To App or not to App – that is the question.

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Hello everyone,

“Educational” is a very wide spanning term – what I feel as a grade 5/6 teacher in a community is relevant and useful is WORLDS away from what I would have chosen last year, teaching grade 2/3 in a more affluent community.  What one person deems educational, another can find childish and not worth the time.  Some apps claim one thing and then you download them and it’s something completely different – especially in the context of school.  Also, my main question is – are they worth the time we invest in them in the classroom?  When I started digging around looking for curated lists of educational apps I noticed most websites were put out by sites such as goodhousekeeping.com, savymom.ca, whatmomslove.com, and bestproducts.com.  Think twice before you form opinionsNot that these aren’t necessarily trusted sites, but I do question what authority some sites have to put out a list of educational apps when they are not affiliated with the educational world in a teaching context as that is my lens.  I value what parents think, I often do value and read reviews of larger companies – however, I don’t know if I am ready to set up my classroom technology time around their opinions.                                                                                                                 Image Credit  Holly

I started by exploring the top 10 list of a website I recognized, Common Sense Media.  Common Sense Media claims to help parents and teachers by vetting technology so families and teachers can feel good about what they use with their kids.  They claim to support education by “empowering the next generation of digital citizens”.  They have a digital citizenship curriculum and say, “Schools everywhere rely on our free curriculum, expert advice, and edtech ratings to help kids thrive.”  Sounds like something I would want to be a part of…well, I tracked down the “Best Apps for Kids” list and chose the “Big Kids” section for kids aged 8-9 as those were the closest age level to my class, and truly, around what most are functioning at, if not lower.  Another piece I loved about the Common Sense Media site was that they also took time to break down apps and sites into categories, offer reviews, and even an always updating “Top Picks” list.  Along the side of the app reviews there is also suggestions for how to integrate the topic into your class, STEM videos and teaching ideas.  Overall, I was quite happy once I starting to dig through.

  1. Book Creator                                                 6.  The Social Express II
  2. Flow Free: Bridges                                        7.  Stack the States
  3. INKS                                                                8.  Threes!
  4. Marvel Hero Tales                                         9.  Toca Hair Salon Me
  5. Monument Valley 2                                      10.  Zoombinis

The next site I chose to look through was Elearning Industry.  They claim to be, “a network-based media and publishing company founded in 2012. It is the largest online community of eLearning professionals in the industry, and was created first and foremost as a knowledge-sharing platform to help eLearning professionals and instructional designers connect in a safe online community where they can stay up to date with the latest industry news and technologies, and find projects or jobs.”  Although I didn’t recognize this site, it titled their list, “Top 10 educational apps for kids” and I felt like that was missing from Common Sense Media.

  1. Class Dojo                         6.  Science 360
  2. Duolingo                            7.  Crossword Puzzles
  3. Dragon Box                       8.  Flow Free
  4. Quick Math                     9.  Spelling Stage
  5. Youtube Kids                   10.  My Molecularium

Image result for buried under a pile of appsI now had 20 apps to look through and to be honest, I had only heard of 3 of them, Dojo, Duolingo and Book Creator.  This didn’t make me nervous, it just made me question some of the apps I have been using in my classroom as only one of them appeared on either of these lists, and many of the other curated lists I had explored didn’t feature any either.  Before I get into the reviews of apps I have selected for my classroom, I will share what I found generally about the apps that appeared on these lists and if there are any that I will trying in my room as I move forward.

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Comedy Central Win GIF by Lights Out with David SpadeNot to be negative (thanks Giphy!), but I’ll start with the things that I was least impressed with, 1.) Most sites required you to purchase something in order to either access all the materials, or simply have students access ANY material.  I realize these companies need to make money,  but in school, we don’t have a lot of expendable cash so we have to make sure everything is worth while.  2)  Many of the apps are American which makes it very hard to register, focuses on American content only and uses American money to purchase anything in app, meaning costs go up.  3)  Lots of the apps that      were featured on these sites were not super educational – yes, they featured math or spelling and the content when it was available seemed ok, but the majority of the app was “play” such as designing an avatar or exploring worlds and  game spaces.  I don’t mind any of the above, however, if I am going to be paying for an educational app for school, this would not be my main focus.  And lastly, 4) majority of the apps or programs on these lists require you to download software and that is not possible on my division computers without having our tech crew do it.  If you were interested in an app, you have to fill out a LENGTHY application, state every reason under the sun why you feel it’s worth while and educational, then it can take months (wish I was being dramatic!) to get the app put on to your IPads or other devices.

