Popular Apps

Note: My blog is moving to http://dteuber.blogspot.com/. I’m posting to both sites until I make the final updates.

We recently held a focus group session in our district to get feedback from teachers and students about the progress of our 1:1 computing initiative. Across the board, everyone in the room had positive things to say about our suite of applications that we use district-wide on a daily basis – Google Apps for Education.  Google Apps fills many of our needs with GMail, calendars, Google Sites for teacher and student websites, and Google Drive for document creation and sharing. However, as one student was leaving the room, she had a parting comment for us. She told us that teachers are “app happy” and it can be very frustrating for a student to go home and have 12 different apps to use. Out of the mouths of our students!

I’ve been in education a long time and have never seen such a clamor from everyone for more apps. We seem to have lost the focus. It’s not about using a bunch of apps – it’s about choosing applications that will fill a need that we have for student learning. I’m tired of the App sessions at conferences and the oohs and aahs of people downloading yet one more app. And I too am guilty of offering sessions on using Apps. With our device choices, we feel a need to make sure that everyone knows that there are good apps available. Teachers also need to know how to go to the app store and download apps.

It’s also not about the device. Our schools are going to continue to have a variety of devices and the BYOD movement is just going to complicate matters more. Choose a product that will run on all devices. Don’t sell your soul out to a hardware company. A company with a good product will create apps for a variety of mobile devices.  And don’t forget that many products work best in a full web browser. It really is okay to use laptops and desktop computers that you already have in your school. You don’t need to purchase the latest and greatest device to use great resources.

We need to pull back a little in our constant search for apps. No district or school can possibly support the thousands of apps that are available in all of the apps stores (iTunes Store, Google Play, Chrome Web Store, Amazon, etc.) Many of the apps in those stores are great and fit some our needs. Some apps are specialized and work well for our diverse student population.

The problem with using lots of apps is that you need to provide professional development support and IT support for all of those apps. I receive e-mails every day from schools about problems with particular apps. I’ve also made the mistake of recommending an app to a teacher and then discovering that there are problems that make the app difficult to support. Instead of downloading everything and then expecting the district staff to support the app, come up with a list of your needs. Then bring a group of students, teachers, administrators, district IT staff, and academics staff together to start looking at apps using a defined set of criteria. Here are some questions to ask:

  1. Do we already have products in place in our school or district that will fill our need? Make a plan to improve your professional development and start using those products more effectively. A small set of great tools is far better than a hundred tools that aren’t effective.
  2. If the app is free, is the free version robust enough to support the needs of the teachers and students?
  3. Can you find the name of a company representative to call or e-mail? If you can’t, don’t investigate that app any further. The products that we use the most in our district all have representatives who call me regularly to ask how we’re doing. They look at our usage statistics and provide suggestions and ideas to improve our use of the product. We’ve been burned before by companies going out of business or suddenly wanting to charge for services. I recently had to say goodbye to a lot of great Ning content that was created when the product was free.
  4. Is the app going to be hard for the IT department to support because of web filtering issues? I often hear complaints from teachers that the “evil” IT department is blocking the apps that they need to use. When our engineers go under the hood to investigate the problem they often find a long list of IP addresses that need to be unblocked to allow the app to work. Chasing around those IP addresses can be a full time job. Prezi went down for a few days in our district because Prezi moved the hosting of their content to another service that was blocked by our web filter. Our engineer had to chase down a long list of IP addresses to get things up and running again.
  5. How is the content that students create using the app saved? Where is the content hosted? Can you easily share the content? Don’t make the process so difficult for teachers and students that no one wants to use the app.
  6. Does the application run on a variety of devices? As I said before, don’t lock yourself into an app that will only run on one type of device. Try it out on all your devices. In many training sessions that I lead, there are a variety of devices in the room. It helps to know ahead of time that the application will work on all (or most) devices.
  7. What is the cost for the full product? Is it a district or school subscription fee based on the number of users? What happens to your content when you stop paying for the service? Is there a way to access usage statistics to monitor how and how often the product is being used?

Start with some of these questions and create a rubric to evaluate the resources. Many districts have created rubrics for evaluating software and Web 2.0 sites. Keep in mind the saying, “Less is More,” and I can assure you that you’ll be happy with your apps and not “app happy.”

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