Students Love Technology

Posted on August 08, 2011

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By now, it's a universally known fact that college students are obsessed with technology. One need only walk onto a college campus anywhere in America to witness the throngs of students typing away on laptops, swiping through menus on tablets, and chatting merrily on smartphones. One need only walk into a lecture hall to see the ominous glow of 400 Apple logos and the entranced, lit-up faces of the students diligently clicking behind them. But even though the fact that students love technology may be obvious, this fact had not been studied in depth - before now. Recently, key surveys were performed to gauge students' tech use scientifically - and the results are amazing. Not because of how much students use tech - this we already knew - but because of how much students use tech to aid their educations.

Textbooks of Tomorrow

Posted on September 27, 2011

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If you ask any college student how they feel about textbooks, he or she is likely to groan. A constant annoyance for most students, largely because of their hugely inflated prices, textbooks have been under a great deal of scrutiny in the media lately. A recent survey of college students conducted by the Student PIRGs found that 7 in 10 college students have passed on buying a textbook for financial reasons. When the prohibitive cost of crucial supplies is directly keeping students from learning, there is a problem. And many are starting to think that traditional textbooks' time as paradigmatic features of the institutional learning experience is almost up.

Luckily, and right on time, technology has swooped in with a highly desirable alternative. Digital textbooks, largely dismissed as a novelty only a handful of years ago, are roaring to the forefront of discourse on education, coinciding with the staggering ascent of Apple's iPad. 53% cheaper, on average, than new textbooks, e-textbooks don't just offer a price advantage; the new range of student experiences opened up by a digital textbook is simply enormous. Imagine charts and diagrams that come alive on the page - or the screen, as it were - and offer fully interactive options for exploration. Every illustration in a biology textbook can now be a video, of a tiger bounding through the jungle or an eagle swooping down upon its prey. All textbooks' associations with being dull and boring are dashed instantly. And this isn't the future; this is right now.

Of course, though the possibilities exist in the present, it's going to take some time before digital textbooks fully penetrate mainstream education. Other countries have already begun their promotion through legislation; South Korea, for instance, invested $2 billion last year to fully convert all of the country's textbooks to digital by 2015. An equally bold bill is being advocated in Florida right now to do much the same thing. But it is going to take large national measures before we can envision students walking around college campuses with nothing more than an iPad in their backpacks. Still, the students have spoken: the current model of textbooks is no longer meeting their needs. And when an industry fails to meet the needs of its consumers, that industry is forced to change.

Can Tech Save Education?

Posted on January 19, 2012

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Apple recently announced three new applications that will effectively revolutionize education around the world: iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and a new and updated iTunes U. For America, the world's largest economy, this means great things -- especially considering that the country's current educational practices are in deep water. Of 30 developed nations around the world, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science: a disparity that has politicians and educators baffled. Every 26 seconds a student drops out of high school in the States, but there is hope.

Studies from places like Maine and Ohio have shown that technology can save education. Students who have access to iPads and laptops in their classrooms perform substantially better than their peers without this technology, and with Apple's new platform for spreading free education to its products the real question we should be all be asking is: Can Apple save education?

This graphic attempts to answer that question.

41 Ways to Hack Your Classroom With Google+

Posted on December 03, 2012


Google is such a great resource for classrooms, and with Google+, it seems that the possibilities are endless. There are just so many different ways to go bigger, better, and faster in your classroom with Google+! Check out our list to discover 41 ways you can hack your classroom with Google+, and share your ideas for Google+ classroom hacks in the comments.

  1. Targeted sharing in Circles:

    Add students, colleagues, even parents to Circles in Google+, and you can make sure that the right messages get to the right group of people.

  2. Circles of group projects:

    Google+ Circles make a great solution for temporary communication between group project members. Students can create circles for the projects, then easily communicate and share resources. When the project is done, the circle can be closed.

  3. News gathering through Sparks:

    One of the coolest Google+ features for educators is Sparks, which allows anyone to get a constant feed of targeted news and resources that can be shared with the class, colleagues, and more.

  4. Specialized student hangouts:

    Teachers can create Google+ Hangouts for students who are at different levels of education, offering one for those that need assistance, and another for more advanced students.

  5. Finding out what's nearby:

    Google+ for mobile offers plenty of learning opportunities, with a Near By View that highlights Learning Commons opportunities.

  6. Lesson plan sharing:

    Teachers can share lesson plans, photos, links, and videos with students, parents, and colleagues that are in the right Circles.

  7. Creating location-related homework:

    Want your students to head to the science museum? Require that they visit and post their location check in on Google+.

  8. Keeping classroom parents involved and informed:

    With a special Circle just for classroom parents, you can keep them in the loop without having to get up close and personal as a friend on Facebook.

  9. Special guest invitations:

    Bring experts from around the world into your classroom by inviting them into a Google+ Hangout.

  10. Set up collaborative calendars:

    Just about every classroom could benefit from a shared calendar, offering updates on assignments, events, and other important dates at school and beyond.

  11. Create collaborative documents, too:

    Google+ users can benefit from the ability to upload, edit, create, and share documents, and the service is a great place to host projects that require collaborative work.

  12. Bringing Google apps to one place:

    Google+ brings integration for all of the other Google apps, including Gmail, Picasa, and Google Docs, so the service is a great way to get everything all in one place.

  13. Tracking participation with +1:

    The Google+ +1 is such a simple thing to do that teachers can use it to track which students are reading posts. Some teachers require students to +1 each post so that they can keep track of who is engaging on Google+ and who isn't.