Now to get on with the positives, I found a few apps on these lists I would like to highlight before moving into the apps I currently use in my classroom.  YouTube Kids [node:content-type] Poster ImageThe first, Youtube Kids as I am constantly combating my students questionable choices on Youtube during free time at school.  Sometimes I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s just what they are used to watching and it’s not appropriate for school.  Youtube Kids is essentially a pre-vetted version of Youtube that turns off the ability to deliberately search for inappropriate content.   Upon reading further into the functionality, I found that the system Youtube uses is not perfect and inappropriate adverts or profanity get through.  I have also read that the amount of advertising in this app is high – which I have pointed when you are having younger children access your program.  They are going to be influenced by what they are seeing and directing large amounts of advertising as a trade off for monitoring content seems shady.  However, I think there is certainly the potential to be safer than accessing content on the regular Youtube page.  I know without a doubt that my students WILL NOT rate this app kindly – they don’t like to be treated like babies and I know they will feel like that if I were to implement this.  I believe this is one app that I will have students review.

The next app from the list I am looking forward to trying and having students review is Book Creator.  I had heard of this site, but never tried it out and I was very impressed with its functionality after I starting reading about it.  It seems easy to use, well laid out and well connected to Google Chrome which is important as that is what our computers at school run.  The point of this site is to be able to create and publish short stories and comic books with illustrations, voice overs and text.  I love this versatility as I have such a wide range of students, the different layouts and options for sharing your ideas are very important.  Another piece I love is that students sign up for our “classroom” using a code, similar to Google Classroom so I can access their work, and they can save their work to a classroom library so other students can look at it too.  I also really like how there are so many options for sharing and printing work once it is complete.  I think kids, regardless of age, want to take things home and share them with their families – it’s nice to have that capability as some free programs do not.  My pedagogy around writing is that students have to feel confident and they have to feel like writers.  This year, my students are neither, and writing is hard.  Having the option to write and be creative online is a wonderful intensive to encourage writing.  In the review and explanation on Creative Education they also offer educators a list of 50 ways to use Creator in the class.  I am looking forward to trying this out and seeing what my class has to say.  If I had to guess, I think they will like this app.

We know what I want to try…but lets look at what I am already using and what features I find successful or not.  My hope is to have my students review Mathletics and Prodigy as well as we use these frequently. The main apps I run in my class are Raz Kids (for my struggling readers only), Mathletics, Prodigy and Class Dojo as a tool to post photos and communicate with families over anything else.  Raz-KidsLet’s look at Raz Kids first – right off the hop, this app is expensive.  You can access a 14 day trial, but to purchase it costs $115.45 USD for 1 classroom, for 1 year.  The positive, you receive 32 spots, which hopefully would be enough to accommodate your entire class if you choose.  What does this get you?  Essentially Raz-Kids is an online levelled reader program that gives kids access to hundreds of short books at their individual reading level.  They are usually followed by a comprehension quiz to test if the student understood the book they read at a basic level.  Teachers can choose from 29 different levels and have access to results on a fairly easy to use dashboard.  Another positive, this app can be translated into French and Spanish which is good for a dual track school like Connaught.  The app can also be used on a laptop which is great as senior classes in our division do not have access to IPad’s readily.  There are also short videos and games accessible to students through Raz.  Previously, at Lakeview School all of my students received a Raz Account and time to use it was built into our Daily 5 time.  Mostly the books would engage a 7 or 8 year old enough that they could spend a 15-20 minute chunk of time on the program.  The games and videos could be distracting, but overall it served an ok purpose.  However, in my 5/6 split this year at Connaught, I would never spend the money to have all my students on this program.  Upon looking through it again, although they offer books up to the level Z, the content of the books in the higher levels, in my opinion would not be engaging to higher level readers.  The content is fairly primary and again, in my own opinion, would not be interesting enough to keep engagement.  I do have 6 students who are at least 2, if not more grade levels behind in reading and comprehension and they are accessing Raz during a set 30 minute block of specialized reading support and it is going well.  They get a chance to read at their independent level without judgement.  Each student receives their own login information and can login to their account, not seeing what anyone else is up to.  I think that is important for older readers who are behind and reading books that appear more simple to those of their peers. Building confidence in reading is half the battle and I think Raz has the potential to do that when used correctly.

