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Teaching With an iPad

When I first applied for my current position as an Academic Trainer and Consultant with Pearson eCollege, I considered doing the interview-presentation we require of all applicants on the iPad’s use in education. At the time, the first iPad was newly released, or fairly newly released, and it was being touted all over the Internet as a “game changer” for education. The primary idea was that it was supposed to replace textbooks and provide (college) students with one device that would serve as notebook, textbook, and laptop.  In exploratory fashion, I ventured into the Apple store and played a bit with a display iPad; one of the Apple “Geniuses” spoke with me about its uses in the classroom, including how easily students could go back and forth from textbook to taking notes.
“Can they do both simultaneously?” I asked. “Can they have the book and the notes app open at the same time?”

“No,” she replied. “But it’s so easy to get out of one app and into another, so it’s almost the same as doing both simultaneously.”

“So, they can annotate their textbooks? Write notes as they read in the text itself?” I asked.

“Uh, no, but there’s a notepad on every iPad, so they’d just have to close their textbook and open the notepad. The textbook will automatically be bookmarked so they don’t lose their place.”

“Hmm,” I replied. “Is there a wide variety of textbooks available in electronic form through iBooks?”

“Oh, yes,” she answered. “Tons. There’s really not a discipline in which we don’t have electronic textbooks already available through iBooks.”

I opened the iBooks app and did a few searches for textbooks in my discipline—I started first with literature anthologies. There were none. I decided that was perhaps not a fair test—maybe literature anthologies are not technically classified as textbooks?—and searched for some fairly common writing textbooks. Nothing.

“Well, thank you for your help,” I said, and walked out of the store.

I decided after this experience that the iPad was not quite a game-changer in education, at least not in terms of its ability to replace textbook, notebook, and computer, particularly for higher education. There were and still are too many things it doesn’t do—word processing being foremost among those. I know there are workarounds, but there’s not a way to get the most functional and common word processing program onto an iPad. An inability to view Flash content on the iPad is another commonly remarked limitation. However, after receiving an iPad for my birthday in November, I’ve revised my opinion. I think the iPad might be a game-changer for education, but in ways other than I imagined back in April of 2010.

Elementary Education

The iPad has become one of the most popular items in our house and is particularly beloved by my eight year-old daughter.  I downloaded a number of math and spelling apps for her, and she still—two months later, a long time for an eight year-old to play with anything—plays with these apps almost every night.  Her favorite, SplashMath, is really genius—it teaches math concepts rather than rote memorization, but it also rewards the kids with an aquarium, and once they pass a certain number of questions correctly, they earn animals to put in their aquarium. Crabs are the first level; you get quite a few crabs, and the children can go into the aquarium and make the crabs dance, learn about real crabs, and find out about their crabs’ personality (I think the crabs are generally happy—they definitely dance quite a bit). The next level is clown fish (they’re grumpy), then squid, and then, the Holy Grail of the aquarium, angel fish. The fish in the aquarium interact with each other—for instance, the squid’s ink will stun the angel fish, so you have to feed the angel fish to revive it, but you must get more math questions right to earn food. This is probably my daughter’s favorite app. The questions are not too basic or too hard, and they teach her actual concepts, so it’s been a really worthwhile download.

Around the same time that we got the iPad, my daughter’s third-grade teacher sent home a packet of information about various websites the elementary school now had accounts with. One, for example, is a website where the teacher had set up accounts for each student with their “word work” pre-loaded. The website will test each child on spelling and using the words in a sentence. The word work is unique for each child based on his or her language proficiency and fluency, so each student must login to the teacher’s account and find his or her name, which will then reveal the lists. There are quizzes/games that the students can play with their word lists as well. Another website, this time one devoted to reading, allows the teacher to create an account and then select e-books for each individual child based on that child’s reading level. This website required me to download the Photon browser app to the iPad so we could view the Flash content on the page, but it still works very well.  My daughter can choose whether or not to read the books on her own or, alternatively, select an option to have the computer read the book to her. If she reads it on her own, difficult or important words will be linked so she can click on them and hear them pronounced and defined. Finally, the instructor had created a Google account where the students can upload PowerPoint slides with notes on a current research project. My daughter uses the iPad to work with all of these websites.

The best part of using the iPad for elementary education is its lightness and ease of use for children. It is extremely simple to operate; the interactivity of the screen—the swiping, the pinching, and the tapping—all make it a really intuitive device for children. (Not that most children today find technology at all complicated—my daughter was Googling with no help on how to do so by the time she was 6.) I have less anxiety when she uses the iPad than I do when she picks up my laptop to use, which inevitably results in a sticky trackpad but also a panicky call for help—“Mommy! The screen is totally black and I can’t make it go back!” It’s also lighter than a laptop, so she’s usually snugged up on her beanbag chair with the iPad while she uses it.