  14. Downloading data when class is over:

    Google+'s Data Liberation feature isn't talked about often, but it's perfect for students who want to retain what they've learned while still enjoying privacy. With this feature, users can download and remove all of the information from all or part of their account, so when class is over, they can gather all of their information and then leave the Circle.

  15. Exploring a culture:

    Google+ can be used to study a city or country based on what's available through the service. Students can find YouTube videos, updates on local events, and highlight important people in the area.

  16. Host remote classes:

    For students who just can't make it to the classroom, Google+ Hangouts can bridge the gap, allowing them to participate without actually being there.

  17. Hangout review sessions:

    Before a big test, teachers can host a review session through Google+ Hangouts to help students who want a little extra review before the big day.

  18. Creating Circles for a specific topic:

    In addition to following Sparks, students can create Circles that allow them to follow a specific topic, getting updates from key pages and users within their scope.

  19. Boosting personal and professional networks:

    Teachers can connect with other educators to find and share resources within their network.

  20. After-class discussions:

    Students can take classroom discussions online after class, either connecting through Circles or by starting a Hangout for classmates to join.

  21. Sharing favorites from Google Reader:

    Teachers can share awesome entries from Google Reader through Google+.

  22. Peer education groups:

    Establishing Google+ Hangouts as a great place to connect with students for homework and tutorials can help your classroom come together and enjoy collaborative learning.

  23. Virtual show and tell:

    It might not be a great idea for a student to bring their six-foot snake to the classroom (especially on the same day another student brings in a beloved bunny), but the class can certainly enjoy the opportunity to do show and tell remotely with Google+ Hangouts.

  24. Teaching abroad:

    Using Google+ Hangouts, your classroom can literally be anywhere. One teacher is using Hangouts to teach English to students in India.

  25. Establishing virtual office hours:

    Teachers can let students check in with them during virtual office hours, offering a useful resource without actually having to go to school.

  26. Sharing student performances:

    You can share classroom performances and presentations within the community, and especially with parents, by adding them to Google+ Circles.

  27. Instant homework uploading:

    Students can turn in their homework from anywhere using Google+'s instant upload feature.

  28. Instant updates for parents:

    Google+'s instant upload is also great for parents, making it easy for teachers to send updates to them right away.

  29. Retain connections with former students:

    Circles for former students make it easy to stay in touch.

  30. An alternative to staff meetings:

    For teachers on the go, lots of time can be saved by using Hangouts as virtual staff meetings.

  31. Homework help Hangouts:

    Students who need a little extra help can log in to Hangouts hosted regularly throughout the week.

  32. Historical role playing:

    Your classroom can create fictional accounts for people from history, sharing the updates and ideas that they think the historical figure might like to share.

  33. Sharing book club discussions:

    Classrooms can bring together book lovers in Google+ Hangout discussions that can be archived and shared with the rest of the class.

  34. Discussion archiving:

    Enjoyed a particularly useful Hangout chat that you'd like to share with the class? You can record your Google+ Hangouts to bring to the classroom.

  35. Parent-teacher conferences gone virtual:

    For parents who can't make it to school in person for face to face conferences, Google+ Hangouts offer an easy solution.

  36. Google+ writing prompts:

    As teachers share interesting links, photos, quotes, or prompts, students can write their responses as comments and reflect on what their peers have said.

  37. Live performance viewing:

    Students may not be able to go on a field trip to a performance, but with Google+ Hangouts, they can watch and participate.

  38. Hangout reader's theater:

    Join up with other classrooms in Hangouts, and together you can put on a dramatic reading of plays, complete with discussions.

  39. Constant contact with Huddle:

    Google+'s Huddle feature allows teachers to send out a text to everyone in a circle group, remind students about a class cancellation, gathering everyone after a field trip, or just wishing them a happy weekend.

  40. Following educational talks:

    Students can enjoy talks from around the world, like the Zoo Atlanta Google+ Hangout.

  41. Creating a paperless classroom:

    For teachers going green or just cutting down on clutter, Google+'s document sharing makes it possible for your classroom to go paperless.

10 Top Schools Endorsing Free Online Learning

Posted on January 11, 2013


While there has overall been an enormous surge in the number of students who are pursuing degree programs and coursework online, in recent years there has been an increased focus, perhaps spurred on by the economic crisis, on providing high quality online courses free of charge. While these courses often can't be used toward a degree, they do provide students all over the world with the opportunity to learn, grow, and potentially even prepare themselves for the working world. Surprisingly, some of the schools getting in on the popularity of free online courses (and in some cases even pioneering the practice) are among the best schools in the U.S., if not the world. Here are just a handful of the great schools that are now offering, and encouraging others to offer, free online courses that anyone can use.

  1. Harvard University :

    Harvard launched a much publicized collaborative program with MIT in 2012 called edX, offering online university-level courses in a wide range of fields for no charge. The non-profit project has attracted a lot of attention and in its first semester more than 100,000 students signed up for free online versions of its computer science and public health courses. Harvard Law has also gotten in on the free online course game, and just this year announced that it will be offering a free course on copyright law to 500 lucky students, complete with certificates of completion.

  2. MIT:

    When you think of free online courses, the first name that comes to mind is probably MIT. MIT was one of the first to offer free online course content through its Open Courseware project, and in its collaboration with Harvard via edX will likely offer much more in-depth material in the form of MOOCs. Currently, MIT professors are offering four courses students can take through edX, covering topics like global poverty, chemistry, electronics, and computer science. edX was an outgrowth of MITx, a similar project that offered courses through just MIT. While similar, edX covers a much broader spectrum, allowing students to take courses from not only MIT and Harvard but also UC Berkeley, Georgetown, Wellesley, and the University of Texas.