Image result for mathletics logoNext up – the all high and mighty Mathletics.  This program has been praised at every school I have attended for its curriculum ties and engaging approach to classroom/online math.  Yes, I like Mathletics.  Do I think it’s accessible to everyone?  No.  The cost for this program is very high and without outside support, usually from our parent council, we would not be able to purchase this program for use within the school.  For one child, without a classroom or better yet, a school subscription, it can be up to $100 for a year.  Costs go down the more children you add.  I believe our cost for Connaught School is still around the $8 mark per child which adds up in a school of 550 kids.  What is Mathletics and what do they offer?  First, one feature I love is that I can customize programming for each student even if they are registered in grade 5 or 6.  I have students that are working on math at about a second or third grade level, and with Mathletics I can choose content at that level without the program appearing any different.  I think at a middle years level, this is so important as students start to become more concerned with what other students think and they can develop self confidence issues.  I can create groups so that students with like ability are together and I can program accordingly.  I also have a group of 5 students who go for specialized math support and Mathletics has made it possible for them to have “Work on Math” time independently at their own level while the support teacher is working with a small group.  Mathletics has data driven reports.  Mathletics gives me the capability to see all my students compared against one another, and their scores on individual assignments.  I actually do appreciate this feature.  I can keep tabs on whether or not they are actually working on assignments as sometimes when we get the computers out with this group, they tend to stray.  The data collection shows me how many times children have attempted a task and if their scores have improved after instruction.  I also use this feature to help me see where the majority of students are requiring help or review.  All that being said, I can also use other cheaper means to evaluate students and see where they need assistance and where they are excelling.  I would never print any of these reports for families or share specific scores so this is solely for myself.

Next up is the part I am sure most of my students will say they like the best out of any part of Mathletics.  The avatars, games and ability to collect money to purchase items within the game.  The majority are gamers outside of school so the idea that it’s “gamified” is a bit of a sell.  I don’t love this feature in some ways because they give you 2 options, either students must finish all assigned work and then they can work on their avatar, or you can have it open and they can access it whenever.  I have some students who will be working on assigned work forever for a variety of reasons, and would never have the opportunity to have “fun” so I am always tempted to turn off the restriction, then however, I have students that will take advantage of this feature and spend all of their time here and not work on anything that has been assigned.

Mathletics also offers paper work to supplement their online work, videos and tutorials and the option to mark in real time.  Generally speaking I haven’t used this function often, however, given this time to actually sit down and explore the program, I have been missing out!  The printable work books actually have very relevant, well laid out information separated by grade and content.  They are split by student, teacher and solution booklets. There are also enrichment activities which is amazing because often I struggle more with finding activities for fast finishers and students who grasp concepts quickly than I do with students who need support as I have lots of resources for that.    There is also a section that we can access specific to critical reasoning and logic based on topic and specific outcome.  Students can be assigned a single question they need to work through step by step.  They can record their answer by typing, writing using a mouse or explaining it verbally.  This is such a wonderful feature because I have varying levels of language usage in my class as well as a student with severe dyslexia – having these options allows them all to be more independent and confident during math as they can show what they know in a way that is comfortable for them.  Not to mention, with this feature, I can also assign specific grade level work to each student.  I am grateful to have had the chance to look through!  There are lots of pieces in this section that I am going to utilize.

