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Get Smart!

Using mobile apps to improve your teaching.

by Tim Walker
It was only a few years ago that cell phones were being banished from classrooms. As far as school districts were concerned, these devices’ reputation as tools for student distraction, mischief, and even harassment easily outweighed any possible benefits in the learning process.

Banning them was—and, in many districts, still is—the easy call to make, but as cell phones have become more sophisticated, powerful, and even more entrenched in students’ daily lives, a growing number of schools have decided to open the door to what are, essentially, mobile computers.

“Educators can’t afford to be behind the 8-ball anymore,” says Mike Pennington, who teaches world history at Chardon Middle School in Chardon, Ohio, and blogs about classroom technology at Teachers for Tomorrow, a website he co-founded with colleague Garth Holman. “Schools need to embrace mobile technology and mobile learning. Students live in this world. These devices belong in the classroom.”

According to some estimates, smart phones, and to a lesser extent tablets like the iPad, will be in the hands of every student in the United States within five years. And as more schools embrace mobile learning, the number of education apps—mobile applications that run on your smart phone—are skyrocketing.

“Soon everybody—and a lot of educators—will be using smart phones or tablets loaded with apps,” says Samantha Morra, a technology teacher in Montclair, New Jersey, who uses iPads and iPod Touches in her classroom. “They won’t just be for the so-called ‘tech-savvy’ teacher.” (See video below for how Morra uses technology in her classroom.)

Video: Digital Technology in the Classroom

Morra urges educators to discover how their mobile device can help them with their teaching, even if they—or the school—remain reluctant to fully integrate them with the curriculum.

“There are countless apps for every subject area,” Morra says, “but there are also many that can help teachers with organizing, increasing productivity, or planning lessons.”

Many are free—or at least very cheap.

So, if you have a new smart phone—that is, a “mobile learning device”—or are about to buy one, here are some apps to help you in the classroom. Unless otherwise noted below, the app is available in multiple operating systems and can be downloaded to your phone through Apple's App Store, the Android Market, or from their company's website.

Like a digital file cabinet, Evernote allows you to create and organize notes, outlines, lesson plans, etc. in one place. You can also tag specific lesson plans with specific subjects or topics. Another note-taking app is Simplenote, which is unique because your notes are synched to your simplenote account and accessible from any computer. If you're looking for something basic, without a lot of bells and whistles, you might want to check this out. 

Drop Box
Free up to 2 GB; upgrade to 50 GB costs $10 a month
If you’re tired of emailing documents back and forth between school and home and you’re sick of wearing that pesky flash drive around your neck, check out DropBox, an easy and effective tool to share and synch files from your mobile device.

Mobile Mouse Pro
For iPhone, iPod, and iPad; RemoteDroid serves the same function for Droid phones
Each has a free basic version; otherwise $1.99 for iPhone, $2.99 for iPad
Mobile Mouse Pro turns your mobile device into a remote control for your interactive whiteboard and computer, so you can move freely about the classroom during lessons without the need for keyboard and mouse.

EduTecher puts the best online tools and reviews of educational websites right on your mobile device. Use this app to access great content for all subject areas, watch EdutecherTV webisodes, and share links with colleagues or students.

iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad
Attendance was developed two years ago by David Reed, a professor of computer science at Ohio’s Capital University, to streamline keeping attendance. He’s been tweaking the increasingly popular app ever since. It’s a cinch to choose a class, add a new date, and check off which students are present, absent, or late. You can e-mail yourself the data as a spreadsheet, or use the flashcard function, which allows you to choose a student at random to answer questions or help you match faces with names.

iPhones / iPod Touch
Gradepad allows users to evaluate students on the go. You can easily input and manage grades for an unlimited number of individuals, using either standard rubrics that come with the program or your own criteria that you create on the Gradepad website and upload. Once you’ve recorded student scores and your own comments, you can track specific students’ performance, export your data, or share rubrics with other teachers.

iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad
For administrators and hall monitors, having a student's information such as his or her class schedule or emergency contact information can be crucial information in the case of an emergency or if a student is just wandering the hallways. The iScheduleFinder app provides access to student information without having to call the front office. An added bonus: the information is still available on a mobile device, even if your school has a power or network outage.

