Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the Whiteboard…” (Are you serious?)

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 8.49.07 pmOn the heels of my previous post about why some teachers fail to realise the efficiency gains of technology, Today I had a conversation with a teenager that went like this:

Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the whiteboard with my iPad.”
Me: “Are you telling me, they make you copy off the whiteboard with pen and paper?”
Student: “Yes”
Me: “How many of your teachers do this?”
Student: “All of them!”
Me: “Are you serious?”
Student: “They tell us that copying the board will help us remember and understand the information better”
Me: “And do you think it does?”
Student: “No, I’m usually not even thinking about what I’m writing; I’m just copying down the words”

I don’t buy for a moment that students will remember or understand information significantly better by copying! Telling that to students is as disingenuous as it is absurd! When I read the morning newspaper I don’t need to copy out the news stories in order to comprehend them! When researching a topic of interest I read relevant articles, maybe make a few notes and save them to Evernote for future reference but I don’t transcribe the articles in full onto loose leaf! What makes anyone think that copying paragraphs of text from the board will make students remember or understand? As you began reading this blog post, did the thought even cross your mind to start copying it out with pen and paper to aid your understanding? Of course it didn’t! That would be a prodigious waste of your time and would make little to no difference to your comprehension.

Let’s be honest – the real reasons teachers make students copy information from the board are:
(a) It pads out the lesson with busywork, so a very small amount of learning will use up an entire period (It reduces the teacher’s preparation time : class time ratio).
(b) It is the easiest way to “wing it” when a teacher hasn’t prepared a genuine and engaging learning activity.
(c) It keeps students seated, quiet and under control.

In 1989 copying information from the board was a practical way for students to collect a body of examinable subject knowledge to learn (i.e. memorise / encode), because schools didn’t have photocopiers, students didn’t have cameras, and nobody had Google.

In 2015, valid reasons for using a whiteboard might include sketching a diagram to answer an extemporaneous student question, teaching basic literacy skills (character formation, perhaps spelling) or to capture a group brainstorming session. A whiteboard is useful for that kind of thing. (And don’t be ridiculous – if your students have smartphones, let them take a photo, if it helps them!). But I can’t think of any good reason for entering class, with the intention of writing screeds of informational text on the board for students to copy like it were still 1989.

It’s a squandering of class time – a great example of wheeling technology, instead of riding it (to borrow the metaphor from my previous post).

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Teacher: “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”

A teacher said to me “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”.

What a strange thing to say! – I can’t think of any other professional occupation in which people feel that computer technology slows them down, gets in the way and makes their work less efficient? In other professions it reduces friction, increases productivity and saves time (and money).  That is why those industries least forgiving of inefficiency, are most invested in computer technology.

I don’t think the teacher I spoke to is alone, either (I think her feelings are quite common among teachers, actually). And what’s more, I don’t doubt that she is right! Technology probably does make her work less efficient. But that is because she’s doing it wrong.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 5.37.57 pmSteve Jobs said that a computer is like “a bicycle for our minds” meaning that it magnifies the efficiency of our thinking the way a bicycle improves the efficiency of our locomotion. I love that analogy – and I think it’s very true, but it does, of course, assume that you actually ride the bike (rather than wheeling it alongside while walking). In order to ride a bike, you have got to stop walking. You can’t do both. If you’re not prepared to give up walking, then the bicycle is a hindrance.

When teachers describe technology as a hindrance to their work, I say that’s because they are unprepared to let go of their old methodologies. Instead of “riding” technology, they’re “wheeling” it alongside their old teaching practices.

Why your school needs clearly defined social media policies

pinnacleIt’s not to stop teachers from doing the wrong thing with social media; It’s to give them confidence to use social media well, knowing there is no appearance of impropriety.

If there were no balustrade on the ‘Pinnacle’ lookout in the Grampians, very few people would venture to the edge to take in the arresting view.  The barrier gives hikers confidence to go further than they would otherwise dare, because their safety is assured.  The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

Is it appropriate for a teacher to reply to a student’s electronic message at 9:00 pm? 11:00 pm? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question, but I do think there should be a school policy about it.  If a student sends a text at 9:45 pm, and the school policy says 10 pm, a teacher can confidently reply, leaning against the balustrade of that policy.