  3. Stanford University :

    MOOC was perhaps the biggest buzzword in online education in the past year, and innovators at this school are largely to thank for that. Stanford academics were behind two of the biggest names in MOOCs today: Coursera and Udacity. Coursera, now a collaborative effort between Stanford and more than 30 other top universities, offers courses in a wide range of topics. At present students cannot get college credit for the courses, but can get certification that they've completed them, which could help in looking for work. Coursera was founded by Stanford academics Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, who've been awed by the support it has received so far. Another big name coming from the school has been Udacity, an outgrowth of a free computer course offered at Stanford in 2011 by professor Sebastian Thrun. Launched in 2012, the MOOC provider has since helped thousands of students learn about tech-centered topics from AI to web development.

  4. Carnegie Mellon University:

    Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative has been in operation for over a decade, offering free course materials that any student or teacher can use. Currently, there are 17 free courses offered through OLI, but more are planned for the future. OLI resources aren't just used by individuals; many colleges have also been integrating the features offered by Carnegie Mellon into their own hybrid courses, capitalizing on data-driven programs that track and push students not to just memorize material but to truly learn it. The results look promising, with in-house and exterior studies showing that students using the OLI model perform better than those who take traditional courses.

  5. University of Pennsylvania:

    The University of Pennsylvania is one of dozens of schools to offer courses through the MOOC platform Coursera. The school isn't just offering courses through Coursera, however; it has also pledged millions in investments into the company, which may just give it a firm foundation for success in the future. Administrators at the school said that the school felt compelled to take part in the online program because it was a chance to play a role in shaping the future of online educational technology. Currently, Penn is offering three different courses through Coursera, but there are numerous others planned, some of which may even count for course credit at certain schools around the globe.

  6. Columbia University:

    Columbia is no stranger to free online education; it created its own online education portal in 2000 called Fathom, that, while earning some major collaborators (the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press to name a few), never took off, folding in 2003. Despite this previous failure, as well as other early initiatives that didn't pan out (Columbia Interactive is another now defunct experiment in online education), the school didn't hesitate to join Coursera when the chance arose and pledged to begin offering online courses through the site in early 2013. Currently, the school has three courses listed on the Coursera site, ranging in topic from financial engineering to natural language processing.

  7. Johns Hopkins:

    Johns Hopkins has been offering open courseware through its Bloomberg School of Public Health for nearly a decade, but in just the past year has taken a major leap, now offering not only course materials but also lectures and evaluation through Coursera. While the content still focuses on public health topics, students can get a much more in-depth introduction to the courses regularly offered at Johns Hopkins, a leap that may just help many aspiring healthcare professionals become much more knowledgeable about serious public health concerns.

  8. University of Michigan:

    Another big-name school getting in on Coursera is the University of Michigan. In February of 2012, the University of Michigan offered its first free online course through the site. Called "Model Thinking" and focused on political science and economics, the course reached an impressive 50,000 students. Since then, the school has expanded its online offerings, now giving students the chance to participate in seven different courses from a wide range of departments on campus. Students can still take the "Model Thinking" course as well as those on Internet history, finance, science fiction, and computer vision.

  9. Princeton University:

    Along with Stanford, Michigan, and Penn, Princeton was one of the first big-name schools to sign on to work with Coursera. In September, the school delved into the world of free online education with three courses: "A History of the World Since 1300," "Networks: Friends, Money, and Bytes," and "Computer Architecture." Since then, Princeton has added four more courses that will take place in the Spring semester, as well as two more that have yet to be announced. Some of the professors participating have said that Coursera has not only allowed them to reach more students but to improve the educational outcomes of students on campus, as the flipped classroom model allows for more time to discuss topics and meet with guest speakers in class.

  10. Caltech:

    It makes sense that a school dedicated to the study of technology would wholeheartedly embrace online education, and that's just what Caltech is doing. The school has partnered with Coursera to offer a number of different courses. Last year, Caltech's Henry Lester taught a course on drugs and the brain and this semester students can sign up to learn about cosmology and economics. Before signing on with Coursera, Caltech offered a free "Machine Learning" course through its own website. With loads of students enrolled, it was an incredible success, which may have been a big part of the school's willingness to get on board with Coursera and experiment further with online education.

These are only a handful of the top universities that are endorsing free online courses. Others include Oxford, Brown, Emory, University of Virginia, Duke, John Hopkins, Berkeley, Rice, and Wesleyan, and the list is likely to grow further over the next year as MOOCs and other online courses become increasingly popular.

Digital Research: The Double Edged Sword

Posted on March 11, 2013
In the midst of the throes of the Internet age, we have more resources available to us than ever before in history—whatever questions we have can be Googled at the drop of a hat, and answers are granted within milliseconds. And as our Internet use goes increasingly mobile, answers are granted even more quickly, since there's no need to wait until a computer is near. Though all of these resources and information often allow us to be more knowledgeable, the instant gratification of the modern search engine certainly may pose some unhealthy research habits, particularly among students, for whom research abilities have a big impact on scholarly success. Today's students have grown up in the digital age, and are generally accustomed to having questions answered at the click of a button—but that doesn't mean they all know how to conduct meaningful, thorough research. Studies show that while a majority of students turn to search engines when conducting research, most of them are behind the times when it comes to utilizing keywords or smart search methods to retrieve the best possible results. Three in four college students monitored were deemed incapable of conducting a "reasonably well-executed" Google search, and for many educators, the concern is that while students do have a great deal of data at their disposal, most of them don't know the best way to access it.

