A series of seven posts on major turning points in my teaching career. A study of where I was, where I am, and where I'm headed.
The way I have integrated technology into my practice has to be one of the most radical changes. Rapid progress in the industry and the way my school allocates funds to technology has caused me to reevaluate the tools I use with students on a yearly basis. There is a lot of stuff out there to try, and a lot of wild directions you can head down. Not all of it is an efficient use of your time. The greatest discovery I have made when it comes to classroom technology is to find a simple workflow or two and design projects that use it and use it well. A dozen discrete apps is not the answer, a dozen discrete applications within the same frame of operation produces far better results.
The emphasis of this discussion is on student devices. I have a number of technology bits that help me do my job, but many are unique to my situation and would be hard to apply at scale.
Where It Was
In 2009 we had little to offer students. I had an interactive whiteboard and some student response devices. In 2010 I made a concerted effort to make use of those things as best I could. They aren't bad at getting an idea of what everyone is thinking. Though in practice they had their inefficiencies. Waiting for everyone to submit took time, reliable communication with the devices wasn't guaranteed, and they reinforce an instructor centered model. Kids sit there and work something for a second in their rows and silently interact with me. I kept them around for a few years after before abandoning the whiteboard software. Here they are still kicking (though not in use) in 2012:
In 2012 we got our first deployment of iPads. I tried almost everything you could think of with iPads from 2012 through 2016. In the early days I was trying desperately to avoid the app that was going to put us all out of a job:
I knew that wasn't the future I wanted. We really did try everything. Kids took pictures and drew stuff on top of them. Kids worked problems in interactive PDFs I distributed to them. I tried all sorts of random apps to see if there was anything worthwhile. Eventually I realized I wanted my technology to answer a question. Why is this better than pencil and paper? What better products can this produce?
A year or two into my use of iPads I found the first piece that would answer this question. Technology can improve the speed and quality of our graphs:
We slowly gravitated to more graph-oriented tasks. In 2013 when I taught Algebra II it was the hallmark of the course. We could graph anything and everything quickly and efficiently with our in class devices. I got the iPads working with a printer so we could present our findings.
The iPads shined in this role. We didn't use them every day or even every week. But when it was time to make something nice, it was a workflow they could do well. More importantly, it was a workflow that got out the way. We spent very little time wrestling with technology headaches and most of our time doing something with the technology.
Where It Is
In 2016 I transitioned away from iPads to Chromebooks. In the years since the first iPad deployment my school district adopted Google accounts for all the students and the Google Docs platform had improved tremendously from my first frustrating efforts with it years ago. iPads also had a number of hurdles associated with them, most notably the regular maintenance.
As my stable of iPads grew and grew, the tedium of keeping them on the latest release with appropriately managed permissions just became too tedious. Chromebooks offloaded a lot of that responsibility and were built around the idea of multiple users.
Now when it's time to use technology things look like this:
The main workflow ideas remain. The computers give us the ability to make nice finished products. The computers are the best graphing tools we have available. Let's use them to make the best graphing products we can. At the same time, the computers have allowed a number of other opportunities.
I distribute instructions via Google Docs now, allowing me to be thorough with my expectations. The keyboard makes it easier to have students work through Desmos Activity Builder response questions. And a big feature this year was learning some rudimentary spreadsheet commands to generate information we could graph in Desmos. These computers were a regular feature of class. The workflows were so simple and known that every student understood the expectations when it was time to get a project done. We weren't wrestling with technical hurdles and I wasn't constantly trying to bend some hot new app to my needs. Simple worked and it worked well.
Where It Is Going
Access to computers presents some new opportunities. They have offered new use cases that weren't possible when working with iPads. Maintenance issues are a thing of the past and their batteries last forever. All the same it's the workflow that has shined.
As I continue, the focus is to keep technology use simple. What does it replace well and what does it let us that we couldn't before?
One area I might tackle next is assessment. I experimented a bit with these ideas. Collection and review of student work continues to be a problem. It can be difficult to scan and comment on student work in a meaningful well when collected. Math input on a computer is still nowhere near where it needs to be to replace the cost and efficiency of paper. Discussions are still best done in person than on a message board. One day that may not be true, we shall see.
If you are struggling with how to implement technology, start simple. Find one use case (in my case it was graphing) that you can work on. Come up with a simple procedure (make graph, screenshot, print) that you can implement a few times over the course of a school year. Expand your operation slowly and don't be overwhelmed with the latest new thing. Simple workflows will long outlast any fad app.