I meet a lot of teachers who are reluctant to use “this website” or “that web 2.0 service” with their students for fear that doing so might make them the star of a story on 7’s Today Tonight (and not in a good way).  That fear can be soothed by creating well publicised, unambiguous and clearly defined policies.

Narcissus and the Selfie Stick

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.56.41 pmIn Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter, so good-looking that he didn’t consider any of his female suitors fair enough to be worthy of him.   One day he glimpsed his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love!  Unable to resist the charm of his own visage, he surrendered to his fate, sank into the pool and drowned.

If Narcissus were alive today, I reckon he’d carry a selfie-stick in his quiver.  I’m just saying.

A USB Thumb-Drive for Both iPad and Computer

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 1.30.49 pmIf you work with 25 iPad wielding students in a classroom, then you already know that sharing large video files between iPads or between iPads and computers comes with some friction.

Sure,there’s a festival of ways to transfer content from a student’s iPad to your computer or vice-versa, or from a student’s iPad to another student’s iPad.  (AirDrop, Dropbox, Instashare, PhotoTransfer WiFi, Email, just to name a few) but each has it’s limitations – especially if your school’s Wi-Fi is flakey or the internet is slow.

A Mobi My iStick in your pocket is a pretty neat solution. When you plug the iStick into your computer it behaves just as any USB thumb-drive would – because it is a USB thumb-drive.  But slide the slider over, and at the other end is an Apple-approved lightning jack that fits into the lighting port on a student’s iPad.  It’s the first USB thumb-drive that works with an iPad and it lets you copy files directly between iOS devices (whether or not they are your own) and computers, without needing Wi-Fi, bluetooth or an internet connection.

What’s Good:

Copying files to the device from a computer is as simple as can be.  Transferring those files to an iOS device is just as straightforward. When you plug the iStick into your iOS device, a pop-up message asks to use the iStick. You click Agree. The iStick app opens, you select the “iStick” tab and you can see all the files on the iStick, open them, move them to the camera roll etc.  You can even play movies on the iPad screen, directly from the iStick without first copying them to the iPad (Super if you are running out of storage space on your iPad!).

What’s Not:

On the iOS side, things are not quite as simple as they are on the computer. You need to install the (free) iStick app on every iOS device that you want to use the iStick with. Working with Photos and movies is straightforward enough.  Within the iStick app you see a “Photo Library” folder. That shows you all the Photos and Videos on your iPad, which you can then easily copy to your iStick.  For other documents, however, the process is clumsy and slow. You need to first open the document in the app that created it (say, Pages) then choose “Open in” and select iStick.  Then you need to open the iStick app (on the iPad),  select “iPad” (or “iPhone”), navigate to the inbox folder, select the file and chose to move it to the Documents folder (still within the “iPad” tab of the iStick app on the iPad).  THEN (if you haven’t given up by now) you insert the iStick USB thumb drive, navigate to the Documents folder in the iStick app, and choose to move the file from there to the iStick. Once you have done that, it’s simple to drag it off onto your computer as you would with any USB thumb drive, but the process of moving documents to the iStick is horrendous!

My advice:

  • If you want to shift large videos or photos between devices quickly and avoid doing this over Wi-Fi – this is a great solution.  It would allow your students to create movie projects on their individual iPads, and then you could pass the iStick around and they could all copy their finished product to it.
  • If you want to increase the storage space on your iPad – because perhaps you have a model with only 16GB – again this is a great solution because you can store movies on the iStick and still play them from there without first having to copy them back to the iPad.  If you were to move the videos off your iPad any other way (Eg. upload them to Dropbox) you would then have to re-download them before watching them!
  • If you are travelling, and want a way to back up the photos and movies you are taking – or to transfer them from your iPhone to your iPad in the absence of Wi-Fi – it’s great!
  • But if you were hoping to use the iStick to conveniently shuttle all kinds of miscellaneous files – PDFs, text documents etc – between iOS devices like you are accustomed to doing with USB thumb-drives and computers … forget it!  Sure, you can move files that way. (It’s not that it doesn’t work, per sé) – but the process is so graceless that you’d be better off attaching your files to a self-addressed email!

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Do teachers need to make their own videos to flip their class?

Now that teachers can make use of the Khan Academy, Edrolo, and a smorgasbord of other quality content, Is there any reason for teachers to publish their own screencasts, videos and podcasts for their class? Isn’t that just re-inventing the wheel? That is a question I am asked frequently.

