Technology in Education: Student Engagement Through iPods

I love talking with people of a certain age who have never taught in a classroom. The conversation generally starts with a line something like this: “You teach high school? I don’t know how you do it!” Once that fact has been established, my conversation mate generally meanders through all of the ills that have befallen our public schools in the past decade, me murmuring my own opinions about my profession from time to time (which are generally countered with a “Well, back in my day… ” dismissal). We come to an end of our chat with my new acquaintance sighing and then summing up the vast problems of adolescents today by saying something along the lines of “Kids just aren’t the same these days.”

While I smile politely through most of the conversation, secretly (or not so secretly) disagreeing with many statements, I do tend to agree with that final statement: kids just AREN’T the same these days. It is almost dizzying to think of how much our world has changed in just the past decade (use the size of a cell phone as a measuring stick if necessary). How could we expect our youths to stay the same? Theirs is a world of texting, tweeting, Googling, and Facebooking, and none of these things were common knowledge (much less common verbs!) when I was in high school, even though that was only a short ten years ago. Instead of bemoaning that the students of today aren’t responding to the standard method of delivering instruction, we should meet them on their own playing field, integrating technology into our everyday practice. With this thought in mind, I structured my classroom around the use of iPods, and I quickly learned that dedicated educators have the opportunity of harnessing so much educational potential through one tiny device.

I became the shepardess of thirty iPod Touches as a sort of fluke; I was a young English teacher, and my school district had just received a grant to place these devices in English, Math, and Science classes that were preparing for our state’s standardized tests. The cart resembled R2-D2 from Star Wars, and it had a slot for each numbered iPod that came complete with a cord that connected it to the cart itself; this allowed for mass charging and syncing of the iPods. Inside the cart, I found that I was also furnished with a Macbook, a digital presenter, and a wireless hotspot.

Instead of the excitement I’m sure I was meant to feel (oh the entitlement of being one of the first teachers in the district to be part of this new wave in education!), I was completely freaked out. Nothing in my limited teaching experience thus far, not to mention my education courses in college, had prepared me for managing or using iPods with my students. What in the heck was I supposed to do with these things? Weren’t they just for listening to music and playing the occasional game? What was I supposed to do if a student walked out with one? For that matter, what was stopping them from coming in after hours and wheeling out the entire cart? I was besieged by thoughts of mass educational failure, followed by the inevitable termination of my teaching position, and I counted myself as very unlucky indeed to be chosen for such an “honor.”

I eventually overcame my terror and created a system where each student was assigned an iPod by his or her seat in the classroom. Students and parents signed a waiver at the beginning of the school year that had them acknowledge that they would be responsible for half of the iPod’s cost if theirs was to go missing or become damaged beyond normal wear and tear. Each desk was furnished with an iPod “parking space,” which was simply a laminated piece of paper that had the outline of an iPod that included the iPod number assigned to that desk and the rules for using the iPods; when the iPods were not in use, students were to turn them face-down in their parking space. Students were to pick up their assigned iPods from the cart when first entering the classroom and return them during clean-up time, about three minutes prior to the bell ringing. Because I was teaching five separate sections of tenth and eleventh graders throughout the day, this system made management of the devices easy and also prevented students from simply playing with their iPods when instruction was occurring.

My first foray into using the iPods was very simplistic, but it eventually grew into an effective research project. By simply using the Safari application, I had students look up various facts about our next author and answer questions on a worksheet. This first project turned out to be a little too basic (and a little too much like looking up facts in a textbook), so we added another element to our next project. When we were beginning our unit on Zora Neale Hurston, I created a modified webquest by simply looking up informative websites and saving the links to my PortaPortal website. I then created a shortcut on the iPods to my PortaPortal site. Students were placed into groups and assigned the job of creating “Farcebook” profile pages that had to include posts, biographical information, and friends that would have been included if Zora Neale Hurston had had a social networking site like Facebook. Different variations of this project became a regular event in my classroom because my students felt like they weren’t doing “real research” because of the format of the final product, and they were much more amenable to finding the information using the iPods than they had been when doing a similar project using printed materials.

After that initial success, I began to investigate more specialized apps. I soon found that some simple (and free!) games from the App Store could be used as quick and efficient bell ringers (or warm-ups). Right before our standardized tests, my remediation students began using Miss Spell’s Class for the first five minutes of class every other day to review commonly misspelled words. Students would record their scores on index cards that I would collect for participation credit at the end of class. We would also often start class with Chicktionary, a game that requires letters to be rearranged to spell different words; I would ask students to write down one word from their game that they weren’t familiar with and then use their dictionary app to find the definition. Depending on the amount of time we had in class, I could extend this activity so that students had to use that word in a sentence or quiz a partner on the meaning of the word. We also made use of the Grammar Up app as a way of reviewing concepts prior to an assessment.