Mathletics also tries to sell their program specifically to kids with the following features – the ability to show yourself off with your customizable avatar, constant updating of new and exciting games, mathletics live, achievement certificates to take home, and just generally a wide variety of activities to choose from on the program.   This is where I struggle with Mathletics – they really do a good job advertising to kids and taking advantage of the fact that kids will harass their parents to keep the program even with a high cost.  Mathletics live is a cool concept and I like that students can see where in the world their opponent is from, however, the content is often repetitive.  For my lower level learners, this is wonderful as repetition is key, but for my higher level learners, it’s a waste of time.

Image result for prodigyLast but certainly not least, and by far my students favourite program to play on in my opinion – Prodigy!  That being said, I will be curious to see what the students have to say when they review this program – I’m wondering if my perception is accurate and if it is, what makes it better than Mathletics or any other site we use???  First, Prodigy is FREE!  Yes, you read that correctly.  You can access the full program, 100% free all the time – no trial periods.  This is wonderful for schools with our budgets being so minimal.  However, Prodigy does offer upgrades to students for payment to get extra in game outfits or avatar modifications although Prodigy assures users that the payment portion does not affect the educational aspects of the game and therefore you don’t have to pay to get the biggest benefits of the program.   They claim on their website, “Students practice math and learn new skills as they navigate a fantasy world packed with action and adventure. Built to captivate students and motivate learning, Prodigy brings math curricula and custom assignments to life in a world where success depends on practicing and mastering more than 1,400 key math skills.”   I will say that from my observations, my class enjoys this app.  It seems to be engaging and motivating to them.  They like to win upgrades, defeat characters and build up their “homes”.  That is a huge win in a class that is tough to engage.

Let’s dig in…first, I love that it’s curriculum aligned.  When you are setting up your account you can choose the area you’re in so that programming is fairly accurate to outcomes you may actually be working on.  This makes this app more appealing to me as it’s easier to justify having the technology out when you are meeting or at least addressing outcomes in the process.  I love that Prodigy’s programming, much like Mathletics, is customizable.  There is a placement test that kids take when they get their account set up and it chooses, using specific algorithms, which grade level they start at.  That information is not shared with them, just with me so they can’t compare with one another – which I feel is important.  Throughout their use of the program, smaller assessments ensure they remain on the right path and that gaps in their knowledge or weaker spots can be readdressed throughout the game.  Although I couldn’t find much information about the specific algorithms used to create Prodigy, from what I have observed, questions seems fairly accurately aligned with students skill level.  One negative I have found about Prodigy is that it is a United States based company and therefore the push for standardized test prep is huge and a lot of the data collected supporting the site focused on that.  In Canada,  because this isn’t as big of an issue, it takes more time to vet the data and decide how it would correlate with our curriculum and content.

Next, much like Mathletics, there are so many ways you can view reports in Prodigy!  It breaks down student assignments into grade level questions, how many questions they answered, how long it took them to complete assignment and the percentage of the questions they got correct.  Although I don’t focus on grades alone, it’s nice to see the level of work students are being placed at independently and where gaps are so I can fill them in in class.  Prodigy is always an additional option – students receive one hour of technology time and Mathletics or Prodigy take up at least half of that time.  There is no such thing as too much extra practice.

Finally, with Prodigy, I feel like questions are  not all just math fluency based, meaning quick adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing – they sometimes have multiple parts that students have to solve which take time to work through.  When they are stumped, prompts and hints appear but only for work they are struggling with so it doesn’t get used as a crutch.  I really appreciate this about the program, kids feel supported but it’s making work so easy that it’s a waste of time.   In a study Prodigy completed (keeping in mind this study was completed by the company who is reporting the data and therefore could be skewed) it showed the following information:

Students at school were answering an average of 11.5 questions in a 14.5 minute session.  As much as I know the kids appreciate the “extra” gaming style of Prodigy, it’s nice to know that they spend the majority of time on content and not building or modifying characters, houses, etc.