On-Ground Teaching

My colleague, Rob Kadel, blogged in September about why the iPad didn’t work for his fully online teaching (you can read his blog here). I agree with his comments in that blog. For fully online teaching, there’s no practical way to use an iPad unless you collect no papers that have to be graded and returned and don’t need to actually build your online course (or make changes to your already-built online course). There’s no full integration with Microsoft Office, and, as I mentioned above, if the iPad is really going to be game-changing for higher ed students, there simply must be. However, I have found the iPad to be fun, if not wholly game-changing, in terms of how I teach in the face-to-face classroom.

I began teaching a writing course on-ground in January. Before the first class, I went to Best Buy and purchased an adaptor so that I could project what was on my iPad using an overhead projector (much to the consternation of the sales clerk, who could not for the life of him understand why you’d want to project from an iPad). I also took the entirely text-based notes I use for lecturing in that class and, from them, built a Prezi ( Then I downloaded the Prezi app for iPad, and voila—there were all my Prezis on the iPad. In the classroom, I was able to project my Prezi; I use it as a kind of visual aid, something to help those students who are visual learners rather than aural learners. It’s not really a “lecture” or a “presentation” of content in the strictest sense of the word—I just use the Prezi as a way to initiate a series of mini-discussions with the class about various topics. I’ve found that it works extremely well. The students really appreciate having the added cue of the words on the screen as I am talking (usually just two or three words at a time—keywords, in a sense), and they’ve asked me to make the Prezis available in our online course shell for them to revisit.

But bringing the iPad to class each time I teach has enabled me to offer my students more, to really enrich the course materials in a way that, if my experience can be described as representative, is still not common in many on-ground classrooms. Rather than writing URLs on the board when I want to point them towards a helpful resource, I can just browse to it on the iPad. Rather than telling them to Google something to find out about it, we can do it together as a class and discuss the accuracy and credibility of the results. If I want to talk about resources for conducting research on their papers, I can browse to the library’s website and show them the databases I’m talking about as well as how they work. I can use one student’s topic for the purposes of demonstration, and we can engage in a discussion about search strategies, Boolean logic, and keywords. Before using the iPad, I would usually just describe what I was talking about as fully as possible and then jot down, on the board, the steps they needed to take to do whatever it was. The iPad enables me to demonstrate and make the class more “active,” if that’s the right word. In that sense, it’s been a great addition to my on-ground teaching.

Jennifer Golightly, Ph.D.

Academic Trainer & Consultant

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3 Web Tool Ideas for In-course Formative Assessment

First, a little background.

Resounding evidence exists to note the tremendous power of assessment in the processes of teaching and learning. One of the most valuable applications of formative assessment is that it provides feedback for learning (versus feedback of learning).

Timely and explanatory feedback on how a student is doing and what they can do to improve their learning can support a student’s learning process by confirming progress and/or giving the opportunity to remediate while they have a chance. Think, for instance, that inasmuch as summative assessments such as an end of the unit exam or a final can offer students corrective feedback (letting them know which questions they answered correctly or incorrectly), there is limited opportunity for self-remediation. Developmental (formative) learning experiences designed to provide feedback on where a student is on their learning journey towards clearly defined goals as well as opportunities to make mistakes prior to high-stakes summative measures, can ultimately improve and enhance learning. And this end should be the chief priority of assessment.

"The use of both formative assessment, for the purpose of giving feedback and making improvement, and summative assessment, for the purpose of identifying levels of attainment" is an element of good assessment practice (Greater Expectations Project on Accreditation & Assessment, 2004).”

Let’s get practical.

While there are many ways that we can punctuate our courses with meaningful formative assessments, here are three tools I’ve come across that you can opt to incorporate in your online course:

1. allows for a voiced conversation to take place around a slide show of images, a document or a video. Users can post their comments to a collaborative space using voice (with a mic or telephone), text, audio file, or video (via webcam). Think of this as your Discussion Board on Steroids! Ideas: Post a small collection of images related to your course or a specific topic and ask your students to write a reflection, summary or story about what is being depicted the images. Review student’s comments to evaluate their conceptual understanding of the content.

2. enables users to create and explore timelines individually or collaboratively. Ideas: Ask students to build a biographical sketch of a person’s life from birth to death or create a timeline showing the history of an important invention or event in history, incorporating information they have gathered from their textbook, internet sources, lectures, etc.  Use the timeline to gauge your learner’s ability to synthesis information of the topic at hand.

