Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What Educational Apps Don't Do and What I Plan to Do About It

Every school district, at least locally, has been all fired up to get iPads for their students and rightfully so. iPads and Android devices provide the potential to meet so many needs. School districts have the opportunity to raise test scores and provide support to students, without providing an actual teacher or aide, which equals cost savings. Teachers have a resource for students, who are struggling or performing way above the rest of the class, to meet their individual needs with something students are actually motivated to use. Students are excited to use anything that is the latest in technology.

When I was a teacher, I couldn't wait to get iPads in the room. I saw the potential for reaching my students and accommodating so many different needs with something extremely motivating. The problem came when I tried to find apps for my fourth grade students. The apps that met the most needs were for younger students. Why? It is so much easier to make apps for a younger student. They are the most basic, and we as adults who understand the basics perfectly, observe the students moving objects around and think they are really learning. However, a lot of the time the students aren't learning the way we think they are because they are lacking the fundamental understanding of what they are doing.

Don't get me wrong. There are some really great apps out there that are creative and inventive. The problem was that my students didn't have the skill level to use them without me really knowing the app, the content inside and out, and how to modify the app for the particular student. Even students who are gifted and talented need a person when they are working with an app, because if anything provides an extension of their learning they can't do it independently. This is still the same problem that existed without the app. A teacher does not have the time to do this individualized research and instruction for 25 different children. The apps need to take the place of the teacher in order for the app to be really valuable and do what we all expect them to do. Furthermore, the apps are just like their website predecessors. There is no difference between playing a game on a website or using an app, except the app offers touch screen interaction and might produce something in 3-D. Other apps are simply an electronic version of a worksheet, but now a student can slide and manipulate the images instead of writing it out. It is still an abstract task that the struggling student doesn't understand. It might look impressive but the actual growth and learning isn't taking place.

The bridge in the classroom between the student trying to learn a concept and actually learning the concept is the teacher. The teacher knows the student, how they learn, what might be "missing" from their understanding of the material, and then provides the support they need to learn it. The great news is that iPads and Android devices offer the opportunity to offer what is missing. Unlike books, websites, and worksheets, apps offer a level of interaction that might be the bridge between the student and the content in a way that a teacher can be. In order for apps to effective they have to be individualized. The apps, like a teacher, need to compensate for the brain of the child and do what the child's brain isn't doing naturally.

Clearly, it is not possible for a programmer to write an app for every single student. However, the student "profiles" repeat themselves. Why not develop apps for a student and then make the apps for a group of students that fit that profile? That student's "profile" will no doubt be repeated. How many students can benefit from apps that help their attention, behavior, and learning? This describes a huge portion of the student body.

This might be my calling. A merge of the two professions I have chosen in my lifetime, or at least an interesting and challenging venture.