Apps unlock ‘a-ha moment’

Teachers at Southwest High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina, allowed students to bring their smartphones to class to watch short math videos. The ‘a-ha’ moment came when the students used the phones to record each other solving math problems, and then created a repository of problem-solving videos.

Teachers at Southwest High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina, allowed students to bring their smartphones to class to watch short math videos. It was supposed to be a supplement to instruction; instead, the students used the technology to teach themselves.

“The big ‘a-ha’ moment was when the students on their own decided to use the video capability on the phones to record each other solving math problems, and then created their own repository of problem-solving videos they could use for self-remediation,” says Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit that promotes the use of technology in K12.

Project Tomorrow researches educational technology trends, including how schools use mobile devices. While students are most eager to use smartphones that record high-quality video and audio, few teachers appear to have sufficient technology skills and support from administrators to guide their class in creating rich multimedia content.

But the environment is changing: While more than half of administrators had policies against BYOD in 2011, that number dropped to 20 percent last year, according to a project survey. “Both teachers and administrators have been slower than the students to realize the potential of content creation,” Evans says.

Self-taught teachers

Teachers who have embraced digital video are largely doing it on their own, meaning the move to adopt multimedia is not being driven by administrators. Though BYOD has expanded, districts generally don’t offer much in terms of training or resources, says Matt Miller, a high school Spanish teacher at North Park Community School Corporation in Indiana and author of Ditch That Textbook.

Miller offers technology tips and training at school presentations, teacher conferences and on his personal blog at

Four years ago, Tracy Walker, a sixth-grade history and English teacher in Novato USD in California, taught herself video production. And because the class didn’t have enough iPads, she used the crowdsourcing site to raise money to buy six more tablets.

Her first projects involved students making videos on endangered animals. The students learned to shoot and edit their videos and clamored for more projects that would help them improve their skills, Walker says.

Movie-making mentors on Twitter

Teacher sites

Walker’s classes have since created more advanced movies about Sparta and ancient Greece. One class produced a live-action video (watch the trailer at and another used stop-action animation (

Joe Marquez, an eighth-grade science teacher at Clovis USD in California, has his students record weekly labs on their smartphones and post the videos on Twitter using #marquezscience.

It’s a group where they can watch each other’s lab experiments. It’s also handy for students who have missed class for some reason. Marquez now plans to have students produce presentations using virtual reality apps, including:

  • Google Cardboard, which turns an iPhone into a 3D viewer
  • NearPod, which creates interactive lessons
  • 360 Cities, a website with a collection of panoramic photos from around the world and universe; including photos from the recent Mars rover expedition

Creating videos not only engages students in the subject matter, but teaches them about the process itself. Story-boarding a movie, which students have to do to create videos, is much like writing, says Walker. It uses illustrations or images displayed in sequence to visualize the motion picture or animation. Both involve organizing and analyzing information, then structuring the material into a story that holds a reader’s attention. Students work in groups to develop collaboration and communication skills.

Walker grades the projects based on how well the group worked together and the extent to which each student contributed. She also grades the video, both on the basis of the content and proficiency of using the technology tools. “You typically can’t have one without the other,” Walker says.

Future-proofing technology

To be successful, such multimedia projects need the right technology. Chris Edmondson, director of educational technology at Clovis USD in California, says the district bought 6,500 laptops two years ago. The district chose full-powered laptops (rather than tablets) to give teachers and students more flexibility and processing power. It also upgraded the bandwidth of its network, from 1 gigabyte per second to 3 gigabytes per second, with a capability to increase to 10 gigs. And it added more wireless access points. “We’ve future-proofed ourselves to support the new technologies for at least the next five years,” he says.

However, teachers may need more training to make the best use of multimedia in part because they are accustomed to presenting material and then testing their classes, says Hall Davidson, senior director of global learning initiatives at Discovery Education.

Teachers also must develop confidence that students really can and will learn this way, he adds.

At Jenison Public Schools in Michigan, teachers at an elementary school wanted students to learn how to film themselves reporting on current events within the district, such as field trips and academic competitions.

IT Director Dave Tchozewski showed teachers and students the tools, including a green screen to make reports look like they had been filed from the field. Jenison’s elementary school teachers use such technologies more often than do middle or high school teachers, probably because in the higher grades, teachers are more focused on meeting state test requirements, he adds.

This spring, Tchozewski plans to offer an optional after-school training session on the green-screen app for all teachers across the Jenison district.

One of the best ways to encourage more teachers to use such technologies is for district leaders to identify pioneer teachers as models, Davidson says. These teachers can show other teachers how to use effective apps.

That’s what Clovis USD is doing. Two years ago, administrators selected Marquez and 12 other tech-savvy teachers as instructional technology coaches. They visit other schools to give teachers hands-on training, which has led to a substantial increase in technology use in the classroom, Marquez says.

Mixing music and math

Once students start creating their own content, the technology encourages them to follow their curiosity to explore subjects that interest them, and to learn how to find the information and content they need, says Glen Warren, coordinator of literacies, outreach and libraries at Encinitas Union School District in California.

To support a 1-to-1 tablet program, the district increased network bandwidth and the number of wireless access points. The fact that students can access the internet from any room encourages a melding of the silos of subjects, Warren says.

For example, with the GarageBand app students might compose their own music, but also use math. The time signature in musical notation is, after all, a fraction, and the baseline and melody have to fit within that framework, he says.

Meanwhile, students are learning how to make sure they are using video or audio clips legally. This sort of “information literacy” is a key skill for the 21st century, Warren says. DA

Mutlimedia Apps suggested by teachers

Tam Harbert is a freelance writer who specializes in technology. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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