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Digital Research Infographic

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Autism and Online Learning: A Guide for Teachers

Posted on April 05, 2013

Today, one in every 88 American children is on the autism spectrum. Autism affects more than 2 million people in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. But it hasn't always been this way. Statistics show a tenfold increase in autism in the past 40 years, and prevalence rates are increasing 10%-17% each year.

With autism on the rise, many schools struggle to meet the needs of autistic students. Often, autistic adults do not take the next step to go on to college or meaningful employment, even though they may be incredibly gifted. Letting students fall behind should not be an option.

If traditional classrooms struggle to effectively educate autistic students, what can online education offer autistic learners? Tech tools and virtual learning environments present an opportunity to better serve autistic students with flexibility and resources that are well suited to guide them in learning. The more educators learn about working with autistic students, the better equipped teachers and students will be for success.

The Needs of Autistic Students

Autism represents a broad spectrum of students, from high-functioning individuals to those with significant disability. "You've got some kids who are brilliant in one area and can't work at all in another area. There's really a range," explains autism consultant Lisa Jo Rudy. Each autistic individual is unique with their own set of needs, making it difficult for some educational programs to reach every student. But there are common characteristics that online educators should be aware of and work with, including anxiety and difficulties with attention, communication, and social interaction, as well as a need for multiple learning styles.

Strong feelings of anxiety are common among those with autism or Asperger syndrome. Researchers have found that more than 80% of children with autism have at least one anxiety disorder, and many young adults with Asperger syndrome feel intense anxiety, some to a point that requires treatment. Bullying, being put on the spot, time limits, and win-lose situations can be a source of anxiety for autistic students.

Communication abilities will vary among individual students, but all people with autism experience language and communication difficulties of some kind. Teaching Students With Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools identifies common language difficulties among autistic students, including a lack of eye contact, unusual gestures, a lack of expressive language skills, and a difficulty in changing topics.

Social interaction for autistic students can be a challenge, which makes it difficult for these individuals to participate in class discussions. Teaching Students With Autism explains that people with autism have difficulty reading body language and may not pick up on important social cues. They also typically have trouble understanding the perspectives of others.

Attention difficulties are also common among autistic students. They may find it difficult to give their attention to important concepts, instead focusing on insignificant details. A short attention span, and difficulty shifting attention from one stimulus to the next is also common.

Autistic students often need to be presented with a variety of learning styles. Stephen Edelson of the Autism Research Institute explains, "It appears that autistic individuals are more likely to rely on only one style of learning." That means autism educators will need to offer multiple learning styles — visual, auditory, and hands-on — to discover the method that works best for each student.

Success for Autistic Students Online

The benefits of online education can be life-changing for autistic students. One 17-year-old with autism, Daniel, found success participating in massive open online courses (MOOCs) with Coursera. Daniel took a modern poetry class from Penn, thriving in the exclusively online format. He and his parents discovered that the online learning system worked well with his social skills and attention deficit, and the rigorous academic curriculum required him to stay on task. Says Daniel, "I can't yet sit still in a classroom, so [Coursera's online offering] was my first real course ever. During the course, I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard of in special ed. Now I know I can benefit from having to work hard and enjoy being in sync with the world."

College student Ryan Fox has experienced similar success in online learning. For Fox, high school was distracting and stressful. He had trouble keeping up with teachers and had to start his school day all over again when he got home, relearning all of the information he didn't understand or hear the first time around. But when Fox was introduced to an online learning environment, it made him feel "very organized, calm, and safe." With online learning, he was able to find order and correctness, and knew what to expect, with no surprises and limited changes.

Where Fox struggled in traditional school, he thrives online. He's able to get his schoolwork done quickly and needs almost no accommodations. Says Fox, "When I was really little, I was curious and loved to learn, but then for a while I got so frustrated I forgot what that was like. I think any student who has certain needs and wants to rediscover his or her love of learning should try online learning. I really believe that in the future everyone will learn this way! We will all be able to learn from the very smartest people on Earth, and we will do it at our own pace every day. Our abilities will matter more than our disabilities."

How the Online Environment Helps Autistic Learners

Online learning can be a good idea for students with Asperger's or high-functioning autism. "For these students, open-ended time limits, the ability to repeat activities over and over again, and other modifications could be quite helpful," says Misty Jones, Board-Certified Behavior Analyst with Kids First Spectrum Services.

Studying online can remove elements of anxiety for autistic students. Although cyberbullying exists, online learning tools may allow autistic students to study without fear of negative interaction. The digital environment also offers the opportunity to remove anxiety triggers like being put on the spot and working within time constraints.

Autistic students can benefit from focused communication available in the online learning format. Many struggle to learn in a classroom environment where most communication is verbal. Online, autistic learners can benefit from visual tools, cues, and guided notes, as well as interactive and scenario-based learning. Autistic adult learners may also be more comfortable communicating online, especially through social media.

Online learning is also useful for catering to the social needs of autistic students. Communication is often more black and white, with limited social cues, and a lack of non-verbal communication that can be difficult to understand. Additionally, the typical discussion board format takes away students' pressure to respond immediately.

Educators can support autistic students' attention needs with clear, guided online instruction. In the online format, autistic students who may struggle with short attention spans and misplaced focus can be carefully walked through concepts in a step-by-step guide that emphasizes the most important information.

