First year of the iPad in my art classes

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One of the motivations for starting this blog eighteen months ago was that the school where I work had decided to make the step to a more digital rich form of education with every pupil ultimately working with an iPad.  We are now approaching the end of the first year of this project and our current first years (12 year olds) have a year behind them of an increasingly light school bag and an increasingly full tablet in their bag. It’s time for a little reflection and evaluation I think.

So what have the benefits and gains been this year?

The pupils have always got their books with them.

After years of pupils regularly forgetting to bring the books they need to school, this problem seems to have instantly disappeared. For some reason the pupils never ever forget to bring their iPad! I’d like to think it was because of the lesson material that is now on the tablet and is needed in the lessons, but I’m realistic enough suspect it might have more to do with all the other uses the device has.

My lesson material has never looked so good

I’ve always written all my own lesson material. For years I have sent my booklets of text and images to our school printer to be printed out in black and white. Now though I deliver it as PDFs to the pupils, complete with YouTube films, links to websites and all of it in full colour. The pupils open the booklets in iBooks or some other app where they can make notes on the material, add drawings and so on, before saving all onto the iPad for next lesson.

It almost seems like the pupils like taking notes

Maybe it is still the novelty of the device and the apps, but all the underlining, highlighting, post-it stickers and other accessories that these note taking apps offer almost seems to make the pupils more keen to make their own notes.

Internet access

Instant internet access is really pretty handy in the art room, it really does offer too many possibilities to name!

New creative tools

Yes we still work with paint, pencils, clay and wood. But we do also now work with digital drawing techniques, painting apps, apps that help you explain perspective, ones that allow pupils to build word webs and so on. The drawing and painting apps really offer new sorts of opportunities for a freedom and rapid approach that even the most cautious of young artists seems to respond well to. Some even allow you to play back the process of the development of the image in a short film. These are all aspects that are totally new to my art room this year.

The apps

There are so many out there, the choice is overwhelming. Often the the problem is more finding the ones best suited to your class, and once found remembering to return to them on other occasions. Sharing information and finds with colleagues is crucial in this area.

I’ll post some views about the creativity, and at times pseudo-creativity offered by apps sometime in the future.

Individuality and own pace in lessons

The role of the classical form of teaching has been changing a little through the year. Yes, I do still stand up at the front and explain things to the whole class at times, but other options are coming along too. I’ve experimented with getting pupils to watch YouTube films not on the big screen at the front every time, but also on their iPads with headphones on. They watch at their own pace, stop and replay parts they want to hear again.  The level of focus at these moments seems significantly higher than when we watch as a class. Any discussion I want to have can still take place at the end.

The fact that the iPad is the gateway to so much information offers great possibilities for assignment extensions for early finishers or even alternative routes for pupils struggling with one particular approach or assignment.

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So all in all a positive experience generally. It’s an extra dimension, and extra opportunity, in fact I don’t really have the feeling that anything much has been replaced or lost by the arrival of the iPad in my art lessons. That though is not to say that there haven’t been some less positive aspects and downsides to this first year.

Everyone moving at about the same speed?

It was inevitable and easily predicted, but the way that all users, pupil and staff, get to grips with the new device varies enormously. We’ve offered lots of in-school workshop sessions to guide and instruct colleagues in various areas which have undoubtedly been useful, but it is fair to say that the staff members who are making the most progress are the ones who have stopped to ask themselves “what can I do with this new device in my lessons” and subsequently have had the drive to try and find some answers for themselves.

A series of practical problems……

Fortunately practical problems are often the ones that are the simplest to resolve, but they are problems nonetheless.

I’ve lost count of the number of broken iPad screens that I have seen this year. A twelve year old’s school bag would seem to be a dangerous place for digital devices.

Memory problems have increasingly become a problem as the year has gone on. For the pupils this has often arisen because of the games and other non-school apps that have been installed. But my 16Gb iPad Air is also constantly reaching the point of being full, purely with work related material. My advice…?, buy the biggest capacity that you can afford.

One of the big potential gains of iPad supported education is being able to connect your iPad to the large screen at the front of the class, be that a beamer, smart board or large scale LCD screen. Personally I have found this to be fantastic this year, conducting your lesson from the back of the class, or from sitting next to a particularly troublesome pupil! I can draw on my iPad and it appears on the screen, I am liberated from the computer at my desk.  Or at least I am if the connection between the iPad and the computer works well, and there lies the problem. We have huge problems throughout the school with this connection this year, a frustrating business!

