Tuesday, February 18, 2014

QR Codes

QR Codes present an interesting tool for use in the classroom, but I fear it is ultimately a limited application (at least in the present). While they're certainly useful for imparting basic information, there's a considerable limit to their versatility. First, each student has to have a smart device able to read QR codes; while many schools are beginning to deploy iPads to students, there is still a ways to go before every student has a chance to take advantage of these devices.

More notably, QR codes seem to be made for convenience, but I don't know that they save that much time compared to other less demanding alternatives. Certainly, QR codes could be posted at points around the school to provide information instantaneously, but just how much of an improvement is that over having a goo.gl link or (to go really old school) simply posting a sign? While it's true that QR codes can link to a persistent page updated regularly with new information, a URL serves the same purpose, and in addition to being accessible to smart devices with a QR code reading app, they can be accessed by any student with access to the internet. They would still have to type in a url (albeit a shortened one), but that's not a very significant difference in time taken, especially given the less-than-superlative abilities of many smart devices' cameras and the constantly increasing comfort and typing speed of students. Furthermore, a link could be stored in a browser's memory, so it could be as simple a matter as typing the first few characters and selecting the suggested URL for regularly used pages (a school lunch menu, daily classroom information, etc). While QR codes certainly work for their intended purpose, in my opinion they sacrifice universal utility in favor of a distinctive gimmick.

That's not to say, of course, that a classroom where students are equipped with smart devices couldn't put this to effective use. Especially in lower-grade settings, where students are more likely to be taken with an effective gimmick and eager to use it, they can be a quick way to get students more engaged with the proceedings. However, given the relatively short shelf-life of novelty among children this appeal should be weighed against the difficulties inherent to the use of QR codes.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

New Resources

This past week in our class, we reviewed a great number of online resources that could be greatly helpful in the classroom. Of all those we looked at, two stood out to me: Wordle and Plant Hunters.

Wordle, an online word-cloud generator, takes any written work submitted by the user and generates a visually-appealing word cloud, with more commonly-appearing words placed more centrally and in a larger font size. While this might seem at first to be a somewhat pointless endeavor, there are a number of different ways in which this tool could be applied to an educational setting, especially in the context of my favorite subject, history. For example, you could create word clouds from several speeches given by different notable figures of a given time period, and then ask the students to determine, from what phrases are most common in the speeches given, the likely political leanings of the person speaking and, more directly, who they think the individual giving the speech was. In this way, they can come to understand a distilled version of the views various historical luminaries held, aiding in their comprehension of past events.

Plant Hunters is a very different type of resource, but it still serves as a very useful tool. This website, created by the New York Botanical Gardens, offers a virtual tour of their collection, giving students a chance to view plants that they might not encounter otherwise. Of particular note is the fact that, rather than superimposing the virtual tour over photographs of the gardens, this website features charming drawn graphics. This draws away some of the difficulty of working with photos in a virtual medium, while still making it easy to identify specific plants.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Symbaloo, a website that states that it allows users to "access [their] bookmarks anywhere", presents a unique educational opportunity. The educational iteration of this website is geared toward teachers sharing information with students and students communicating with each other.

The basic function of the program is to function as a web-based catalog of links, bookmarks, content, and the like attached to individual logins. Using this service, the non-educational version of which bills itself as an alternative to iGoogle, it's possible to easily share online resources and access them from any web-capable machine, provided you have the account information. This makes it that much easier for users to work efficiently at home, on the go, at work, and in the classroom.

In a classroom with substantial web involvement, this is an invaluable tool. For research assignments, teachers can provide students with resources to aid their search; in group projects, the ability to directly share internet content with peers is invaluable, particularly when students don't have ample opportunity to meet in person.

As an educator, particularly as an aspiring history teacher, one use I can see would be allowing a great deal more student-driven learning. For example, it is my opinion that, while history obviously has the linear element of time to serve as an organizational yardstick, there need not be any particular emphasis on adhering strictly to this framework. Using Symbaloo or a similar site, it would be possible to teach events during (for example) the 1900s by posting links to resources covering different events, such as the Theodore Roosevelt presidency, the aftereffects of the Spanish-American War, and the Triangle Fire. Each link could be clustered with sub-links detailing issues related to the main topic or providing additional exposition, and students could simply be set loose on this page, going through events in order of interest or following up on particularly interesting bits of information. this would be an engaging, effective way to have students obtain information they can use to gain an effective understanding of the general tone of the era, and how these events affect their lives today.

For students doing work on projects, the ability to share information in this way is incredibly useful. First, it makes it easy for students to find resources located at school on computers at home to work on assignments or projects. Beyond that, it greatly eases group collaboration. Instead of having to direct group members to each new item or bit of information, students can share discoveries easily and painlessly. Furthermore, if they're presented with a setup like I discussed above about educator applications, they could modify the initial resources, adding new helpful tools or moving less helpful ones to the periphery. The ability to present a large quantity of information without applying one's own interpretation makes this an incredibly useful tool both for individual and group work.

Monday, February 3, 2014

From Chalkboards to Tablets

The article “From Chalkboards to Tablets: The Emergence of the K-12 Digital Learner” goes to great length to discuss the increasing technological savvy of students. In particular, by showing the increased proliferation of student-owned smartphones and other internet-capable devices, the article illustrates that students have become dramatically more comfortable with internet communications technology as that has become more mainstream. More and more, students are becoming disillusioned with the current state of education, as it seems to be stuck in the past. Students quoted in the article lament the lack of a digital element to their education, seeking the inclusion of resources such as online discussion boards and celebrating the use of technologies like Google Drive to collaborate more efficiently. It’s interesting that, in the past, many predicted that the best use of technology in education would have been in enhancing lectures or otherwise building onto one-directional education techniques. Contrary to that past opinion, the brightest future in technology as applied to learning is in the field of collaboration, giving students a greater ability to bounce ideas back and forth and learn cooperatively more effectively than ever. 
Of course, this technological revolution is not without its downsides. The increasing number of internet-savvy (or, as the article calls them, “digital native”) students means that teachers will have to constantly strive to stay one step ahead of students. While the web provides a great educational resource, it also serves as a source of infinite distraction. Schools will need to work to ensure that, even as they allow increased use of the internet and technological devices, they can keep students on task and focused, instead of giving them free reign to browse youtube, catch up with their favorite tv shows, or play games. As the article points out, students are becoming more and more interested in including online content and other technological innovations as a part of their educational experience, and it’s inevitable that the school system will move in that way. However, even with the many benefits of this innovation, it’s important to keep an eye out for weaknesses in the new technologies and to have contingencies in place for when those weak points become issues in the classroom.