My answer is both ‘No’ and ‘Yes’.

No.  The most important aspect of the flipped classroom, in my opinion is NOT the videos or podcasts at all, but how teachers leverage and reapportion the class time that is reclaimed by relegating didactic instruction (where it is still needed at all) to a video or podcast. The fact that qualified teachers on Edrolo and other services have produced much of the content that needs to be covered, lowers the barrier to entry into the flipped classroom model.  So then, “I don’t know how to record a podcast” or “I don’t have time to make screencasts” are no longer valid excuses for continuing to waste valuable class time, standing at the front of the room ‘teaching’ recordable stuff.

Yes. We need to help students to see that despite their youth, they now have the ability to create their own quality, original content and publish it to a genuine audience, making an authentic contribution in today’s dominant media forms.  This is one focus that should be at the top of our list of things to reallocate class time to. I suggest that It is much easier (not to mention less hypocritical) to encourage students to publish their work to an authentic audience in video and audio if we are doing it ourselves.  And for a teacher, what more authentic audience do we have than our own students?

By all means, make use of the great work by other teachers – but supplement it with your own recorded lessons.  Show your students that when you tell them about the disintermediation of publishing (that in 2015 anyone can publish and have a voice), you yourself are walking the talk.  Don’t be surprised if your students find your videos more engaging and personal than the off-the-shelf ones, too.

An Elegant File-sharing Solution for an iPad Classroom: Showbie

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Showbie works on an iPad and on a computer in a web browser. The functionality is the same, except that there are no annotation/drawing tools in the web browser version.

Showbie is a very simple but very effective and robust paperless iPad classroom solution. I like it.

In an iPad classroom, there are dozens of effective ways to share files back-and-forth with your students.  Some of these are free, some … less free.  They tend to fall into two categories. In the red corner there are the LMS-type solutions (Edmodo, Schoology, Stile, Chalkup) and in the blue corner, simple shared-folder solutions (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive).

Showbie is a bit different. It falls somewhere in between.  Much more capable than a shared folder, but without the feature-bloat of some LMS solutions, and with a really nice, super-simple, elegant user interface.

My Recommendation: I would recommend Showbie to any iPad class teacher who wants to go paperless, but doesn’t want to manage his/her class through a full-blown LMS.

When you sign up for a free teacher Showbie account, and create your first class, you are given a class code (much like the join code in Edmodo or Schoology).  When your students sign up for a free student account, they will enter that class code and instantly be listed in your class.

Within your class you can create “Assignments”.  In each “Assignment, you will see a “Shared Folder” and a folder for each of your students. Students will not see the shared folder. When you want to hand out (say) a worksheet, you put it in the Shared Folder and it instantly appears in each student’s folder on his/her iPad.  If students upload a file to their folder, you can see it in their folder on your iPad. In this way, you can “hand out” a document to the whole class, but when they “hand in” a document, it is not shared with other members of the class – just with you.  Of course if you want to share a document with just one student you can do that by putting it into that student’s folder directly rather than the “Shared Folder”.  It’s effective because it’s simple. It’s simple because it’s a direct metaphor for what you would do with real paper.

One of the great features of Showbie, is that if you hand out a document (say, a test or worksheet) students can open it right there in Showbie, and use the pen tool to write on the sheet.  When they save it – it is in their folder and you can see it.  Then of course you can open it, do your correction, and instantly they see it – still in their folder! It’s very elegant.


Drawing/writing in Showbie is quite responsive. A free account gives you ten colours to use and one pen width. A pro account provides an additional 4 pen widths. I drew the drawings on this worksheet and wrote the answer at the bottom, using the free pen width. I’d prefer a thinner one, but it’s OK.

Alternatively, of course, (if the simple markup tools in Showbie are not good enough for some reason), a student can open the document in any other app on the iPad (Notability, NoteShelf, … whatever) and do what they want to it, and then re-upload it to his/her Showbie folder for the teacher to see.

You can use Showbie on a computer too, via a web browser. This works very well except that you can’t write directly on the documents in the browser version.  It’s fine for uploading documents, writing messages to students, etc. but you will want to pick up your iPad to do your correction.

