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iPad Apps for Accessibility and Learning

Posted on Mar 28, 2013

Paper pointing arrows at the words A,B,C, and D.In late February, eSchool News published an article titled “Seven new iPad apps to know about.” Of the seven, four in particular caught my attention as being useful for expanding accessibility on iOS devices, mobile learning, or incorporating technology in the classroom in a novel way.

Voice Dream Reader is “an iOS text-to-speech application that is giving students a more effective way to access text.” Essentially, under current conditions, iOS devices’ built-in text-to-speech technology does not always work. As a result, students may struggle when trying to take advantage of text-to-speech technology, become frustrated, and ultimately disregard what could be, for some of them, an invaluable learning aide. Voice Dream Reader addresses shortcomings in the devices’ text-to-speech technology in order to allow iOS devices to “read out loud an entire novel; pause, rewind, or fast forward when using voice over to take a test; or easily jump to different sections of the text.” Voice Dream Reader appears to be compatible with all of the most modern iOS devices, ranging from the iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 5, all iPod touch generations since the third generation, and the iPad, provided those devices are updated to iOS 5.0. The only downside to this app is the fact that there is a price tag of about $10 attached, although the app does seem to go on sale at times.

iSolveIt: MathSquared is an app that was developed by CAST, “a nonprofit research and development organization that works to expand educational opportunities for all individuals through Universal Design for Learning (UDL).” MathSquared is designed to help users develop mathematical thinking skills. the puzzles included in the app, are, interestingly, “not tied to any particular curriculum or content.” Consequently, the puzzles are suitable for a variety of ages and can help at practically all levels of math. MathSquared is also interesting to the extent that it is a strong demonstration of UDL principles, “which call for flexible, learner-friendly approaches.” MathSquared is to be used with the iPad and users need to have updated to at least iOS 6.0; the app is free to download.

Grammar Wonderland, developed by McGraw-Hill Education, is for grammar what MathSquared is for math. Grammar Wonderland allows users to “practice using nouns, verbs, adjectives, and more.” Like MathSquared, Grammar Wonderland is for the iPad, but it is slightly less restrictive in that your iPad need only be updated to iOS 4.2. McGraw-Hill may be worth watching if you are interested in learning apps, since it looks like they are preparing a “larger suite of educational apps.”

The final app to be discussed is ClassDojo. ClassDojo is apparently “a behavioral development tool helping teachers reinforce positive behaviors like risk-taking, helping others and honesty.” I think this is the first time I have ever seen risk-taking referred to as a positive activity, but I think you can understand what they’re trying to say. The neat thing about ClassDojo is that it is introducing technology into the classroom in a new way and it capitalizes on one of the big ideas behind online learning in that it “captures and generates data on behavior that teachers can share with parents and administrators and can give students real-time feedback while in class.” ClassDojo is compatible with iOS devices updated to iOS 5.1 or later.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

The difference between ‘Captain Underpants’ and ‘Harry Potter’.

Posted on Mar 28, 2013

Pieces of paper pointing at a brain.The New York Times article, “Learning-Disabled Students Blossom in Blended Classes” tells the story of boy with a learning disability switching from a traditional, private school to a blended school, PS 75 in Manhattan, New York. Not only did his behavior improve, but, “He’s gone from ‘Captain Underpants’ to ‘Harry Potter,’” his mother provides as evidence of his success. At the start, Jed didn’t even know there were other special education students in the classroom.

His mother describes the extra help he gets as, “invisible.” The classroom of thirty-one students is led by a collaborative teaching model – a general education teacher and a special education teacher. Together, they promote a more individualized education for the students, helping students both inside and outside of their specialty. This is important not only for the “invisible help”, but also because it allows all students, learning-disabled or not, to receive the extra attention they need.

The article doesn’t harp much on the benefits of a blended learning model as it does having a collaborative teaching team. It’s important to remember how much freedom blended learning gives students for learning and teachers for instruction. Without it, these teachers might butt heads during their lessons and the visibility factor for student’s modalities might change a bit.

The school’s website provides, “At PS75, children of all backgrounds and abilities learn together. This diversity fosters respect and tolerance and prepares students to be confident, responsible citizens of the community and the world.”

They hold true to this with their dual-language program, which places native English-speakers and native Spanish-speakers into one classroom. The goal is for each group of students to learn from, and help teach one another. PS 75 describes their program, “Many schools have transitional bilingual programs or ESL programs, which help non-native English speakers to transition into an English-taught curriculum, but PS 75′s dual language program is different in that it also encourages students who are fluent in Spanish to continue developing their native language as they learn English.”

I find this wildly innovative. As a native-English speaker and a German language student in college, I’ve come to the realization that my knowledge of the English language is a crutch. Studying German made me realize how weak my foundation of English is. I lean, too often, on what I know sounds right versus what I know is right. I truly envy this foreign language learning format. At PS 75, a second grade class is attempting to combine the dual-language program with their special education program. They explain, “One day they teach in English, the next Spanish. Every child gets a chance to shine; on Spanish days, Hispanic special ed children help out general ed children.” Overall, I think it’s important for any and all students to be given the chance to excel, to receive the extra help they need, and the extra attention they deserve.  PS 75 has found a combination of tools to make these things possible.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

STEM Courses: More engaging than they appear.