Attention please….

The presence of all the possibilities the iPad offers, sitting there on the desk in front of pupils, is at times difficult to resist. All teachers are in the process of having to discover new ways to keep pupils on task.  In the art room I have to say my experience of this problem is relatively small, when we’re not actually using the iPad it goes away in the bag. Paint and clay don’t mix too well with such devices, but where lesson material and workbooks are all on the iPad it is asking more creativity from the teacher.

Creativity

Maybe at the moment, my biggest disappointment with the iPad is the way that on the surface so called ‘creative’ apps are anything but creative.  So many of them offer a wealth of readymade solutions or ‘one-click wizards’ that might give eye catching results, but are the pupils actually being creative in making these digital products. This is a particularly interesting area for me, perhaps the most interesting of all the iPad developments in the classroom and it certainly warrants a more extensive post at a later date, how do we stimulate creativity with the device?

Other potential problems/issues

Time issues are a well-known problem in educationland, the arrival digital lesson opportunities requires extra work and a process of discovery that not all teachers are willing or able to embark on. School leaders should make no mistake, staff have to be facilitated in time and support is a school wants such a digital project to succeed.

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Why was it teachers want smaller classes again…?

A few month ago on this blog I wrote a piece about the unique situation (at least unique for me), I found myself in of having one class of just sixteen pupils. I found myself reflecting on the educational opportunities such a small group offered me as an art teacher.

This week I return to school and it is fair to say that normality has returned with a bang, at least in terms of the numbers in my classes, except somewhat worse than every other year I can remember in my 13 years of teaching. The forthcoming year I am teaching six different classes, three younger classes for art and design and three slightly older classes for a broader art and cultural studies class. All these lessons involve a mixture of theory and practical lessons.

The overall picture is as follows:

1st years (12-13 year olds), one class of 30 pupils

3rd years (14-15 year olds), one class of 25 pupils and one class of 29 pupils

4th years (15-16 year olds), one class of 28 pupils  and two of 32 pupils

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Thirty two is more than I’ve ever taught. I don’t like to start the year with a moan or a rant, but how can this be good for the quality of education that we offer?  Way too much of my time in these situations is spent simply being a sort of technician, ensuring everyone has their work and their materials at the start and that everything gets cleared up and put away at the end of the hour. Where’s the space for the teaching? Well it’s in there somewhere squeezed in between the start-up and the closing down phase.  Needless to say, it’s not so much time, and spread between thirty two pupils there is not a lot of space for differentiation towards the abilities of the various types of pupils in the group. Individual assistance…..so often needed in a practical art class is close to impossible for more than just a few seconds!

I said in my earlier piece that education quality has everything to do with class size and class size has everything to do with quality. I find myself right at the beginning of the school year looking at my course plans, particularly for those two classes of thirty two and thinking how can I slim this down, what can I get rid of?  This simply being to make it possible to cope with the deluge of written marking work that such a class produce and to make the lessons themselves work practically with thirty two sixteen year olds filling a classroom to a level of over capacity.

From the very first lesson of the year the education is being compromised and the quality reduced. This is why we need smaller classes.

If anyone has similar problems or suggestions on how to deal with these challenges I’d be only too glad to hear them!

An Apple for the teacher and one for the pupils

The first day back after the summer holidays normally starts with the the slightly autumnal sight of low mist hanging over the flat Dutch river landscape that I cross in the train as I make my way to work on the train.  This year was no different, the sight being accompanied by a watery sunshine.

A familiar start, but this year there are some significant differences to the start of the year. Perhaps the biggest of these is the step towards a more digital form of education and the arrival of iPads in the classrooms where I teach. It is going to be a step by step process, beginning with the first years and gradually building through in subsequent years.

Personally, I have only one first year class (of thirty pupils) who I will see twice a week for an hour their art lessons. They will arrive, doubtless clasping their new iPads. What will they be expecting from their new school and it’s iPad supported education? To be honest I really find it hard to know what they will be expecting, at this point I still find it fairly difficult to predict how my own classes are going to be effected by the iPad if I try to look six months ahead! I’ve had a number of training sessions, I’ve experimented a little and my first module of lesson material is ready in digital form to be opened in iBooks. I would describe myself as reasonably capable in the digital world, but discovering just how much the iPad offers above and beyond what a normal laptop offers is the area that is the area of expansion.

