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Redefining the (digital) Classroom

Monday, September 5, 2011

Digitize to Improve, Not Just Because You Can

As we travel down the road to a digital school, I find that I frequently need to stop and reflect on the decisions we are making. A recent mistake I've discovered is digitizing just because you can. In this I mean that I have caught myself teaching an entire lesson, creating a new routine or utilizing a new app simply because it is "cooler" than the old fashioned method. However, upon further inspection, I find that the end benefit for the students is no greater than the "old" method. In fact, there are times I read a tweet or get an email about a new app or new use for the iPad, Promethean Board or laptop in the classroom - but then realize that this new method provides no improvement on what had been done before aside from novelty. Therefore, when making a decision on whether to digitize a component of my students' experience, or purchase a new app, I am continually reminding myself: If it doesn't make things better, is it worth it? Additionally, just because it's digital, doesn't necessarily make it better. While thus far most situations have proven that digitizing content and delivery yields improved learning experiences for my students, I know that this is not always the case and therefore a moment of evaluation is warranted.

This comes into play greatly when reconciling our curriculum with our iPads. In many ways, I have found that not only can iPads coexist peacefully with our school's curriculum programs, they often enhance or evolve them. As written in previous posts, I've used apps like Screenchomp (or ShowMe) and Keynote in concert with websites like Edmodo to push my students' mathematical thinking to new heights. However, there are times in which I come across into a fork in the road. These are the times when I have to decide between the curriculum and the technology. In most cases, I can envision a way in which they could be combined to improve each other... if the publishers and authors could create a digital enhancement of the program. However, I am separated from this solution by time (for the program to be developed and released) and money (to purchase this program). In the immediate meanwhile, I must determine how to best educate my students sitting in my classroom today.

One such example are the Everyday Mathematics math boxes. These practice problems, found in the program's daily lesson structure, have been carefully created and structured through years of research on math education. They serve the purpose of spiraled practice throughout the curriculum so that students receive repeated exposure to important concepts throughout the years. After I received the iPads, I found that differentiating spiraled practice opportunities with them could be extremely effective - using web-based programs such as Study Island and mathematics apps. Yet while I received the gift of expanded technology resources in my classroom, I did not receive the added gift of an expanded math block. Therefore, something had to give. Sadly - this was math boxes.

Recently I started worrying that by sacrificing the math boxes I was fatally wounding the integrity of my math program. Was my replacement activity - iPad-based spiraled differentiation - equal to or greater than the impact that the math boxes could provide? My selection of the apps and website targets was not research based, but did offer a level of differentiation and immediate feedback that the math boxes could not. I have experimented with the concept of using PDF versions of the math boxes and allowing students to use a program such as neu.Annotate PDF to fill them out and submit them - but then I am faced with yet another question. Would digitizing the math boxes improve them somehow, or would I be doing this solely to make them iPad-friendly? Once again, as I explore these questions I  keep the simple thought in mind: If it isn't making it better, is it worth it?

I haven't finished grappling with this question. I am going to try both for the time being - a mix of iPads and digitized math boxes -- mixed with some paper and pencil math boxes. I am going to look at variances of student performance, student engagement and my ability to provide meaningful feedback. I am also going to weigh the benefits of any successes or improvements with the time and effort it takes to digitize these experiences (vs. simply opening a math journal). I am working with my professional learning community / network to explore these questions, and more. My end goal is of course to ultimately effectively utilize the technology in my classroom and create the best possible learning experience for my students.


  1. This is such a great post. I just now read based on a link from one of your current posts. The heart of the matter truly is exactly as you explained, is using iPads just a novelty that only replaces paper and pencil or do they really transform learning? I'm struggling with tht in my classroom. We had iPads for the last three months of school but I'm about to start the year with them and I worried if I am transforming or just replacing. I do however, think engagement is also a huge factor. I'd love to know if you came to a conclusion on the th boxes. I teach 6th grade math and we have a similar section. Thanks for putting into words all the things I've been wondering about.

  2. I decided to have them do some of the math boxes using PaperPortNotes - a PDF annotation app - and spiral that way. It seemed to work!