Image result for class dojoThe last app that I use regularly that I wanted to review and look more closely at is Class Dojo.  My initial reaction is that I have lots of problems with this app. I began using it after trying Facebook and Seesaw with my class unsuccessfully.  There was zero parent buy in and I was wasting my time posting content daily for 1 or 2 parents.  Class Dojo is widely used in my building and therefore was easier to engage families.  Many families were already signed up and their connection just rolled over to me in the new year by simply putting in a new code, or me sending them a request through the app by entering their cell phone number.  That was the easy part and what had me buying in, in the first place – I have 19 families out of 26 signed up, not all check the app and updates but they are on there should they choose to login.  I post things like photos of our day-to-day activities, notes, calendars, permission slips, spelling words, etc. knowing that sometimes paper copies don’t quite make it home in my room.  Class Dojo allows for messages to be translated into over 30 languagees instantly which I also like for families who don’t speak English as  first language at home.  Class Dojo has many other capabilities that I will touch on, most of which are the reason I haven’t been crazy about this program.

Class Dojo describes themselves as, “a school communication platform that teachers, students, and families use every day to build close-knit communities by sharing what’s being learned in the classroom home through photos, videos, and messages.”  There are some positives that I have stumbled across while researching, they have a teacher toolkit that allows you to make fair groups, play music, use a noise monitor, instruction display function, morning meeting app, timer and a think, pair share app.  Before this I wasn’t aware of these choices as I had only used the app for sharing information or contacting families.  Upon looking at them, I will absolutely use some of these during my day.  It’s a great feature to have them all in the same spot and accessible through the cellphone app or desktop version.  Another capability that I like but wouldn’t use with my class this year is the student portfolio section.  Students can use a letter/number code or QR to upload work, pictures, or stories to their personal page.  Family members can sign up to receive notifications when something is posted under their child’s name.  Sounds fine and dandy until you students aren’t responsible enough to make good choices as to what to post, although I can vet them first.  I have a Google Classroom and we struggle not to post silliness to the classwork chat.  In a different setting, I would love to use this function to empower students to be proud of their work and share it.  Maybe next year!

They also have a platform that can be used to award students points for positive behaviour that you outline, such as, completing work, being on task, being kind, etc. or remove points for negative behaviour that you outline such as being disruptive, not working, etc.  I started using this function when were struggling in class with behaviour/focus because I thought it would encourage change and give us a common goal as a class as they points are banked.  Other staff members could access our class and therefore add or delete points as well.  Notifications can be sent to families when students receive Dojo points and when they are taken away so I thought perhaps this might encourage positive choices too.  The kids could not login in independently and were only privy to their points by asking, having me show the whole class or asking their parents if they were on the app.  I gave a selection of prizes that students could choose from when we did “Dojo Store” if they had earned the points.  I did this all with serious reservation.  I take issue with publicly displaying student success and “failure” for all to see.  I have concerns with students mental well being in the sense of building up or destroying self confidence.  Students can be sensitive whether they like to show it or not, and seeing classmates surpass them, or losing points daily can be discouraging rather than encouraging.  I don’t believe everyone deserves a participation medal for showing up, however, my concern is that when kids have a tough life and MANY factors are impacting their day at school, there is more to behaviour than I we can imagine.  With Dojo, mistakes seem more permanent and I always focus on a clean slate everyday.  Although the capability of this section of app is valuable, well laid out and organized, I have not kept up with using it.

Overall, I don’t feel terribly about any of my choices.  Once I was sat down and dug through, I found some really positive things in each different program and gave some thought to some of the pieces that didn’t fit my personal needs.  I think what is most important to remember is that we need to be critical of what were using the classroom and why we’re using it.  With my student this year, using technology is an excellent way to encourage engagement and I value many aspects of the programs I use for that reason.

Thanks for reading this very long post and for allowing the time to explore some of the apps I have been using for many years with little research…it makes such a difference to take the time to read the fine print, look at the functionally and make sure it is serving you!

barack obama mic drop GIF

Signing off.  Thanks giphy!

❤ Dani

“Educating the mind without educating the heart,

is no education at all.” – Aristotle

 

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