i Before E? Outdoor Learning and the iPad

We’re notorious for acronyms in the education world.  We bandy about initials to each other all day and chatter on about LEAs, SENs, the ISI and so forth, finding ourselves having to switch back to normal English whenever we’re dealing with those who don’t live their whole lives in the world of education – like parents for instance.  EL used to mean English Language (in terms such as ELL and BEL) but now it’s gone the way of LOL and changed.  EL now refers to the realm of outdoor learning and can either mean expeditionary learning or experiential learning depending which side of the Atlantic the speaker hails from – and what professional development course he or she took most recently!

In both cases the E refers to the experience of the learner.  Learning outside takes away the physical and figurative ceiling on the learning space and allows the learner to engage with the learning material in new ways.  At ACS we have the most amazing campus it has ever been my privilege to work with, and it would be a crime if we had not long ago put outdoor learning at the top of our agenda.  The introduction of iPads has enhanced our provision of outdoor learning.  Technology being almost as notorious as education for the prevalence of acronyms (iOS, LAN, PS3, Wii etc.) one might say the “i” has in no way compromised the “E”.  But it does come as a surprise to people that this is the case.  It seems we have an assumption that technology is an indoor thing and that the outdoors is somehow tech-free.

Our most recent visiting experts in the world of outdoor education (Julia Robertson, Bushcraft, Forest Schools) all disagree with that assumption.  For a long time now, but particularly since Julia’s visit last fall we have made efforts to incorporate iPads into our outdoor lessons with conspicuous (if nascent) success.  Here are some illustrated examples:

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 18.02.14

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 18.04.47Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 18.06.56First Graders Take iPads Into The Woods On Their Mushroom Walk

Accurate identification of fungi sometimes depends on being able to examine the gills on the underside of the fungus. This often leads to careless handling breaking the fungal stem. Mirrors are the traditional way round this problem, but the iPad offers a superior alternative in the shape of the inbuilt camera. The captured image of the fungus’ underside can then be compared with an online database, a teacher-prepared database or (as is the case in the last picture above) a traditional chart.

IMG_6166 IMG_6168 IMG_6170High School Computing Class Using iPads to Emulate Camera Shake

Here we jump to the other end of the school scale and see a high school (tenth grade) computing class.  They have been designing video games. We caught them on a day when they were using a combination of iOS and Mac apps to insert real world camera footage into their games. The teacher explained that an important component of video game authenticity is the camera shake you get when you’re moving through an environment. The students took their iPads outside and filmed as they walked a few steps along the road.  This shake was then imported into an emulation app on the Macs and integrated with their video games. Next stop is composing the music.  This too can be done on the iPad.

IMG_1474 IMG_1472 IMG_1466Measurement Of Angles (4th grade)

Finally, last Friday (February 8th 2013) I caught up with a fourth grade class measuring shadow angles by photographing and marking them, and then both using on-screen and manipulative protractors to work out the size of each in degrees.  This maths lesson could easily have been done indoors in a stuffy classroom.  It was a cold day, but as the teacher explained “there’s no such thing as bad weather: only inappropriate clothing”. Well wrapped-up children got some fresh air and the chance to contextualise content and the experience of learning in an outdoor setting. How bad can that be?

What is notable about the above examples is that they incorporated iPads with other forms of technology (analogue and digital) as well as with the outdoors.  We have certainly loved using specialist expeditionary learning apps like Aurasma in the school’s many outdoor learning locations, and such apps remain awe-inspiring. But it is important to include easy-to-master lessons such as the shadow angles too. These give both teachers and students the confidence to experiment and to see that at its simplest level outdoor learning is nothing more than learning outdoors.


The Bits that Can Trip You Up (if you’re not careful)

January was a month of frenetic activity at ACS as we expanded our 1:1 iPad rollouts to multiple grade levels at the Cobham campus as well as significant expansions at the other three campuses.  The Cobham campus roll-out was in the order of 700 new devices, which called for serious consideration of logistics.

On such a scale the manual management of devices becomes impossibly time-consuming. We have been using a mobile device management (MDM) system on a trial basis at the Hillingdon campus, and with the large numbers involved at Cobham it was important that we started at least the middle and high school rollout with this MDM.  The lower school devices will be migrated to this MDM over the coming weeks. This means potentially taking a small short-term hit in the apps that we will have to re-buy and push back out onto the devices via the MDM, but we think it will make for a smoother and less complicated transition in the longer term.

Luckily, the MDM in question (Meraki) was well represented at the recent BETT show in London, so several key members of staff were able to go and talk to the Meraki people and take workshop sessions first-hand.  It is not the intention of this blog to endorse products or services, and there are viable commercial entities out there offering alternatives to what Meraki offers, but Meraki is impressive, and it has the undeniable attraction of being free.  The company was recently bought by CISCO, and they intend to make most of their money through sales of servers and other hardware, so the management side of the company’s profile – which is the side that will be of most interest to schools running multiple iPads, remains free.

As ever it is the little things that matter – small logisitical things that are easily overlooked (especially by staff who have other teacher and administrative “day jobs” and who happen also to be organising a major tech conference on the side!) For example, we switched insurance companies and the new company deemed our iPad covers non-compliant with the standards required for off-premise use!  We had to recall all our iPad cases and covers and reissue the students with new cases that were compliant (and, needless to say, more expensive!)

There’s also the fact that the VPP arrangements that allow us to bulk purchase apps at a discount do not work the same way for books as they do for apps (at least not in the UK).  The bulk discount available to purchasers of apps, therefore, is not available when it comes to buying books. This is a detail it would be easy to overlook, but it is one that could place a school on the wrong side of the laws governing copyright.

Users terms and conditions may not carry the same weight as the law of the land, but we also face a practical difficulty when dealing with the issuing of iPads to under-13s. According to the terms and conditions associated with iTunes, children under thirteen cannot own an iTunes account, yet all the research now points to a significant enhancement of the iPad’s capacity to facilitate learning when it is owned as a personal device – taken home, synced to a personal account and used as (to use Vickie Bacon’s wonderful phrase) a digital pencil case. It is difficult to do these things when the child carrying the iPad cannot own an iTunes account.

One way around this is to meet with parents and ask them to be the official owners of the account.  Before we took this step we met with Apple to discuss their view of this. Apple are famously reluctant to go on the record on such matters so suffice to say we were satisfied with the outcome of the informal discussions we had.  Another route is to assign an Apple ID to the device itself.  This is a little more work for the school staff (although this too can be put in the list of things the MDM manages) but it solves the logistics problem.

Taking the MDM route solved for us some of the problems associated with managing large numbers of iPads.  We are well aware that this is a journey that is far from complete and it wouldn’t take much to cause a stumble on this road. We have eschewed Apple’s own Apple Configurator in favour of a commercial rival (Meraki). We intend to use Meraki for many levels of management for which Apple itself provides free services (for example Find my iPad), and that could trip us up later if Apple does something that weakens the support link Meraki is currently able to offer.

But for the most part we are seeing the positives, and the intention is to keep the students clicking along nicely with the use of iPads in the curriculum – in blissful ignorance of all the logistical bits that could trip us up. Watching the third graders entertaining the parents last week with a retelling of Australian aboriginal dreamtime stories re-imagined through PuppetPals presentations (see below), it was clear to see that all the iGeneration are seeing is a wonderful device for acquiring and demonstrating learning. And I’ll certainly settle for that!