For my more advanced students, I started a class blog that allowed us to create “silent discussions” where students could use their iPods to respond to discussion questions. I would post a question on the site before class began, and students would respond in class by commenting on the post and then responding to posts from their classmates. I molded this activity in several different ways, including having students use certain sentence structures in their comments (i.e. you must use a compound sentence in your post) and also having them post their own questions for the class to “silently” discuss. This activity became a favorite of my students because it allowed the quiet students (who wouldn’t speak at all in regular discussions but often had wonderful ideas) to express themselves, and it was also fun to see just how long a class of twenty-five tenth graders could sit in a room together and be verbally silent while they were interacting with each other on their devices.

I also utilized the iPods as an easy way to differentiate instruction. My eleventh grade remediation class had students with who received special education assistance as well as students who were just shy of cutting it in the regular level course. Because of this wide array of ability levels, it was often difficult to deal with behavior management, as students would either be bored because instruction was too slow for them or begin acting out as a mask for not grasping the concepts as quickly as the others. By putting an audio copy of the books that we were reading in class on each iPod and creating reading guides that highlighted concepts that we had discussed as a class, students could work at their own pace while I circulated throughout the room and provided assistance to individuals. The reading guides eventually turned into an Easter egg hunt of sorts, with questions such as “After reading Chapter 2, look back at page 5 and copy the example of personification used there.”

In addition to the techniques I described in detail above, I implemented the iPods in a myriad other ways. Google Docs helped me to create simple multiple choice (and even short answer) assessments that could be completed on the iPods; these gave me an instant picture of how students were doing with concepts that we were discussing in class. iBooks’ PDF feature allowed me to upload copies of my PowerPoint presentations so students who were absent could come in and copy notes quickly. The pre-loaded camera app allowed my students to take pictures and videos of group projects. The QR Code reader allowed me to create scavenger hunts where students would scan the codes, be sent to sites or videos, and answer questions for a project. The best part was, I was only on the tip of the iceberg; I can’t even begin to imagine what these devices could do in other disciplines and grade levels.

Now, with all this said, I am not saying that the iPod Touch is the final word in student engagement; in fact, by the time that this article is read, this piece of technology may be completely outdated. iPads, Android devices, and other devices have just as much potential; I have just spoken from my work with the technology that was made available to me. The point that should be drawn from my experience is that as educators, we must also be innovators; we can’t stick to the same classroom strategies and expect that engagement will come naturally. The classroom must morph and change with the rest of the world.

If a reader is looking for a place to start with technology in the classroom, I hope that this article has provided some useful tips as well as a little inspiration. However, I am also hopeful that this article becomes outdated quickly as teachers continue to develop fresh approaches. Using the media that students are already comfortable with to engage those young minds in the important work of the classroom just makes sense.

Is the Carrot and Stick Method Useful in Higher Education?

Consider how the process of learning begins for students. As a general perceptual rule, when students begin their degree programs they hope to obtain good grades, useful skills, and relevant knowledge. The tuition paid assures placement in a class and there are implied results that students expect as a product of their involvement in that class. In contrast, instructors expect that students will obey the academic rules, perform to the best of their abilities, and comply with specific class requirements that include deadlines for completion of learning activities.

For students, grades serve as an indicator of their progress in class, a symbol of their accomplishments and failures, and a record of their standing in a degree program. I have heard many students state that their primary goal for the class was to earn what they refer to as “good grades” – even though they may not be fully aware of what constitutes a good grade for them. When students aren’t achieving good grades, or the minimum expected by instructors and/or the school, instructors may try to nudge them on – either through positive motivational methods such as coaching and mentoring, or negative motivational methods that include threats and a demeaning disposition.

I found that many educators dangle a carrot in front of their students through indirect methods, such as the potential to earn a better grade, as an “A” in an indicator of the ultimate achievement in school. There may be incentives given to prompt better performance, including additional time or a resubmission allowance for a written assignment, as a means of encouraging students to perform better.

My question is whether the focus of teaching in higher education should be on the carrot we dangle in front of students to perform better or should there be more of a focus on what motivates each individual student to perform to the best of their abilities? In other words, do we need to be dangling something in front of students to serve as a source of motivation?

What is the Carrot and Stick Method?

I believe that most people understand the meaning of dangling a carrot in front of students to motivate them. The phrase is actually based upon a tale about a method of motivating a donkey and while the carrot is dangling in front of it, the stick is used to prod the animal along. The carrot serves as a reward and the stick is used as a form of reinforcement and punishment for non-compliance.

This approach is still used in the workplace, even subconsciously by managers, as a method of motivating employees. The carrot or incentives may include a promotion, pay increase, different assignments, and the list continues. The stick that is used, or the punishment for not reaching specific goals or performance levels, may include demotion or a job loss. A threat of that nature can serve as a powerful motivator, even if the essence of this approach is negative and stressful.

