The path to appiness

10th February 2012 at 17:26
Jan Webb, TES ICT subject lead, casts an expert eye over the apps available for pupils and teachers

Handheld devices are becoming part and parcel of our everyday lives, whatever platform or operating system they are based on and whether they take the form of phones, tablets or iPods.

We see restless toddlers sat in supermarket trolleys given iPhones to play with in order to keep the peace, and it seems there is an app for everything, even for making The X Factor a more interactive experience. But what about their role in education? Are app-based learning methods sustainable, or will the wheels fall off the bandwagon in a couple of years' time?

These "small" downloadable programmes are often free or inexpensive and make life easier, more efficient - and more fun. Tools such as Evernote, OneNote, Write 2 and Lecture Notes are being used by students at local colleges as they take notes on their iPads at lectures - not to mention recording them with Dragon Dictation, iTalk or Audio Class Notes.

Alessio Bernardelli, a science teacher from Cardiff, is a big fan of iMindMap, an app that allows students to effectively organise and develop their ideas.

Teachers are also taking advantage of tools that make their administrative and assessment tasks easier. MIS apps, such as SIMS Emerge, mean that registration and emergency contacts can be accessed anywhere. Assessment evidence can be gathered unobtrusively and seamlessly as teachers move around the classroom with tools such as Classdroid and Townfield Primary School's Assessing Pupils' Progress app.

Even student behaviour can be recorded and rewarded with apps such as Vivo Miles or Class Dojo, a new web app being used by Kristian Still, an assistant headteacher from Southampton: "An amazing classroom tool. It will really inform what I say at parents' evening."

It was great to see good behaviour in a school I visited being rewarded by a bit of goofing around with Talking Tom! But games are also being harnessed for learning. Angry Birds, with its forces and trajectories, provides a fun context for physics, while Puppet Pals enables learners of all ages and abilities to create their own animations to tell stories and share what they are learning in an imaginative way.

Students at Community School in Cornwall created Etable, an app for keeping track of their two-week timetable and making notes about tasks and assignments, while an award-winning project at Strode's College in Egham saw the students of teacher Jennifer King designing apps for visitors to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Special educational needs students are accessing a wealth of tools and materials that previously required expensive and specialised equipment on cheaper devices such as the iPad. For example, the alternative augmentation communication aid, Proloquo2Go, is used by many.

The versatility of the equipment means that the tools become part of learners' digital lives rather than expensive, intrusive and obvious extras. Bev Evans, TES School Awards' Resources Contributor of the Year, uses a range of specialised dyslexia apps. She also uses AutismXpress to help autistic children recognise emotions through facial expressions. All in all, it seems that apps are bringing a new dimension to aspects of working - and living - with SEN pupils.

Apps can improve engagement and make learning and assessment more efficient and portable, although the cost of the hardware is in danger of creating a two-tier system, with the gap widening between the haves and the have-nots. If schools are unable to invest in devices, will parents be asked to foot the bill? If students provide their own, what are the implications for school infrastructure costs and monitoring for appropriate use? Even if the cost becomes less prohibitive, there is a huge spread of teacher confidence and competence that will need more professional development to ensure successful integration.

The challenges ahead are to harness apps meaningfully and equitably in the classroom: it's not so much the tool but the way it is used that benefits our learners. But I'd be very surprised if the wheels start falling off this bandwagon - apps seem set for a bright future in our classrooms, as well as in our everyday lives.


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