The online learning environment also offers the ability to teach the same material in multiple ways for a variety of students. As autistic learners typically benefit from learning in one specific style, each lesson should be available in multiple formats to allow students to choose the learning method that they can use best, whether they're visual, auditory, or hands on. This is difficult in the traditional classroom but possible online. Educators can offer lectures in audio or video, written text, or even in step-by-step interactive guides, all in one learning hub.

Additional benefits of online learning for autistic students include the ability to repeat learning materials and interactive elements over and over, flexible course offerings for students with "splinter skills," and open time limits. Autistic students also appreciate the consistent format of online learning, as it can be difficult to deal with small differences in each individual classroom.

There are many benefits to online learning for autistic students, but there can also be challenges. The online environment is so appealing to the autistic brain that some students struggle with cyber addiction, creating an unhealthy imbalance. Additionally, autistic students who need to develop in-person social interaction and appropriate behavior will not find many opportunities online. "Most of our students need so much real life practice to develop skills that the Internet is more of a leisure activity. It's supplemental to what they are learning in vivo," says behavior analyst Jones.

Recommendations for Online Teachers with Autistic Students

  • Make use of discussion boards: Being put on the spot can make autistic students feel anxious. But online course discussion boards give them the opportunity to create a planned and well-crafted response. Avoid live chats or group Skype discussions that may cause autistic students to freeze up.
  • Help students build their responses: A great way to improve online participation among autistic students is through planned, guided discussion. Autism consultant Lisa Jo Rudy recommends that online educators "have the conversation ahead of time, and prep them, and actually have them go through and prepare. ... Give them a lot of time and a lot of extra prep before the event itself." An online tool with question prompts that allows students to build responses for later discussion may be helpful.
  • Allow students to try again and again: Autistic students may need to take extra time to process information and complete tasks. They may even need to do activities more than once to understand the concept and focus. You can cater to this need by offering learning materials without limits on time or turns.
  • Carefully monitor for cyberbullying: The online learning environment can make autistic students feel safe, but bullying may bring up feelings of anxiety. Preventing cyberbullying can make all students feel more comfortable and open in online learning.
  • Allow students to pick and choose courses: Autistic students with splinter skills may do well in math but struggle with writing. Rather than restricting students to freshman- or senior-level courses across the board, give students the opportunity to pick the right course level for their skills.
  • Offer multiple learning formats: Encourage autistic students to adopt the learning style that works best for them by providing students with materials that fit different learning styles. Lectures may be delivered in audio/visual format or interactive walk-throughs, as well as in text documents.
  • Guide students on a learning path: Give students the freedom to spend as much time as they need, try tasks multiple times, and allow them to do it all in a variety of different formats, but remember to guide their learning at all times. Keep their focus and attention by always showing them the next step to take.

Online learning for autistic students is largely still in development, but there's growing potential, especially at the high school and college level. "So much of what goes on in high school is not about learning academics but about fitting in with other kids. If that is what's standing in the way of a young person finishing school or excelling academically, then online is the way to go," says Jones. "For those individuals who could go to college if it weren't for the social aspect, it is a great way for them to get an education."

What's next? Dictation tools, resources for turning ideas into outlines, and even exclusive online degree programs for autistic students. Says Lisa Jo Rudy, "A lot of those types of support can be built into virtual learning environments, and probably will be, because they're not only useful for students with autism, but for any student."

Is Apple Still a Game Changer in Education?

Posted on April 30, 2013


The words "Apple" and "innovation" often go hand in hand, but the tech giant has been less dominant in education than it has been in other areas. While the iPad has continued to change the way many classrooms function, Apple's once-leading online education platform, iTunes U, is now left out of most discussions about online learning and OpenCourseWare.

In the 1970s, when mainframe computers had a monopoly on academic research, Apple started donating Apple 1 computers to schools. This allowed more students than ever to use computers and led to the rise of computer instruction and technological developments in education.

Today, though, the field is so varied that Apple has had a harder time making the waves in education it once did. Google and Apple have been in an innovation arms race, and small companies that specialize in ed tech are popping up every day. Without a singular focus on education, and faced with trying to keep up with (or ahead of) Google across the board, can Apple still be a game changer in education? Or will schoolchildren someday be saying "Apple who?"

Apple's Bright Spots

One of the biggest things to come out of Apple in the last few years is the iPad. It has opened up the new world of tablets, giving people more convenience than a laptop and more ease of accessibility than a mobile phone. It has also changed the possibilities found in the classroom. In a one-year period in 2012, Apple sold 3 million iPads directly into education in the United States. Worldwide, that number is 8 million, and it will likely keep growing as prices of older versions of the tablet fall, making it more affordable for schools.

Many schools across the nation have implemented one-to-one programs where each student is provided with an iPad to use for their schoolwork. At Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, Calif., where one of the first one-to-one pilot programs in the country was created in 2010, administrators were looking for a way to incorporate technology into the curriculum and learning methods. "We weren't necessarily sold on the idea of laptops," Mark Silver, head of Hillbrook, said in a promotional video. "It involved a lot of equipment; it needed a lot of support. And, at least the models we had seen, seemed to be kind of working. So we were kind of in a holding pattern, and along came the iPad. We saw an opportunity."

Hillbrook Director of Technology Don Orth — who is now an Apple Distinguished Educator — said the open-faced concept of iPads made them great tools for collaboration. There's no physical barrier between students and their peers or teachers like there is with a laptop. Hillbrook, an Apple Distinguished School, now provides an iPad for each of its students in the 5th through 8th grades and shared iPads for 1st through 4th grades.

Students can download apps for each class, create presentations, and access information from anywhere. Apps are available for almost anything — studying with flashcards, taking notes that won't get thrown out with the day's love notes, and helping students keep track of assignments when their brains are filled with more important things, like lunchtime and new crushes.