Overall, I think it’s a much more effective way to share work with students than using Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive and if you find you are using Edmodo or Schoology mainly for sharing documents and are not using all the other features it provides – I think Showbie is a cleaner, simpler option.

A basic Showbie account is free (and is probably good enough for many teachers).  Or you can upgrade to “Pro” for US$10 / month if you are trying to spend your faculty budget before the end of financial year.

Typing Subscripts on an iPad

1856315296-roundedWith the release of iOS8 Apple allowed third parties to make keyboards that can be installed on your iPad.  If you are a science teacher, or for some other reason need to type subscripts or superscripts, one of the easiest ways to do this now, is to install Chemistry Keyboard ($3.79)  Whenever you need to type a chemical formula (in any app), you can click the globe icon (to the left of the space bar in the default keyboard) to switch to Chemistry Keyboard.  Within Chemistry Keyboard, if you press and hold on a number key, a pop-up gives you the option for superscript and subscript variants of the number. Slide your finger to the one you want, and it’s inserted at the cursor. Simple.  Tap the globe icon again, and you are back in the default Apple keyboard.


How to record or present your iPad screen without wifi

It is now possible to display your iPad to a projector screen using the white charge & sync cable that came with your iPad.

There are many ways to display (or record) your iPad to your class over wifi – but in my experience they’re all pretty flaky.

X-Mirage, AirServer, Reflector, AirParrot, Doceri, AppleTV… etc —They all rely on both your iPad and your computer (or AppleTV) being connected to the same WiFi network.  That’s probably fine in your own classroom but it won’t work if you go to a conference or a colleague’s school.  Even when it works I find it kludgy. If one or other of your devices drops it’s wifi connection for a second (not uncommon), your display will freeze.  Also if the WiFi network is being taxed heavily there is often quite a bit of lag – especially for video or graphics intensive apps. Also some apps don’t mirror faithfully over Wifi – nor even if the iPad is directly connected to the projector with a $60 lightning-VGA cable.  For Example, NoteShelf or Penultimate, when connected to a projector directly or via wifi, don’t show the tools palette.


My Preferred Solution

It’s now possible to display your iPad to your class by connecting it directly to your Mac using the lightning-USB cable (the same one you use to charge your iPad).  Once your iPad is connected to your Mac, launch QuickTime Player (in your Applications folder). From the File menu Choose “New Movie Recording”.  This will open a movie window and show your web cam.  If you hover your mouse over the window you will see a floating recording palette.  Next to the record button, there is a small white V icon.  Clicking that will let you select your iPad as the camera source!  Of course you can record it if you want to – but you don’t have to – you can just use it to show your screen to the class.

The Advantages

  1. Unlike using a wifi connection, the display won’t drop out if the wifi connection drops for a moment.
  2. Unlike using a wifi connection, there is no lag – It’s super-responsive.
  3. You can use it anywhere – you don’t need an internet or even wifi connection.
  4. When using QuickTime Player, your class sees exactly what you see on your screen even in apps like NoteShelf and Penultimate. That is not possible using any other method.
  5. It costs nothing – unlike using a lightning-VGA adaptor ($59)
  6. Unlike using an adaptor to connect your iPad directly to a VGA cable, the lightning cable is light and flexible – so you feel less tethered to the desk and the cable is less likely to fall out (though compared to wifi you still can’t walk around the room), obviously.  That’s the one disadvantage.
  7. Unlike using an AppleTV or lightning-VGA adaptor, you can easily switch back and forth between your iPad and Mac – or display them both at the same time.

The Limitations

  1. This only works if you are using OS X.10.10 Yosemite.  It didn’t work on older versions of OS X.  Nor does it work with the Windows version of QuickTime.
  2. This only works with iPads that have a lightning connector (not the older 30-pin dock connector).  Ie. It works with iPad Air, iPad 4, and all iPad minis. It also works with iPhone 5 or later.

Handwriting on an iPad – My Recommendations for Apps and Styli


IMG_5617Two years ago, I wrote this post about my search for the best handwriting tools for the iPad.  I reviewed both software (notebook apps in which to write), and styli (pens with which to write).

In summary, I recommended Noteshelf as my app of choice, and the Adonit Jot Flip Stylus as the best stylus.

Twenty-four months later, have I changed my mind?

Yes and no.