Hot Seat for Teachers
iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad
Developed by a teacher for teachers, the Hot Seat for Teachers app makes learning students' names easier at the beginning of the school year by matching pictures with names. You can also use the app to create a random list of students to call on, to ensure the same students don't always answer.

Skype, the Internet voice call software, has been available for mobile devices since 2009 and has a wide fan-base among educators. What better way for you and your students to communicate with colleagues from around the world, free-of-charge? (See how Skype allowed an illustrator/author to remotely conduct a drawing lesson for students. And check out the free e-book The Super Book of Web Tools for Teachers to access a chapter on using Skype in the classroom.) Also, Skype is working on a free online directory to help teachers around the world find each other. You can pre-register here.

How Stuff Works
iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad
Produced by Discovery Communications, the HowStuffWorks app provides more than 30,000 articles, podcasts, and videos from subjects that range from technology to history to English literature and everything in between. Student stump you with a question? Look up the answer at your convenience with this app. You can also use it to assist your lesson planning and teaching or for instructional entertainment.

Read it Later
iPhone; iPad
Educators are constantly being bombarded with web links and resources and as busy educators, who has time to read them all? Read it Later allows you to save web pages for offline viewing—accessing that great online lesson plan right before class—to be read at your convenience without any wireless network.

Tales 2Go 
iPhone, iPod, and iPad only
A one-year subscription costs $25
Elementary school educators, this one's for you. It's not inexpensive, but you can try it out for free for a 30-day trial period to see if it's worth the annual $25 subscription fee. An audiobook app, Tales2Go's motto is “Storytime, Anytime” and offers a wide variety stories and songs appropriate for grades K-8, streamed instantly to your mobile device and shared with your class via speakers. More than 1,300 audio titles are available.

Quick Graph
One of the most popular apps among math teachers, Quickgraph is a free graphing calculator that allows you to plot up to three equations simultaneously. You can zoom in on your graph, or drag and rotate it, and it comes with a library of the most commonly used equations.

In Ohio, Going Mobile and Loving It

St. Mary’s City Schools in St. Mary’s, Ohio, is one of a handful of districts in the country that have welcomed mobile learning devices in its classrooms, handing one out to every 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grader since 2008.

For educators like Scott Newcomb, a 4th-grade teacher at St. Mary’s Intermediate School, embracing mobile technology is necessary and smart.

“We’re talking about mobile computers, not smartphones, because that’s what they really are. I think once schools can understand that, we should see greater acceptance.”

Armed with their mobile learning devices (paid for through grants), St. Mary’s students and teachers are connecting in new ways. Third graders, for instance, use their devices to snap pictures on a museum field trip. On the bus back to school, they download and write about each picture, ready for the teacher to grade that evening.

GoKnow, the mobile software package St. Mary’s uses, loads students’ devices with apps for sketching, making maps, managing assignments and more. GoKnow allows teachers to easily create folders for each of their classes and create lesson plans, says Newcomb.

“Last year when we were using it, we were able to share information with all the teachers in the district,” he says. “I could share lessons with a teacher across town.”

St. Mary’s mobile learning initiative—the goal is to get a device in the hands of every grade 3-12 student—has generated buzz nationwide. Educators from across the country have visited the district to learn more about how it integrated the technology into the curriculum, not to mention how it navigated the necessary culture shift among staff, administration, and parents.

At the St. Mary’s website, you’ll find more information about the initiative, along with a wealth of resources on how mobile devices are being used in classrooms in the United States and around the world.

Below is a local news report about the project and the impact it's having on students.

Is There an App For ... ?

Currently, there are more than 100,000 apps available for download for smartphones and tablets and the education app market is booming. You can find all classroom-related apps for the iPhone and iPad in one place at the iTunes App Store. Good places to search for apps for the android operating system include Android MarketPhandroid, and 101 Best Android Apps in Education

To avoid the hype found on product homepages, head over to Educational Apps Review (iEar), a clearinghouse of reviews generated by fellow educators.

Lesson Plans

Scholastic has a collection of mobile learning lesson plans for science, social studies, and math.

DOE: Educators and Students Must Have Access to Mobile Technology

In November 2010, the Department of Education released its National Education Technology Plan, a detailed blueprint on how schools can improve learning with technology. Among its top recommendations is to leverage mobile devices ("the technology students already have") in the classroom.

Read the Executive Summary here.


A Student's Perspective

A teenager explains how his mobile phone is crucial to his education.