"Students who struggle with organization have been helped by having their work and resources all in one place," Orth says. "It's a one-stop shop for a lot of their assignments and notes, and there are no crumpled-up things in the bottom of their backpacks."

Teachers can design textbooks for the iPad, make learning more engaging, and get feedback from students on curriculum development. While teachers help struggling students, other students can be independently learning or practicing on their iPads. Orth says that in this way, it had really decentralized the classroom. Students rely less on the teacher to deliver the materials, and can instead research independently or watch demonstrations on the iPad.

Language teachers can give students the tools to improve verb conjugation, pronunciation, culture lessons, and more. History teachers can incorporate current events; English teachers can develop writing skills with brainstorming apps and videos of them annotating a student's essay live.

These programs have not only changed the way lessons can be taught. They have eliminated the need for computer labs at schools where bulky machines are only used for research and word processing. Students can do it all through their iPad.

While many other tablets have been introduced by competitors since the iPad was first brought to market, the iPad is still one of the best, if not the best, for ease of accessibility, engagement, and resources available. Apple's wide range of other products also makes it easy to create a streamlined network. Hillbrook uses Apple TVs in the classrooms, allowing students to instantly show their work on the iPad to the class without having to plug into the TV.

Schools are starting one-to-one programs in droves, sharing ideas for how the iPad can revolutionize the classroom. There are dozens of conferences across the country on iPads in education, including Hillbrook's own conference series coming up. It's no longer just the most innovative educators that have access to the technology; schools and teachers can share the best practices for integrating iPads into their curriculum.

Funding, though, is still keeping iPads from dominating the education sector. At $400 or more apiece, low- and middle-income schools can't afford to implement one-to-one programs. Just supplying 100 students with the device would cost a school $40,000. Grants are available for many districts, but there aren't enough to make it feasible for the majority of schools in the country. This entry cost into the world of the iPad's benefits may be slowing its growth in the education market, though some schools continue to find room in their budget for the technology.

The iPad, the variety of apps, and even the vast wealth of knowledge available through podcasts on iTunes have kept Apple in the education game. With Apple's purported watch on the horizon, it's yet to be seen if another Apple product can have a huge impact on learning like the iPad is having.

Falling Behind

The talk in the edtech world recently has largely revolved around massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their providers, like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. But not that many years ago, Apple's iTunes U was stirring things up in the online education world. While the service has been growing its audience, its pace is slower than necessary to keep it competitive in the rapidly growing online education sector.

Launched in 2007, iTunes U allows professors to build lecture-based courses. It bills itself as the world's largest online catalog of free educational content, including files from top schools, libraries, and museums. Apple recently announced that its content had been downloaded more than 1 billion times.

Universities can create their own page on iTunes U and post lectures and resources from professors and other content. Many prominent schools have pages, including Stanford University, Harvard University, MIT, and UC Berkeley.

Ohio State University uses iTunes U, with 16 public courses available currently. One course has been particularly successful: Ohio State chemistry lecturer Dr. Matthew Stoltzfus, or Dr. Fus as he is often called, has a complete General Chemistry course available on iTunes U that has built more than 108,000 subscribers since it was posted in May 2012.

Stoltzfus has had incredible success with his course, praising Apple's marketing, ability to get his content out globally, and analytics to help continue to improve. Using analytics on uploaded content, teachers can see which of their files are being downloaded the most, making it easier to know which subjects to invest further time into. For Stoltzfus, this is part of the process of bettering the quality of his content, an attitude that carries over into his opinion of iTunes U and all edtech. "We just have to keep continually improving. It's not one and done. There will be several iterations," he says. "If we keep that mindset, we'll continue to make progress."

And there is certainly progress to be made with iTunes U. While other online course providers have user-friendly interfaces, interactive content, and ways for users to test themselves, iTunes U has fallen behind. To access content, users of course need the iTunes program, and the most useful interface is only available through the iTunes U app, which you need an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch to download. This leaves people without these products to download and use the video or audio files without some of the more exciting features of the app, such as being able to take notes within the app.

And of course, accessing these features means shelling out anywhere from $199 to $929 to buy a device if you don't already have one. For many online students or lifelong learners, this can make online courses that are the same on tablets as they are desktops much more attractive or even the only option.

While Stoltzfus offers a complete course that can be used to gain new knowledge, many of the materials on iTunes U aren't full courses. In fact, that's part of what Stoltzfus thinks has made his course so popular; there just aren't many full chemistry courses available on iTunes U. Much of what is on iTunes U is supplementary content, making it most useful for students who are already enrolled in a course elsewhere. Those who want to take a full course have to look elsewhere for the most options.

They also have to look at other providers if they want to test or practice their skills. With no assessment tool, iTunes U content is often no more engaging than a YouTube video (and less accessible).

Copyright scrubbing is also a huge deterrent for creating innovative, engaging content. Professors who create courses can't use any visual aids that they don't own, or they risk being sued by the publisher. If a professor records class lectures in which he uses images or figures from a textbook, he has to go through those videos and edit out the copyrighted material before iTunes U will accept it. This is a time-consuming and often expensive process; instead of facing this tedious task, many professors, like Stoltzfus, choose a very basic format for their content.

"The critique from a pedagogical perspective is that I'm just making video of a lecture with notes," he says. "For me it's best because I don't have to worry about violating copyrights and it's the quickest way to get it done."

For students looking for the best online learning experience, though, the lack of features could be a turn-off.

Who Else Is in The Game?