3. allows learners to create a graphical representation of ideas and concepts. Students can also invite collaborators, add images, attach documents and export their mind map when completed. Ideas: Ask students to brainstorm (individually or in groups) about a topic, case study, or relevant problem related to their course or ask students to create a mindmap of their research findings and ideas for an upcoming research paper. This can provide you an excellent opportunity to ensure that your student’s focus on a particular paper theme is on the right track, and/or that they are exploring different dimensions of a particular topic.

What are some ways you would use web tools in your course to provide  learners opportunities for feedback on their learning?

Rachel Cubas
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Higher Education Assessment Specialist



Greater Expectations Project on Accreditation and Assessment. (2004). Taking Responsibility for the Quality of the Baccalaureate Degree. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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Try a Syllabus Quiz

I’ve been teaching online or in a hybrid format for about 12 years now. I’ve been teaching in the classroom for even longer. But when I teach online there’s always something that seems quite trivial that I actually miss. I like to refer to this as one-of-those-go-over-the-syllabus-days, and it’s usually the first day of class.

Of course, students find this pointless and boring, generally, but I’ve found that they do tend to pay attention. I don’t read the syllabus word-for-word, but I at least point out each section, what it means to them, and what they are required to know or do.

There’s a real purpose for this. By my way of thinking, a syllabus is like a contract. It’s a contract I make with students that says, “This is what I’m going to provide to you [knowledge and guidance] and in return, this is what you’re going to provide to me [effort, study, work products, etc.].” By doing this in class (in an on-ground course), I can ask if anyone has any questions. I can look for nodding heads or confusion on faces, and I can address any issues in class. And if I really want to be a stickler, I can have students sign a page stating that they have read and understand the syllabus.

Online, I don’t have that same kind of forum. I do use, for example, a Virtual Office. This is just a discussion forum that I’ve renamed, and I ask students to post any questions about the course there. They can then learn from each others’ questions without sending me the same question via email 20 times. (Although, if it’s a question about a grade or other individual work in the course, then I ask them to email me.) So, if students have questions about the syllabus, they can ask them there.

That isn’t good enough, I’ve found. I still have students come to me saying that they didn’t realize such-and-such and that it would affect so-and-so. So, I also like to include a syllabus quiz. I write up 10 or 15 questions based on the information provided in the syllabus. They are specific questions, e.g., “Which of the following are our course objectives?” and I throw some irrelevant answer choices in there to make sure that they’ve read the course objectives before they can answer that question correctly. And, if I have assignments of different point values, I add a matching question: “Match the assignment on the right to its respective point value on the left.” That way, students will realize that, yes, the final research paper does make up one-third of their grade, and therefore, it is important.

In effect, this is like asking the students to sign off that they have read and understand the syllabus. Heck, I could use a syllabus quiz in my on-ground courses, too. In online courses, it’s particularly important.

In Pearson Learning Studio, I can also enable the Path Builder tool (found under Course Admin --> Enable/Disable Tools), and then use the Course Scheduler link to access Path Builder. I can use Path Builder to “gate” the rest of the course content around the syllabus quiz. If students don’t pass the syllabus quiz, they can’t even move forward to the first Unit. No Christmas-treeing that quiz!

Consider using a syllabus quiz in your own course. It might just make the difference between a smooth-running course and a bunch of Hey-I-didn’t-know-that! excuses later.


Rob Kadel, Ph.D.
Supervisor, Academic Training & Consulting
Pearson eCollege


Personally, I’m Hopeful

It’s about as cliche as New Year’s resolutions, but the truth is at the beginning of each year, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful for what I, personally, may be able to do better, but more than that, I’m hopeful for the possibilities that a new year can bring. Specifically this year, I’m hopeful and excited about what the world of education can become. It seems to me that the past two years have been a crescendo leading to today in many respects: new touch and mobile technologies; rapid growth in access to high-speed Internet; pressure to increase the efficacy of education on a national and world stage from both government authorities and accreditation; difficult economic times that have led many back to further their education; advances in LMS technologies enabling education to be ever more available and increasingly interactive.

As I reflected on and reviewed the articles, conferences, seminars and videos I perused in 2011, a few pieces caught my attention again:

Sugata Mitra is a scientist in Newcaslte, UK who spoke at a TED conference in July of 2010 regarding his Hole in the Wall Project. You can still see the video via this link. Essentially what Sugata and his colleagues did was embed an Internet-connected computer in the wall of a slum in New Dehli with a hidden camera watching it. They did this because they believe that “There are places on Earth, in every country, where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go ... “, so they brought the potential for learning to the children without teachers or schools or organization. What the cameras recorded were children from the slum playing with the computer, learning how to use it, getting online and then teaching each other.  From the results of the project, during his TED talk, Sugata asserts that “Children will learn to do what they want to learn to do” and that even in the absence from any direct input from a teacher, “If children have interest, education happens.” Now, while I don’t believe the most efficacious education occurs in a situation like this, I find it interesting that simple curiosity was enough of a driving force to begin education; no laws or rules or coercion required.

