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Tools for Learning: Connected and Engaged

By Victor Rivero – Posted Jan 1, 2011

Continuing proliferation of social learning platforms, mobile devices, and new apps ease students into real learning.

Online. Blended. Mobile. 21 st-century. Collaborative. Project-based. Any way you label it, learning is changing. After an initial explosion of new technologies, we’re now beginning to pick up the pieces, sort things out, and settle into an exciting new paradigm of connected, engaged learning like we’ve never had.

Online growth is clicking upward at 30% per annum according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Blended, the new norm (Google “blended learning” and witness 1.8 million results and rising) adds a rich concoction of online benefits to traditional classrooms.

Mobile learning is moving the “class” out of the “room,” where academic use of e-readers, handhelds, iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Androids are signaling a mad rate of growth that is expected to drop-call the PC to become the most popular path onto the web within 5 years according to the ITU.

For those considering a classroom cell phone ban, listen up: Analysts observed that at 2009’s end, nearly 520 million mobile device users browsed the web—and by 2010, mobile subscribers had surpassed 5 billion—that’s more than 70% of the world’s population connecting to the web via cells. Can you hear me now?

As for collaborative learning, witness Edmodo’s Facebook-like growth as it chats its way across 10,000 schools in less than 2 years passing a 500,000-user mark, making it the fastest-growing social network for education.

Or how about Blackboard chalking up the acquisition of Wimba and Elluminate to present the most advanced virtual classroom offerings ever, spanning more than 2,600 K–12 and higher education institutions?

In October 2010, Google added some more zeros to its length in announcing that its Google Apps Education Edition topped 10 million users—glutted with nearly 2 million new ones in the brief 2 weeks before school started.

Project-based is the de facto modus operandi for all of education these days; players such as Discovery Education haven’t missed the point as they continue producing enough offerings to begin replacing basal curriculums for entire states, while smaller homegrown players such as Khan Academy get thumbs up for maintaining 92,764 Facebook likes and more than 28 million lessons delivered.

Not to mention Apple-inspired education apps—these little learning gems aren’t going away any time soon. If ever there were a treasure trove of ways to make learning fun—of presenting a school subject in its most fascinating form—well then, students and teachers are striking it rich in this area. Online, blended, mobile, 21 st-century, collaborative, and project-based learning are all rolled into one when you consider the nonstop line of iPad-, iPhone-, iPod touch- and android-compatible applications dropping into learners’ hands.

Whether or not we all feel it (according to the Right to Succeed foundation, more than 50% of our kids are dropping out of high school; in 10 years more than 65 million kids will not be able to sustain themselves and are headed for either welfare or jail; see, there has been a bit of a delayed phenomenon of technology development finally catching up to once nascent academic-minded great intentions, where—if it’s not already too late—a new technology-assisted Golden Age of education is yet possible.

The missing keys that will turn the lock and open up the treasure are our own individual and subsequently combined efforts in making it happen.

Take a look at the sites, services, and resources we’ve noted right here in this article. With these and so many other shining examples of what’s already working, it’s not a mystery of how to get there, but only a matter of will and focus. We’ll remove the barriers that might stand in our way. May these technology tools assist you in moving forward and good luck!

Contact Victor at

Three Heavyweights

Edmodo. This is an academic networking site (akin to Facebook and Twitter) for teachers and students. Check out the homepage for a recently posted brilliant, funky-cool cartoonish video. Using a biology class osmosis analogy, the Edmodo summary employs some irony in defining a new phenomenon in education called “Internet/Social Networking Osmosis,” explaining: “A process that Francesca (McFarsight, fictional classroom teacher) likes to break down like this: the way that students and teachers interact with technology outside of the classroom is driving change within the classroom, and in a good way, for the benefit of learning—if the filter/membrane part works properly. Of course, the best example of this positive phenomenon is Francesca’s favorite new educational tool called Edmodo, the trusted Web 2.0 environment where teachers can safely share ideas, files and assignments with their students and other teachers in real time.” So, yep, it’s social learning for classrooms. And soon enough, possibly even now—this will all feel as tired as a how-Facebook-works lecture.

Glogster. Say that out loud! Feels clunky and sweet, like the Monsters, Inc. movie from Pixar a few years back but offers much more to keep kids engaged in school. A mashup of “graphical blog”—Glogster helps students create interactive posters demonstrating their own personal passions, interests, and knowledge. A virtual version of a student’s very own science fair table, it’s not science-exclusive but accommodates any subject. You’ve used Google as a verb, so try this on: “Edmodo this Glog.” Figure that one out (your students won’t even flinch at what that means) and you are doing all right. Create cool stuff, collaborate on class projects, manage them, search for activities, and align it all to national standards. Glog now at

Discovery Education on iPad. With an initial offering of more than 33,000 video items, this mobile version of the traditional PC-based counterpart recently launched for the iPad. Targeted keyword searches, visual browsing by subject, and video are all there. Advanced search and touchscreen navigation exist now; additional video content, images, audio clips, PDFs, and encyclopedia articles will expand the collection—one of the most immersive and well-done learning experiences you’ll find anywhere.