First, the Apps.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 5.38.40 pmMost of the apps I reviewed have been updated and improved since I wrote that post.  I still think Noteshelf is the best of them. It is still much the same as it was but has made significant improvements.  The most notable improvement is that there is now an option to create notebooks that automatically sync with Evernote (as Penultimate did two years ago).  Unlike Penultimate, though, you can turn this feature on or off on a per-notebook basis.  I have one notebook that automatically syncs to Evernote. I use that one for quick notes, detailing phone conversations, etc.  It works great.  All other notebooks I prefer to sync manually when I am ready to sync, rather than continuously in the background.

The other feature I previously wrote about preferring in Penultimate, was the way it handles cut and paste using a lasso-drag-tap feature.  It’s incredibly cool and useful. Noteshelf now has that feature too.

I still think Noteshelf is the most responsive and accurate notebook app, with the best set of features. Not the cheapest (Penultimate and some others are free) but the best – even more clearly so than it was two years ago.

Second, the Styli

I still love the Adonit Jot Flip – and it’s still the stylus I turn to when I want to scribble notes on my iPad.  It’s just fantastic. It does have two significant shortcomings though.

  1. It really is not an appropriate choice for kids – because that little clear plastic disk is just too easy to break/lose. So is the screw-on cap.
  2. It’s no good if you are using a stylus to record a screencast in an app like Explain Everything, Educreations or Collaaj, because the app records the ‘tap-tap’ sounds of the hard plastic disk striking the glass and it’s quite distracting.

I’ve  tried a number of new styli since writing that original post.  Most significantly, I bought the Evernote edition Adonit Jot Script stylus (for more than AU$119), which features a fine nib – the idea of which really excited me.  More recently I’ve tried the Edugrip App Pencil.

Adonit Jot Script

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 4.50.42 pmI hate it.  If you are thinking of buying one of these, my advice is to borrow one and try it out first.  Maybe it’s just my handwriting style or something, but I find it laggy, unresponsive and inaccurate.  It requires AA batteries, needs to be switched on each time I want to use it, and needs to be synced via Bluetooth LE to the iPad.   I find the experience annoying, and my handwriting is not even nearly as neat as it is in any other stylus I’ve used! That’s just too much compromise to make for a fine point. Plus there is no pocket clip, no ball-point pen in the back, and compared to the Adonit Jot Flip, it feels cheap and plasticy, and it’s more than twice as expensive! Like the Adonit Jot Flip, it makes an audible “tap” when it touches the glass, so it’s no more appropriate for use in screencasting.  I never use it for anything.  I only keep it so I can show people who are thinking of buying one why they shouldn’t.

App Pencil

IMG_5606This stylus is a new offering, with an unashamedly educational focus.  The App Pencil is actually quite great for its intended market.  It’s basic, robust and inexpensive ($15).

It features a triangular transverse section (like those big grey-lead pencils kids use when they are learning to write) and the material is a sort of dense rubber – so it’s super-comfortable to hold.  It is all in one piece; there is no cap to lose, no plastic disk to break off.  “Unbreakable” and “Child” are two words that can’t be used together.  Nothing can withstand a determined kid, but i think this is about as resilient as a stylus could be expected to be!

What I really like about the App Pencil though, is that writing with it feels surprisingly good.  Most styli I’ve tried that have a rubber tip like this, are hard to write with because the rubber drags over the glass and feels blunt and numb.  I liken it to writing with an eraser. But the App Pencil feels better than most; it slides relatively smoothly over the glass.

Like all styli with blunt, rounded tips, it’s hard to form small characters (because you can’t see the point on the screen where the line is being formed) but for typical note-taking, diagram labelling, etc., it’s a pretty good experience.

The App Pencil has a rubber loop at the back end, that could be use to tie it with a string to the iPad (assuming the iPad has a case that provides something to tie it to).

I wish App Pencil were triangular along it’s entire length, so that it wouldn’t roll, but the ends are circular in transverse section, which means that it easily rolls across the desk.  (not that it will break, though, it just bounces when it hits the floor).

Edugrip claims that the App Pencil works with all Apple and Android tablets except the iPad Air.  That said, I have an iPad Air and it seems to work just fine for me.

It will be the stylus I use when screencasting with Explain Everything.  I’d also recommend it to any teacher planning to booklist a stylus for students to use at school.