The Carrot and Stick Approach in Higher Education

If you are uncertain about the use of this approach in higher education, consider the following example. You are providing feedback for a written assignment and it is now the halfway point in the class. For one particular student, you believe they have not met the criteria for the assignment and more importantly, they have either not put in enough effort, they did not perform to your expectations, or they did not live up to their full potential.

It is worth mentioning that your beliefs about students are shaped by how you view them and their potential. In other words, I try to see my students as individuals who have varying levels of performance and that means some will be further along than others. In contrast, instructors who believe they do not have enough time to get to know their students as individuals may view the class as a whole and set an expectation regarding the overall performance level that all students should be at for this particular point in the class.

Returning to the example provided, my question to you is this: Do you reward the attempt made by the student or do you penalize that student for what you perceive to be a lack of effort? As a faculty trainer, I have interacted with many faculty who believe that all students should be high performers and earning top grades, regardless of their background and prior classes. When students fail to meet that expectation, there is a perception that students either do not care, they are not trying, or they are not reading and applying the feedback provided. The instructor’s response then is to dangle a carrot (incentive) and use the stick to try to change the necessary student behaviors.

Relevance for Adult Learning

There is a perception held by many educators, especially those who teach in traditional college classes, that the instructors are in control and students must comply. This reinforces a belief within students that they do not have control over their outcomes and that is why many believe grades are beyond their control. I have seen many students stop trying by the time they were enrolled in a class I was teaching simply because they could not make a connection between the effort they have made to the outcomes or grades received. In other words, while they believed they were doing everything “right” – they were still getting poor grades.

At the heart of the adult learning process is motivation. There are as many degrees of motivation as there are types of students and it is not realistic to expect that all students will be performing at the same level. I’ve learned through time and practice that adult student behaviors do not or will not permanently change as a result of forced compliance. However, behaviors will change in time when an instructor has built a connection with their students and established a sense of rapport with them. I encourage instructors to think beyond dangling a carrot and try to influence behavior, and not always through the use of rewards.

From a Carrot to a Connection

It is important for instructors to create a climate and classroom conditions that are conducive to engaging students, while becoming aware of (and recognizing) that all students have a capacity to learn and some gradually reach their potential while others develop much more quickly. My instructional approach has shifted early on from a rewards or carrot focus to a student focus. I want to build connections with students and nurture productive relationships with them, even when I am teaching an online class and have the distance factor to consider. I encourage students to make an effort and I welcome creative risks. I teach students to embrace what they call their failures as valuable learning lessons. I encourage their involvement in the learning process, prompt their original thinking during class discussions, and I teach them that their efforts do influence the outcomes received.

I recognize that this type of approach is not always easy to implement when classroom management is time consuming, and this is especially true for adjunct instructors. However, at a very minimum it can become an attitude and part of an engaging instructional practice. I encourage instructors to include it as part of their underlying teaching philosophy so they recognize and work to implement it. Every educator should have a well-thought out teaching philosophy as it guides how they act and react to students and classroom conditions. A student focus, rather than a carrot and stick focus, creates a shift in perspective from looking first at the deficits of students and seeing their strengths – along with their potential. It is an attitude of looking away from lack and looking towards meaning in the learning process, and a shift from seeing an entire class to viewing students individually. My hope is that this inspires you to re-evaluate and re-examine how teach your students and consider new methods of prompting their best performance.

Make Classes Educational, Not Recreational

Your lessons should be the most expensive in town. If they aren’t, you’re short changing yourself and your staff. If you don’t have the money to pay your staff the best wages in your area and buy the latest equipment and products to improve your curriculum, your program will go stagnant. But to be the most expensive and stay in business, you have to deliver the goods. Parents write their checks for their children’s lessons thinking, “Is this worth it?” Every lesson you must make those parents say, “Wow!” With your exceptional staff, facility, and curriculum, you can do that. The easiest way to make parents appreciate your program and realize its value is to show them you are more educational than recreational.

Parents will pay more for education than recreation. Even in difficult times they’ll pay more for a child to learn than to play. How do we show them that our preschool dance and gymnastics classes are educational?

First, you must educate parents on the benefits of the program. That should start with their first contact with you-usually a telephone call asking about enrollment and instructional information. Make sure you and your office staff know exactly what to say; avoid assigning your newest or least-experienced employee to answer the phones. (Parents, after all, think they are talking to you-the boss or head teacher-regardless of who attempts to answer their queries.) Type out a script or “cheat sheet” with all the current and vital information on it. Tape it near the telephone so whoever answers the call can give an intelligent, informative answer. At my gym, I have sales scripts for each of the types of programs and classes we offer and also a “new student checklist.” It’s a form so the office staff can be sure they relay the necessary information and that we get the necessary information. At every telephone, we have an “Info Book” which is a 5×7 3-ring binder with a card of every class we offer and the requirements to get into that class, the apparel and its cost, the teachers and their qualifications, and what they need to know to register for that class.

