Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Making the Most of the Tools We Do Have

Tonight I'm going to be leading a webinar on the Intel Teach Live series called The Dangers of App Overload.  If you would like to register to join and follow along live, here is the link: https://engage.intel.com/events/1269
Before I write any more, I want to say thank you to Naomi Harm (@naomiharm) and Vanessa Jones (@vkajones) for the opportunity to connect and share tonight.  It is an honor! Thank you for the opportunity.
This blog post below is inspired by my reflection on and preparation for tonight's webinar.


Something I hear more often in my work than I would imagine, and something that forces me to reflect on the question of how well we are using the tools we have available to us for teaching and learning is this comment that I will sometimes get a version of from teachers:
"So, I used to use this tool that I could use for lots of different projects.  Is there an app for that now, or something that is just like it?  It was called Photo Story. It was great."
Now, for those of you reminiscing about Photo Story, here is the reality.  Photo Story has not been updated since 2006.  As late as 2013 I can still find posts of people successfully installing and running Photo Story, but after that I'm not sure that there is quite as much success (except for those of you still rocking the XP).
If you don't know Photo Story, it basically allowed users to create a Photo Slideshow complete with instrumental music, transitions, voice overs, and text.  By today's standards that maybe doesn't sound that impressive.  Remember, this software was available at a time when merging and mashing media was, well, complicated.
Anyhow, the bigger picture is this.  When I engage teachers in the question of why they loved Photo Story so much, the response is generally pretty consistent.  
1 - It was easy to use.
2 - It was easily adaptable.  
3 - It was reliable.
Teachers could learn the software once and then apply it to almost any media project or presentation.  Want to tell a digital story?  Use Photo Story.  Want to create an engaging version of a science lab report?  Use Photo Story.  Want to impress your parents and students with photos and music from the spring concert?  Use Photo Story.
The landscape looks VERY different today for teachers.  Back then there was definitely a lot of software available at the time when Photo Story became popular. The trouble was that the software was most often not free (at least the well designed, easy-to-use stuff was not often free) and it was a laborious process to have it even installed on computers.  Today, there is an ever-flowing stream of high quality, innovative, well designed free software, and it is all a button tap away from being installed on your tablet for use in your classroom. Apps are easy to acquire, easy to use, and there are generally several to choose between.
This leaves us with a new challenge, and it  relates closely to the topic of digital distraction. It is incredibly easy to find new tools, use new tools, and replace new tools with newer tools.  
Buggy app?  Switch to a new one.  Not fond of the advertisements?  Switch to a new one.  Clunky layout?  Switch to a new one. Friends (or students) using something else?  Switch to a new one.  We are switching our tool set so frequently that the reality is we never really get to be truly proficient and productive with the tools we use.
So, maybe our new tools are easy to use. That's generally a given as no app can make it very long in a design-conscious marketplace.
Are they adaptable, though?  Well, if Photo Story could be considered adaptable, so could nearly ANY creative app today.  Whether it is iMovie, Pages, Notability, Explain Everything, the Google Apps Suite, or anything else you can imagine, the adaptability of the tool is in the mind of the user (and in our case, the mind of the teacher framing the instructional goals).  These tools have the power to be used for a wide variety of instructional reasons.
The last question, though, is if these apps are reliable.  And that is an interesting question.  Software and apps today are more reliable than ever.  The follow-up question, though, is if we, the end users, are committing to the tools reliably.  If we are fickle consumers and users of these apps, especially the apps that we use in our classrooms with students, then we will NEVER get to a point where we can determine the reliability or the adaptability of these powerful tools.
As educators, we must focus on how to make the most of the tools we do have readily and reliably available to us.  Teachers are the most creative people I know.  They can make meaningful lessons out of almost any set of resources.  We now just need to slow ourselves, commit to the tools we do have, and then make magic happen in our classrooms.
I hope that in 10 years some teacher says to me, "Hey, do you know of any apps that I can use with my kids that is just like Explain Everything.  That app was great.  My kids did so much with that!"
Then again, in 10 years I hope that no teacher is still saying to me, "Do you know if Photo Story is still available for download?" :)