So, Dick (now he prefers to be called Rich) and Jane are upstairs in their bedrooms, supposedly doing their homework. But you suspect they are doing what they usually do, chatting in Facebook, browsing friends’ Tumblr posts, or looking for funny cat videos on Youtube. Think again.
Students these days are discovering their own applications and tools to enhance their learning online. I’ve learned about some of these tools from my students themselves, as well as through the teenager grapevine. Not only do these applications reveal to us that students are discovering ways to use social media and web tools for more than entertainment, but they tell us something about our kids’ needs in an online environment.
App #1: Anti-Social
A senior at my husband’s school recommends this tool for anyone who has serious work to do and needs to avoid getting sucked into conversations on social media. Basically, for $15 (a free trial is available), you can set a timer and Anti-Social locks you out of Twitter, Facebook, and other distractions you may select. The only way you can get back into these sites is to reboot your computer, and by then you have time to talk yourself out of checking your Google+, and back into doing your U.S. History homework. A similar site for both Mac and PC users is Freedom ($10).
App #2: Write or Die
I was interested to learn about Write or Die (basically $10) from a student who is as gifted at writing as she is at procrastinating. The application, which is available for desktops as well as the iPad, can be programmed to provide a range of “consequences” for neglecting your work. Whether you become distracted by daydreaming about winning American Idol or you find yourself shutting down because you are overwhelmed by the load of assignments on your desk, if you stop writing at the rate you have set for yourself, you can be nudged gently by a pop-up window reminder, commanded back to your task by an annoying sound, or in Kamikaze mode, find your words erasing themselves if you do not write quickly enough. I am a little afraid to ask what Electric Shock Mode will do.
App #3: Study Blue
My eighth-graders first told me about Study Blue when I tried to interest them in Quizlet. It’s no wonder they were already using this free application (upgrades are available for a cost). Students can create and share text or audio flashcards, then review them on their mobile phones (iPhone or Android) in the carpool or on the bus ride home from a basketball game. They can also download them to a computer for when they must work offline (when blocked at school, perhaps?), and take quizzes that remember what they’ve mastered and what they haven’t. Meanwhile, they can post a note on Facebook to warn away would-be distractors. (Teachers can upload course materials and make flashcards to share as well.)
More importantly, this tool speaks to students today as learners of the 21st-century rather than as some “old-school” model of education they can’t quite connect with. The makers of Study Blue emphasize collaboration and purposefulness, empowering students to draw on their own intrinsic motivation to succeed. No wonder my students are flocking to this tool – it’s a powerful message.
App #4: Educreations
Perhaps reluctantly, we must admit that students occasionally may actually tutor one another in Google chat or on Facebook. It’s not completely lost time. One of my frequent student advisors, Karely, turned me on to Educreations, a free application designed for the iPad or laptop that allows the user to create virtual whiteboard lessons with amazing resolution, clear audio voiceover, and animations for sharing via social media or embedding on blogs. Thus, she can help her peers out with a lesson in Pre-Calculus, and likewise, they can post a Chemistry lesson detailing how carbon molecules form for the entire class to learn from, unbeknownst to their teacher who, ironically, longs for the planning time she needs to sit down and create interactive lessons for her students.
App #5: Mindsnacks
Karely, who is one of three students piloting online learning programs in foreign languages our underfunded school cannot afford to offer in face-to-face format, also pointed me in the direction of Mindsnacks (free, with available upgrades, for iStuff). She can reinforce her study of elementary French with cute games that give her access to native speaker audio clips and allow her to work through more than fifty levels of competency tailored to meet her specific needs. When she gets tired of learning French from a mustachioed bookworm sporting a beret, she can try out similar games for SAT vocabulary and Chinese. Other subjects include German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and ESL English for speakers of languages from Spanish to Vietnamese. If students want to learn languages on their own, for pleasure or for enhancing their future employability, they know where to go.
My students were excited to share other applications they thought I should check out. Student Life is your paper student planner on steroids. A similar planner app is myHomework (for iPhone and Android). Students have discovered Skitch for quick screen capture and annotation (I use it all the time). Flashlet allows ordinary human beings to build flash animations. Students use Google Translate to check their Spanish translations, and they take notes with Sticky Notes (for desktops), ColorNote, and EverNote. At a school that was still using floppy disks when I arrived in 2005, the students now cannot live without Dropbox. And Readability separates articles from other web content and allows you to change the format to a more uncluttered, comfortable reading space (including changing background and font colors). You can then save your articles for reading offline (when access is denied?) or send them to a Kindle for reading later.
Still wondering what Rich and Jane are up to when they’re supposed to be doing their homework? They’re figuring out how to learn on their own terms.
Thank you to student advisors Karely Osorio and Brianna Rivera for their creative input, and to my AP English Language class for sharing their learning with me once again.