Friday, November 15, 2013

The Changed Mind of an iPad Skeptic

So a couple years ago, my principal emphatically attempted to get me and the rest of the staff to board the iPad hype train. A few teachers bought their ticket, but I was more interested in the laptop monorail. I thought the iPad wouldn't take me where I wanted to go, and that a laptop in my students' hands was immeasurably more powerful. Now, two years later, I do believe I've changed my mind.

I guess it was somewhat an indicator of my age and the speed at which technology moves. When did I cross the threshold of no longer being in touch with the latest and greatest technology? I remember being skeptical because "you can't type on an iPad! You can't feel any keys, how are you going to type documents?!" Wow...just look at the speed and efficiency with which students today text and type! Even I have gotten much better with touchscreen keyboards, although I'm still an old fart who prefers a physical one.

"How can an iPad support the upper-grade classroom? Sure there are tons of 'Number Cruncher' apps out there, but how does an iPad enhance my students' learning experiences?" On this point, I will give myself credit where credit is due: when iPads were first working their way into schools, there really were an overabundance of crummy apps that were basically time sponges and rote learning devices. Heck, there still are way too many of them floating around on the App Store! But now, there are also plenty of choices that really do enable you to do things never before imagined possible in the classroom.

All this is to say, "I really love Subtext."

Subtext. Somehow I came across it on the App Store a year or so ago. It was one of those cases where you're browsing the store, see "Free" next to an app that sounds somewhat interesting, you install it, and it sits in a folder, never having been opened. But woo doggie am I glad I checked it out again earlier this school year!

Subtext allows you to pull in web content from pretty much anywhere, PDFs, or eBooks and assign the articles to a group of students. The app magically translates web content into a readable format that detects text, and then the real excitement begins. As a teacher, I can create assignments, polls, questions, web links, quizzes, discussions, etc. for my students to complete in Subtext.

For example, right before Halloween, I shared The Legend of Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, with a group of students. Included in this collection was the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, some prime Halloween-y reading material.

As students began reading, they encountered green tabs in the margins that indicated assignments. They had to highlight and tag words and phrases that created mood and tone.

They had to respond to text-dependent questions I sprinkled through the text like Easter eggs in the backyard.

They participated in polls to gauge their understanding of the story.

They answered T/F and multiple-choice questions designed to attract their attention to important passages.

They asked questions to determine meaning, and they responded to each others' questions within the app to enhance understanding and start true, rich literature discussions.

All the while, I could track their progress, identifying who was way ahead in the story and who was slowly trudging through the complex text. I could see who was having to look up words every other minute, and who was struggling to correctly answer the questions I had placed. I was able to work one-on-one with students who I could see were getting behind, and promote discussions between students by digitally inviting all students to a particular page and passage. I was grading assignments students were completing right there by dragging an intuitive slider to indicate percentage and leaving comments on what I wanted to see and what students did well.

All this was happening simultaneously, and it was amazing.

I'm now hooked on the idea of 1:1 iPads in the classroom. At one of the sites where I work, they have an iPad cart for each grade level. We're looking into getting Subtext for two grade levels and immersing ourselves in the workflow and capabilities of the app. At my other site, I find myself desperately wanting those brushed aluminum devices to share with anyone who'll listen. "Look what I can do!"

I'm finding more and more uses for iPads in upper-grade classrooms. From Edmodo to Educreations to Socrative (each of which I'll likely write about in the future), the iPad is becoming the device that can change (for the better) how we teach students and how students show what they know.

I can't wait.