The opportunities in the App Store is vast. The possibilities for developing a more activating form of education an ever broadening horizon. Yet how does this all work for an art teacher, we have always had a whole variety of activating and engaging approaches that our colleagues in other departments didn’t have?  We can reach for the paint, the collage, the printmaking tools or the clay the stimulate and activate our pupils.

These techniques will of course remain, so where is the gain going to be? Is it going to be in the ready and close to hand access to art history and other cultural contexts offered by the internet, the access point to which is now going to lying on the pupils desk during the lesson? Is it going to be through teaching aids in the form of demonstration films on YouTube or Vimeo? Or is it going to be by using the iPad as a new creative tool in the form as a drawing or painting tablet or maybe as a camera or filmmaking device? Or will it be through one of those handy apps that allow you to give your lessons a new and playful approach?

What are the teaching staff ready for, what are the pupils ready for? Horizons certainly are changing, I feel ready, but at the same time have I rarely felt that there is more to learn.

Time will tell how it all pans out, but I am certainly open for suggestions, so feel free to post any art education related iPad ideas or suggestions.

Is iTunes U the future?

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It is couple of months since I was given an iPad by the school where I work as preparation for the new school year in late August when we will be switching to a digitally driven form of education. Initially it will be all our first years (12 year olds) who will all have an iPad in their school bag, but then, year on year it will spread through the school. I, like others at school, have been following courses and familiarizing myself with some of the possibilities.

There are a huge amount of possibilities and some fantastic apps out there that are going to offer some very creative and new directions to what I do in my art and cultural awareness lessons. I really am quite enthusiastic about the project, if perhaps a little daunted by the shear amount of work involved. All changes in education cost teachers and educators time and effort, but this feels like a real ground shift.

One of the recent courses I attended was for iTunes U. In short iTunes U is a project, with an accompanying app, that is aimed at teachers world-wide at all levels of education. The philosophy is that great education material is being developed everywhere and too often doesn’t get shared and passed around.  Huge numbers of educational institutions are becoming involved from the likes of Oxford and Harvard universities right down to primary schools. Apple are putting a huge amount of resources into facilitating the education of teaching staff to make use of iTunes U, for me there was a two day, free of charge course at the icentre in Amsterdam on offer.

I am new to this all, and am having to learn and pick things up as I go along, but I am at the moment a little perplexed by what iTunes U seems to offer and in particular how it relates to the arts, cultural and design areas of education.

I am more than happy if there is someone out there who can tell me that I am perhaps mistaken, or not seeing all the possibilities that are actually on offer.  However at the moment a couple of points seem to be particularly problematic, at least from my own arts related direction.

Firstly, from my art teacher’s perspective there is the copyright issue. My understanding from the iTunes U course that I followed was that Apple are only too aware of the potential copyright minefield that the idea of a sort of open source library of education material might become. As a result they only what original material, and supporting material that comes from a sort of Creative Commons perspective. This is all fine and well, but try writing a piece of art education material without making use of examples of the work of others. Art teachers the world over are used to, normally for just their own usage and certainly not on a commercial level, playing quite fast and loose with the work of others. They want to illustrate a particular point or inspire in a particular way, so they insert appropriate examples into their lesson material.

They would probably normally defend their position, rightly or wrongly, behind a sort of fair use argument. They are simply trying to place an activity in a cultural context or guide an activity in a particular way.  If, as Apple seem to be saying, this sort of referencing of cultural context places the material outside the remit of iTunes U, then the resulting material is likely to end up being a rather dry and unstimulating sort of experience, which brings brings me nicely onto my second point.

When I was at teacher training college it was hammered into me regularly that you should make your lesson material visually interesting to look at. Publishers of lesson material know this to be important and spend great deal of time and effort designing their products to attract and lead the attention of the reader. As a visual artist, and someone with an interest in design, I have always worked hard to make sure that the material I produce for my pupils looks well-made and engaging. With all this in mind I am bewildered by iTunes U, a system where as far as I have seen so far, everything ends up looking the same. A sort of list structure that folds out to reveal text, links, film, routes to apps and so on. The content in the end might be fantastic, but the entrance route to it seems dull to say the least.

If anyone knows a different perspective on these two reservations I would be only too happy to hear it and be corrected, but for now I see myself continuing to produce eye-catching PDF files with all the links I need embedded into them and then directly mailed to the pupils who need them.