Top 10 Coolest Apps for Education

For any age and any subject, apps help to present new concepts in their simplest and most interesting form or to offer a treasure trove of tools that would be otherwise impossible to carry around in one’s pockets. Calculators, periodic tables, dictionaries, face-to-face collaboration tools, literary learning guides, art gallery flashcards, math drills, and more make up some of the most attractive and useful learning tools ever assembled for use on a single device. Most of these are iPhone-, iPod touch-, Android- and (some are) iPad-compatible. This list comprises a few of the coolest apps we’ve seen for educational use, but understand that there are new ones coming out every day. The phrase “there’s an app for that” stretches both the educator’s and the developer’s imaginations. Read about them here, but experience them for yourself and write to us with your own favorites!

>> 10

Art. From Picasso, Dali, Warhol, and Matisse to O’Keeffe, Kahlo, Pollock, and more, students can view high-quality images of famous works of art and artist biographies. They can even collect their own pieces by saving pictures to browse through, improving their knowledge of art and art history. With more than 200 artists, more than 6,000 pictures in portrait and landscape modes and even a “who’s the artist?” quiz, this app is a masterpiece you can’t stop looking at.

>> 9

Blackboard Mobile Learn. Works with Blackboard’s web-based teaching and learning software, but your school must enable it before you get started as it provides access to important and secure information. Once enabled, it’s free. Grades, announcements, discussion boards, course blogs, and course content are all here. That’s the really cool part. It’s simply what you’d expect: intuitive and easy to use, and you can post stuff, read assignments, find out what’s new, and take it all with you. The “dog ate my homework” excuses might transform to “forgot all about it because my phone crashed,” but even that’s a “likely” story.

>> 8

PocketCAS Lite. A free graphic calculator, there’s no longer any need to go out and purchase that fancy scientific one you need. Input your formulas and take advantage of the highest number of available mathematical functions anywhere; you’ll be solving every math problem you can imagine. Helpful tutorials guide you through. Contextual help is also available, providing an abundance of examples. Graphs are easily scrolled and zoomable. Being the “lite” version is app-speak meaning the free version, which implies that a pro version is also available for a cost.

>> 7

SkyORB. We’d give this five stars, but it offers so many more. Not just a simple map, it’s actually a 3D planetarium, search engine, and sun clock. Using GPS automatic detection technology, you can fine-tune your observation location, and sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset times are all computed as well. Rotate freely in 360 degrees at 60 frames per second and observe moons, planets, and other celestial bodies. After some use, you’ll begin to understand that you’re standing on a planet and what this particular app offers is all around you.

>> 6

Math Drills Lite. Sure, they’ve been called drill and kill because of potentially tiresome effects on a student who repetitively uses them, but this math driller is graphically rich and fun to use. Number lines, wooden block, facts and hints, as well as the option to work with up to 10 students makes this an entirely enticing experience. Take tests, earn high scores and awards, and turn math into less of a chore and more of a video game. Teachers can visually track student progress with accuracy and speed graphs.

>> 5

Shmoop—To Go. The talented and witty writers at Shmoop invite you to “put a Ph.D. in your pocket.” They’re not kidding, but don’t get the wrong idea. This experience is anything but esoteric and boring. Shmoop is Yiddish for “to move something forward” and that’s exactly what they do for literature, poetry, Shakespeare, best-selling books, U.S. History, civics, economics, biographies, music, and even prealgebra. There are also groovy college application guides, AP exams, and PSAT and SAT help. Not many sites out there have on display such an infectious passion for learning oozing through the words on the site. Read Shmoop eBooks and apps “on a plane, under a tree, in a canoe” and have an absolutely great time!

>> 4

FaceTime. What Skype has done for videoconferencing over the computer, FaceTime is doing for iPhone users. The usefulness of this app cannot be overstated, but it may require some added creativity from students and teachers in terms of just what they are supposed to do with such an opportunity. Project collaboration, field trips to museums and parks, talks with zoo staff, and on-the-spot make-up for physically absent children now virtually present are some of the uses that can be applied with FaceTime.

>> 3 – Dictionary & Thesaurus. The world of learning is open to those who speak the language—but you’ve got to know the words. Carrying around a million of them is no longer a phone-book sized burden, and finding the precise one is as easy as typing it in. There’s also room for 90,000 synonyms and antonyms, and the audio pronunciations are especially nice. For most of the options, you don’t even need an internet connection once you have the app. An interesting gimmick: Shake the device to see a randomly selected word.

>> 2

The Elements: A Visual Exploration. In describing the hardcover book version that this app is based on, one author so eloquently stated: “This glorious book is more than just a guide to the elements; it will fundamentally deepen your appreciation of the substances that make up our world.” Now, that glorious book has been brought alive through one of the most stunning apps ever to walk the halls of a high school. Considering the “toughest class” reputation so often bestowed upon chemistry, this is a clear case of presenting a subject in its simplest and most interesting form in order to elicit its clear and thorough comprehension. No, it’s not the students who were “stupid”—they just lacked the proper Elements—more than 500 freely rotatable live objects one can examine from all sides, leaving no stone unturned.

>> 1

Read Me Stories. Picture books that talk—isn’t that just the cutest thing in the world? Practical too. Drive, shop, or have a coffee while your child takes in new concepts and ideas and learns how to pronounce and read the words that go along with them. There’s a free trial; get a new talking picture every day you use this app. Keep track of your child’s favorites, and if you really can’t get enough, click directly over to Amazon to purchase the print versions. Enjoy them (your young child and these early-reader books) while you still can!



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