As the nearly six and a half million views of this video attest to, Sir Ken Robinson is an intelligent, dynamic, fun-to-listen-to man who has potentially-disruptive thoughts on the state of education as it stands today. In this RSA Animate version of Robinson’s talk called Changing Education Paradigms (which is well worth the 12 minutes by the way), he asserts that “The current system of education was designed, and conceived and structured for a different age”, and that it no longer applies to the world we find ourselves in. At the time when public education in America was first, truly being formed, “Public education, paid for by taxation, free to everybody and free at the point of delivery”, was revolutionary. But Robinson believes that “we [still] have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialisation and in the image of it. Schools are still pretty much organized on factory lines.” To a degree I can understand why this is still the case. In a nation where we are trying to continually educate roughly 313,000,000 people, there needs to be an overarching organization. However, Robinson argues that we’ve increasingly made education about conformity. He puts it this way: “It’s about standardization; I believe we’ve got to go in the exact opposite direction. That’s what I mean about changing the paradigm.” And what is the exact opposite direction of standardization?

It seems that Finnish education has been in the news quite a bit lately. One article that I ran across recently which could be considered somewhat educationally-provocative, is from ‘The Atlantic’ and entitled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success. The article is written by Anu Partenan, who is herself Finnish and currently a journalist in New York City. As many have identified, the article clearly contrasts competition and equity asserting “Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.” However, the underlying theme I found most interesting is one of a student-centric approach. The article also notes that the Finnish policy on education is that “every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location”. Schools in Finland are also focusing on more than just the brain or education of their students by offering free meals, access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

While these pieces are all interesting in their own right, I believe that the pertinent common thread is that we’re poising ourselves to individualize education. I think the next age of education is a personal one. Let me explain what I mean (and don’t mean) by “individualized” and “personal” by taking a step back in time. There was a time in history (think along the lines of 1400s, Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci) when many who wanted to have a skilled job apprenticed under a master who closely mentored their students by working side-by-side with them, sharing their  knowledge, giving them experience, and providing opportunity to try and try again. The take away from this type of learning environment is not a need to have learning be a one-on-one or one-on-few experience, but rather that the mentor would adjust their teaching to the abilities, personality and characteristics of the apprentice because they had the opportunity to know their student intimately.

What these mentors were able to do was personalize, or individualize the process by which their students learned. The skills required to perform the work (outcomes and standards) did not have to change or be sacrificed. Robinson’s view is that our education has become a factory where the process is always the same, regardless of variances in input (differing students) and yet expecting the resulting product to be the same (students who meet or exceed standards and outcomes). The truth is that every student will enter into each learning experience from a different place that is formed from both their innate characteristics and their life experiences. One might think of it using this simple analogy: Let’s say that three students enter a learning situation as a 2, 5 and 7. A standardized or constant learning process might be like adding a 5 to each student so that the 2 becomes a 7, the 5 a 10 and the 7 a 12. If the outcome of the learning situation is for the students to reach a learned level of 10, then we’ve wasted the time of the 7, not done right by the 2 and, perhaps luckily, been just right for the 5.

I believe that our change in educational paradigm can be a simple shift in what we hold constant and what we allow to vary. Simply put, the journey, the process, of learning need not be the same for any given learner; let it be flexible, be dynamic, be individualized and personal. Let’s hold constant (or conscientiously raise) our standards and outcomes. If an outcome of 10 is what is needed, then let’s take the time to give the 2 an 8, continue to give the 5 a 5 and provide the 7 a 3 and let them be on their way. But how? This is where the history in which we are living has brought us to a point in time where technology enables us to not only dynamically and intelligently adjust the learning process, but to do it for thousands and millions of learners.

I absolutely love this advice from Walter Gretsky, to his son, The Great One, Wayne Gretsky: “skate where the puck's going, not where it's been”. If we take the time to do similarly and look where our advances in technology are leading (wide-spread Internet access, html5, smart mobile devices, digital resources), we can see that education is going to change to become naturally personal. For each of us, the choice will be whether or not we will meet the puck where it’s going to be or if we'll have skated behind it.

Sugata shows us that learning is a natural thing; we don’t have to enforce it, we only need to give it the conditions in which it can flourish. Robinson shows us that one-size does not fit all; simply repeating a process does not produce (let alone guarantee) the same outcome. The Finns remind us to focus on the learner as a person more than a predetermined menu of what is to be learned in what ways and in what quantities.  The world that we’re living in is showing us that journeys of personal learning can be more than a hope, but are indeed possible.

Luke Cable
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Pearson eCollege

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