Google and Apple are archnemeses in the tech game, and in the education sector, Google may actually have the advantage. While iPads had a head start in the marketplace and were picked up in many schools because of it, Google tablets are less cost-prohibitive. Google's Nexus 7 tablet sells for $199 and may go down in price in July when a new version is rumored to come out. That's compared to more than $300 for the lowest-priced iPad Mini. For low-income schools, affordable tablets and other devices (like the Chromebook) can be game-changers as increased student engagement can potentially combat high dropout rates, according to several different studies.

Apple's closed system of proprietary software and hardware, which makes it hard to use Apple products with non-Apple products, may also be holding it behind Google. Google's Chrome OS and Android OS can be used to operate devices created by several different companies, allowing Google to benefit as those companies compete. Companies like Acer and Samsung build a Chromebox, a compact desktop computer that runs on Chrome, and the newest Acer version is rumored to be hitting the stores at $99 apiece. The ability to get the price so far below that of Apple's products puts it well within the $250 to $300 price range that many teachers say they look for in digital technology.

In terms of online education, Apple's barely showing up. MOOC providers like Coursera, edX, and Udacity are offering high-quality, complete courses for free while iTunes U is growing slowly and works better as supplementary material than an actual course for the most part. Though it may work well for students enrolled at the schools with their own pages, it's not an attractive option for the lifelong and DIY learners. MOOCs are working out some kinks with credit and cheating, but iTunes U has a long way to go with its platform to get to the point of useful, fully engaging content for the online learner.

How Teachers Can Succeed

When Starting a Tablet Program

  • Think about what works for your situation. Jumping into a one-to-one program without doing your research can lead to a lot of headaches and maybe even failure. Consider different brands of tablets, apply for grants, and think about how your tablets will work with your other technology. If you can afford Apple products across the board, they could be worth it just for the ease in connecting them all, but if you can only afford the iPads, you may need extra support to get everything to work together.
  • Start a student support group. Orth says that having a group of students become your iPad gurus can help in numerous ways. Not only does it empower those students, but it relieves the tech department and teachers. These trained students can work with their peers and help them troubleshoot their problems. Technology staff are then free to take on the more serious issues, and teachers can focus on instructing.
  • Educate parents. "The biggest mistake is keeping parents in the dark," Orth says. Parents need to be educated on how the program works and how they can monitor their students. With concerns over screen time and privacy, it's important to show parents that iPads can be used as tools in education without being harmful or distracting. With the right knowledge, they can help keep students engaged at home.

When Starting an iTunes U Course

  • Figure out your time investment. Stoltzfus put his entire course on iTunes U at once, a process that he says was very time-consuming. If you have tighter time constraints and don't know how long uploading content will take, prioritize. "It doesn't have to be the entire course up at once," Stoltzfus says. "First tackle the toughest learning objectives, and then work your way down." Understanding things like copyright scrubbing — which requires educators to remove all copyrighted material from videos and lectures that they don't have permission to post — can also help you create content that fits your time commitment.
  • Think about full courses. Though you don't have to put up a full course all in one go, providing a course rather than just supplementary content can contribute greatly to your success. It makes the content more attractive to DIY learners.
  • Add unique content. If you have the expertise, why not add some upper-level content? Stoltzfus says there is plenty of content on iTunes U for the freshman level, but not much for upper-level learners. If he adds another class, he'd think about adding inorganic chemistry material because there simply isn't much out there. While this kind of content may reach a more specialized audience, its uniqueness can lead to a very engaged research community.

Staying Alive

While Apple is making strides and certainly has a following among some students and schools, the company isn't having the impact on education that it had in the past. The iPad's head start in the market has given it an edge in changing the potential of the classroom, but other, more cost-efficient tablets are gaining ground in many school districts that can't afford to buy only Apple products. Cost is again an issue with iTunes U and what devices are compatible with the app, keeping Apple straggling behind in the online education sector, a sector that's going to be increasingly important in the years to come. We'll have to wait and see if Apple can come with anything as revolutionary as its Apple 1 again.

The Youtopian Ideal: Using Badges to Transform Learning

Posted on May 14, 2013

Check in on Foursquare, get a badge. Complete your Civil War essay, get a badge? Is this real? With edtech startup Youtopia, it's already happening. And it's building student engagement and interest in a tech-savvy, fun to use way.

The Power of Student Engagement

When students participate in activities at school, they build a sense of belonging. By being active, they're building both knowledge and relationships, but it's not enough. Students don't just need to belong and participate; they need to be engaged and invested in learning.

Student engagement happens when learners emotionally invest in their studies. Instead of going through the motions for grades, they're motivated to learn because they truly want to do so. Motivated, engaged students are excited about what education has to offer, and students who are positively engaged in learning are more likely to be successful. Higher student engagement is linked to higher grades and re-enrollment, making it an essential resource for learning.

Despite the importance of student engagement in education — especially higher education, where students are more likely to drop out — it's tough to maintain. A 2012 Gallup poll of K-12 students indicates that student engagement declines over time and hits a low in high school, with only four out of 10 students engaged.

Professors are pushing back against this decline by bringing in new tools including Twitter backchannels and mobile apps that can be used in the classroom to increase participation and motivation. They're even using adaptive learning systems to give students valuable real-time educational feedback.

But it's Youtopia, an educational startup that supports classroom management and student engagement, that's taken an interesting approach to mixing learning and game-playing. The app/service offers valuable tools for student engagement, bringing gamification to learning in a way that motivates learners to do their best, and it's growing in K-12 and higher education.

