the same touch screen as the popular iPhone, the Touch is not a mobile calling device. It has no camera (yet) but comes with wi-fi capabilities; the Safari browser; email functionality; audio, video, and photo storage and playback; a YouTube video player; a calendar that synchs with your computer, and the all-important capacity to add third-party applications (apps) via the iTunes online store.

We exchanged ideas with other teachers in the pilot about how different applications could be used in classrooms. We were also able to tap into Web-based discussions going on among teachers using the iPod Touch around the nation and in other countries. We became frequent visitors to virtual professional environments such as Classroom 2.0 and Touch dedicated Web sites like I Education Apps Review.

Although research on teaching with the iPod Touch is scarce, there are articles and studies on how previous handheld technologies have been used in classrooms. In the various literature and online discussions, many teachers highlight the potential for educational communication, saying that the Touch facilitates the pushing of instructional content such as documents and multimedia files to students. Others were excited about the feedback potential─such as turning the Touch into a classroom-response system for assessment purposes.

Some teachers are using the device’s Internet capabilities for accessing and posting information, while others touted the applications that facilitate data collection, educational game playing and simulations, and the reading of e-books. Then there are the programs for personal organization such as the calendar to keep track of important dates for assignments and projects.

Student Response

As the Apple ad goes, “there’s an app for that,” and there are definitely lots of apps, which is why so many educators are excited about the potential of the iPod Touch in classrooms. But from our dual perspectives─classroom teacher and school technology specialist─the most useful comments about the potential of this handheld device to support teaching learning came from our students.

After students had the opportunity to use the devices at school and at home to complete various projects and assignments, we gave an informal survey to get some feedback. Some sample responses:

“All students should have access to the iTouch in the classroom because they would be more excited about learning.” This comment supported our shared expectation that these devices would increase motivation.

“I love to read, and unlimited access to classics was awesome.” Reading classics? That comment would make any English teacher proud.

“When teachers reference something you can look it up [on the Internet].”

“My favorite application was Vocab Daily because I would learn new words everyday.”

Others students reported using the calculator in math, the Internet for research and taking notes in science and history, an app for translating foreign words into English, the calendar for recording project due dates and birthdays, and (surprising to us) the alarm clock for waking up. Commenting on the variety of uses, one student suggested, “My advice is to keep it with you at all times.”

Complex Understandings

Some students were more analytical in their comments. They compared the iPod Touch to previous habits and other technologies.

“I would rather read a book on paper because it seems easier. But it is also easy to access books on the Stanza application.”

“I would prefer the iTouch; you feel more in control, but for videos longer than 5 minutes, I would use a computer.”

One of the students said, “I would rather read on paper because then if I had little notes, I can just write them in.” As English educators, we were pleased to hear this. An important component of our curriculum is the practice of active reading strategies. When reading via the iPod Touch, we wished the students could have somehow underlined text and made notations within the text, verbal or written. Perhaps there’s an app for that, too – or soon will be.

Some students were more technical in their evaluation. One of the more technology savvy students remarked, “Although using the Touches is a good idea, using netbooks would be better.” He then told us the specific brand and model to buy. A few other students agreed, pointing out that a netbook (which typically has the aspect of a mini-laptop) provided “a larger screen and a keyboard that doesn’t mess up as easily.”

Some students realized the risks and responsibilities attached to using a tool costing several hundred dollars at home and at school.

“It’s risky. The iTouch is very useful and can help students in numerous ways, but is very risky because this is a huge responsibility. Many students may damage, steal, or break it or use it for the wrong things.”

Some of the most potentially useful feedback came from students who debated and challenged the way we implemented the iPod Touch in the classroom.

“I feel students should be given more freedom and more apps. I feel the more we are allowed to use them, the more responsible we will become, and the more we will use them in school and for assignments.”

One student was less than optimistic about the long-term potential: “The novelty will wear off.”

Ouch! And one comment really made us really think.

“I would allow for more access to other applications (but with restrictions), but I would also allow for the students to use the iPod in a way that would be helpful for them, and not in a way a teacher thinks.”

Wow. As you can see, our students quickly acquired a pretty sure grasp of new technology and its implications for their learning. Many students were already familiar with using the iPod Touch, and those who weren’t quickly became proficient within a few minutes. There wasn’t much need for “how-to” lessons. More importantly, we realized that when given the opportunity, guidance, support, and proper environment, students will use resources and technologies to meet expectations in ways that make sense for them—and sometimes in ways that were better than anything we had conceived.

Educators who promote 21st Century skills and technology have always advocated for more constructivist and open environments for students to explore and create meaning, but it’s always refreshing when your kids articulate the need for the work to be “student-centered” so clearly.

Lingering Questions

As teachers, these are the “wonderings” we take away from this experience:

How can we empower and guide students to develop their skills and learning capacity in using resources and technologies in a way that is meaningful for them? At the same time, how can we help them become more responsible with greater levels of access, information, and consequences?

Are we improving instruction with these technologies, or are we just modifying the method of delivery? Are we teaching in a way that maximizes the potential of these technologies to enrich and transform instruction, rather than simply replicating traditional lessons and assessments in a different format?

These are difficult questions. They require us to think beyond initial challenges of access, technical issues, and choice of brand or applications. These questions force us to analyze and reflect on the classroom and teaching traditions we hold very closely.

We continue to be excited about the potential of using devices such as the iPod Touch or any other handheld technology in the classroom, but we realize that providing access is only the first step in a long process of reflection and change. As the cost of technology decreases and the power and accessibility increases, student’s access to technology has moved from isolated stationary desktop computer labs, to portable classroom laptop carts, to powerful mini-devices that provide our students with an overwhelming amount of information and useful tools.

As teachers, we have to move as well─away from trying to use technology to replicate what we did with chalk, paper, and multiple-choice tests, and toward an understanding of how to create and support a school environment where students develop their metacognitive and analytical skills to meet high academic standards. We must help them utilize a variety of resources and materials, including the multiple levels of technologies available to them. Some students will learn differently, and some technologies will be better suited for various tasks than others.

This is a difficult instructional process since most of us were not taught in this way. We did not go through school with the Internet and customizable software programs in our pocket. But if we want our teaching practices to remain relevant in this information-driven age, we will listen to our students much more closely─and examine how the power and ease-of-access to widely available resources and technologies necessitate change in the way we help them learn.

Then, technology won’t be a novelty.

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