When the customer first brings their children into your gym, take time to give them a tour of the facility (set appointment times if necessary). During the tour explain your mission statement, dress code and viewing policies, and what the classes will be like. Have an exact tour script that every staff member has memorized.

From the first contact with your school, use a vocabulary that makes parents think of schools and education: tuition, not class fees, institute, academy, or school instead of club or studio, teacher or instructor instead of coach, trainer or demonstrator, semester or quarter instead of sessions, student, not child, and administrator or director instead of owner. Use words such as school secretary or registrar, curriculum and syllabus or lesson plans, school policies, teacher’s open house (not open gym or studio).

Position your advertising and marketing to suggest that you run a school, not a studio or workout space. At the bottom of my print advertisements, I say “your educational gymnastic and dance experts since 1969.”

I recommend your preschool program have its own name and identity, such as my “Tumblebear Gym Program.” It describes what we do in class and separates our preschool program from my facility name, “Patti’s All-American, the Leader in Gymnastics, Dance, and Swim.” Our mascots are Tina and Teddy Tumblebear; the word tumblebear suggests that tumbling will be involved and with the bears, it probably means little kids. I didn’t name it tumblbear gymnastics program because I knew during the gymnastic section of the classes, we would be doing other things than just gymnastics. For instance, we use a parachute occasionally for the preschoolers, we do hand/eye coordination drills, and use props such as ropes, hoops, sticks, scarves, and balls. If you’re going to do creative movement, then call your program something like American Academy’s Creative Movement program. But if your customer comes in expecting a split class of ballet and bars, beam, floor, etc., and you have them doing a lummi stick routine and throw bean bags into laundry baskets, you will disappointed them. If your office staff educates the caller about what to expect in class, they will be supportive and enthusiastic about the process.

Frame a mission statement and/or philosophy and display it in your lobby or waiting area. Then live by it. Include it in your employee application and orientation packets, and ask that your staff members agree to it. Inspect and evaluate your teaching and clerical staff periodically (it’s called responsible supervision). You must inspect what you expect. And, always do it many times when you first get a new teacher.

If your school allows parents and other caregivers to watch classes, talk to the observers during or after class about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you’re teaching a parent/tot class, you have a prime opportunity to explain the program while they’re in class. Using phrases like “child directed,” “teachable moment,” and “success oriented” will enhance your credibility. Explain, for example, that learning animal walks will help the children learn a cartwheel later on. That they child must understand the difference between a bent knee and a straight leg in a “bear walk” and a “camel walk.” Point out that by going sideways down a balance beam, a child improves their laterality, a skill needed for reading readiness.

Getting into kindergarten and passing the pre-kindergarten testing is a big deal to parents of preschoolers. Get a copy of the tests for kindergarten from your area school district. On the test my school system uses (which is standard for the State of Indiana), there are twelve skill areas. We work on four of them in our program: gross motor skills, rote counting, identification of body parts, and ability to follow verbal directions. If parents understand that your classes better prepare the preschool child for school, they will stick with your program. And if they really believe in your program, they will enroll younger siblings and spread the word to their friends.

In your lesson plans you can introduce a word of the week, color of the week, or letter or number of the week to “increase vocabulary” or “color awareness.” Incorporate items like this in your daily teaching even when it isn’t structured on your lesson plan. Perhaps you should add a category called “convey educational aspects.” Take a few moments to jot down those important reasons and relay them to the parents.

Understand and use buzz phrases such as “developmentally appropriate skills” and “age appropriate activities.” Developmentally appropriate skills are those that a child may be ready for according to their physical or mental capacity instead of what age they are. For example, a hotshot six-year-old could be ready for a back handspring because she has been in the program for three years and has sufficient shoulder flexibility and arm strength. Most gymnastic skills, though, are somewhat age-related, not age determined. Age appropriate means just that-activities that are appropriate for a particular age. For example, a Barney song for warm-up could be appropriate for a parent and tot class for two- and three-year-olds, but it would probably die in a more worldly class of five-year-olds.

Involve your preschool staff in preparing the lesson plans. This brainstorming approach keeps a high level of creative ideas flowing, which is such an important (and often draining) part of preschool education. It also reinforces the use of educationally oriented vocabulary among teachers. Being part of the preparation creates a feeling of ownership and can help teachers “sell” the educational approach.

Your focus is to provide as much education as you can in your classes and to relay that to your parents. This will make a difference in your classes, what customers think of your business, AND your bottom line.