Rewards for Any Activity

Youtopia's tools allow professors to set goals and track any student activity, from completing a multi-part assignment to just getting to their seats on time. As they work toward goals, students are rewarded with badges to signify their achievements. This "allows teachers to plug in and gamify their course's rubric," according to Youtopia cofounder Simeon Schnapper.

Professors using Youtopia build a set of activities for students to perform, and students are awarded for completing activities with points and badges that acknowledge their hard work. "As students complete activities, they earn points on their path to mastery," explains Schnapper. Activities can be tracked using any type of metric, including hours of volunteering, pages read, or problems solved, encouraging students to see their progress and keep going, even when faced with long-term goals.

Youtopia also encourages collaboration with group goals and badges. For one project, the A/V Storytellers, students have the opportunity to earn a Collaborator badge by achieving tasks like creating a supportive environment, maximizing group performance, and showing respect for others. Instructors confirm these achievements and award points.

Motivation Beyond Grades

Class participation in Youtopia's system is completely transparent, spurring motivation and encouraging participation. Students can not only see what their classmates have done, but also find out where they rank among their peers. This, Schnapper says, "naturally spurs them to work harder with a little dose of healthy competition." Students can even share their badges with social media integration.

Youtopia supports a system of positive feedback for students, which motivates and encourages students to continue doing a great job. Feedback is most effective when delivered to an individual quickly and in reference to a specific action or behavior. By awarding badges or providing instructor comments on individual activities, professors can share positive feedback that resonates with students. And in Youtopia's system, the task of remembering to support each student with feedback is streamlined with management reports.

Trading Grades for Badges

Why badges? They just work. They're a staple of social networking and gaming, and even in more serious settings like scouting or the military. They represent achievement, rather than winning or losing. And they encourage students to develop competencies in very specific measures.

Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes in the potential of badges: "Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate — as well as document and display — their skills. Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And, badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings."

With badges like the ones earned through Youtopia, students can earn recognition for, and show off, what they've done. What students learn in school may not have a clear connection to what they'll do after graduation. But with badges, students can highlight their skills in a way that colleges and employers can understand.

Student Engagement in Action

Service learning is a great resource for building student engagement. With service learning opportunities, students are able to challenge themselves as they apply their education to real-life situations and see how their schoolwork is significant and valuable to others. Youtopia's system is designed to encourage these learning projects, giving students positive reinforcement and encouragement every step of the way.

Youtopia shared an example of Mr. Johnson, the head of service learning and an English Teacher at a prominent charter school in Chicago, who is using Youtopia to track service-learning curriculum. In Johnson's class, students are able to see real-time results and find out where they are on the pathway to completion in their service projects, and they can reflect on their experience with reports on what was meaningful to them. This gives students a chance to connect their learning projects to real life, not just in achievement, but in what their coursework has done for them personally.

Badges can be used to support positive learning practices as well. Ms. Hart, a Connecticut high school history teacher, uses Youtopia to reinforce essay research and writing tasks. In Youtopia, Hart maps out the steps required to write a research paper with badges for technical and experiential skills. A student who turns in all of their drafts, complete with bibliography and proper citations, gets points for each individual accomplishment as well as a badge for the overall project.

Student accomplishments can also be exported in a Youtopia Resume that highlights statistics like service hours, dollars raised, and activities and badges they've earned. This resume can be used to supplement college applications, and even find a place in noncognitive measurement that place value not just grades and numbers, but achievements and perseverance.

Tips for Using Badges in the Classroom

Experts see a future full of badges in higher education. What can you do to make them a part of your courses?

  • Award badges for positive actions, no matter how small. Badges can be awarded for showing completion of tasks, mastery of skills, or even just showing up to class. Professor Rey Junco suggests that teachers can encourage lecture engagement by awarding badges to students for class time check-ins with challenge questions. Other small badge ideas: those for posting on Twitter, commenting on the course blog, or offering peer review.
  • Scaffold learning with badges. Guide students through the steps of learning by allowing them to earn badges as they go along.
  • Encourage soft skills.: Achievement of 21st century skills like collaboration and problem-solving are difficult to quantify with a letter grade. With badges, you can show students what mastery of these skills should look like, and reward them when they've achieved levels of proficiency.
  • Make badges an incentive for letter grades. While badges haven't replaced grades just yet, they can be used in conjunction with the traditional grading scale. In professor Alex Halavais's courses, students earn letter grades by collecting an equivalent number of badges.
  • Search for badges within your field. Badges from Disney-Pixar, NASA, NOAA, and YALSA are available, and there are plenty more where they came from: Mozilla's Open Badges project supports 30 different badges so far. In addition to classroom-created badges, badges in this project can be added to a student's digital resume.
  • Keep it positive. Badges are inherently positive. They're fun, even cute, and they point out what a student has accomplished. Alternatively, grades (and especially low grades) can be negative, highlighting what a student has not been able to achieve. Maintain badges as a positive force, using them to reward students for commendable educational activities.

Achievements Unlocked

Badges, motivation, and engagement are all great, but do they work? Youtopia's clients believe so. "We've gotten positive feedback from teachers across the country telling us that their students are more focused and engaged when they know their positive actions are being observed and acknowledged," says Schnapper. "We're looking to connect with that same community in higher education to see how Youtopia can optimize how teachers and students teach and learn in the university setting."

Tools like Youtopia represent the next generation in student assessment, engagement, and growth. Students thrive on feedback and competition, this app greatly encourages that. And now, when students earn a Foursquare badge for checking out that new Indian place around the corner, they can earn a classroom badge for cultural diversity, too.