Posted on Mar 12, 2013

Pieces of paper pointing at a brain.Public school districts in Nashville, TN and Houston, TX have decided to incorporate STEM courses in their high schools. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses are growing in popularity in schools across the nation. STEM courses provide students with much needed exposure to fields of study commonly reserved for post-secondary education and specialized secondary schools. As blended learning becomes more and more prominent in schools today, STEM based courses are more easily implemented into lower levels of education.

These school districts chose to use STEM Fuse’s GAME:IT programs to implement the STEM courses. GAME:IT, the company describes, “was created and piloted by high school technology and business teachers. At its core GAME:IT is a computer programming course with a dash of physics, math and business mixed in – all taught through game design. What better way than gaming to get students excited about science, technology, engineering and math?” With varying levels of difficulty, students from grades six to twelve can participate.

We’ve talked a little about the advantages of using gamification in a blended learning environment, but I never considered it used in this sense – rather than just playing games to learn, they are designing them. With GAME:IT, students can easily design popular games similar to Pac Man or Pong. With each new rule they introduce or setting they tweak, they receive immediate feedback for their actions when they test the game. Learning these STEM based tools allows students see the real-world application of this kind of knowledge. As you’ll see below, for such technical fields of study, they certainly aren’t lacking in creativity.

As an added incentive, STEM Fuse invites students to compete against one another in their semi-annual GOT GAME? Competition. Check out the latest winners here. Digging around a bit more, I was able to find a couple of other very appealing STEM based competitions for students looking to dabble in those fields.

In an attempt to raise support for STEM education, the Army Educational Outreach Program funds an annual competition that challenges students in grades 4-8 to build the fastest, best looking, most functional solar powered car they can envision. Aldebaran Robotics invites students to enter into their annual Robotic Idol competition, a humanoid robot dance competition.  Check out this robo-rendition of the YouTube sensation, “Evolution of Dance” for an example of the kind of choreography made possible through studies in STEM.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

Mobile Courses

Posted on Mar 12, 2013

Paper pointing arrows at the words A,B,C, and D.Mobile devices are increasingly being used to supplement education at the K-12 level, but as Jan Quillen, writing for Education Week, reports, “There is one giant step K-12 virtual education has yet to take: the creation of online courses that can be completed entirely with a mobile device.”

If you have ever visited a favorite website on your mobile device only to find that the website does not function well on a mobile platform, you can begin to understand the issue. Youth are increasingly turning to mobile devices as the primary way to use technology and access the Internet. Desktops gave way to laptops, and now it seems that laptops are increasingly giving way to tablets and smartphones. In order to address this trend, course designers will have to begin to take into account what it will mean to design online courses for mobile platforms.

Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science and education at the University of Michigan, pointed out that “How you design the course will be fundamentally different. These people are going to be doing this in five-to-ten minute chunks. I don’t know that that’s the way most course designers are going to think about it.” Indeed, the ability to whip out a mobile device to use for the bus ride home or while waiting in line is one of the main reasons mobile devices seem so beloved. In order to tailor courses for mobile devices, then, designers must realize that users will not necessarily be setting aside half an hour or an hour to use their phone to learn.

Other complications include accomodating all screen sizes, varying keyboard layouts, battery life, reception, and data usage. Some tablets have sizeable screens that can accomodate a lot of visual information, but with most phones, screen real estate is limited. Similarly, some phones have miniature keyboards that slide out from under the screen, but many other phones and tablets have an on-screen keyboard. Course designers must take all of these factors into account in order to design effective online courses for mobile devices, and it is clearly a significant challenge to overcome.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

Idaho Khan Partnership

Posted on Mar 5, 2013

Paper pointing arrows at the words A,B,C, and D.In a partnership with Khan Academy, the state of Idaho is about to become the first state to engage in a “coordinated statewide effort” to implement online learning. Thanks to the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, Khan Academy will be providing content in 47 schools. The schools range from large districts, such as those in Treasure Valley, to small, rural districts, thus covering a wide variety of students.

As of right now, the plan is for Idaho schools to implement a flipped learning model. Video instruction from Khan Academy will serve as homework so that in-class time can be used for one-on-one learning experiences.

Previously, Khan Academy has worked with schools in California and recently partnered with Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim to translate classes into Spanish. This Idaho experiment, though, is the first of its kind. Khan explains that “Instead of a one-size-fits-all lesson, teachers will be able to focus their attention on specific students who are struggling while the rest of the class engages with materials appropriate for them.”

This effort could represent a key step in deciding whether or not it will be feasible to implement online learning programs on a wide scale for K-12 learners. If this experiment is generally found to result in success, it is likely that other states will attempt to replicate Idaho’s results. As of right now, Khan Academy is perhaps the only well-known provider of free learning materials, but if demands for materials increases, this could also change. The more success that states experience in implementing online learning programs, the more financially rewarding it will become for entrepreneurs to attempt to enter the online learning arena.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.