Virtual Classrooms

Fear digital native students? Build an App with them

04/01/2012  |  Ryan Kinser
Virtual Classrooms

“We dare you to hold our attention.” That’s the message I saw on the faces of my sixth graders on the first day of this school year. Soon enough I learned that, hooked on digital culture, these students were tech-savvier than ever.

I knew from the previous year that talking about great books with my English classes was no longer enough. I couldn’t just place a row of Newbery winners on the desks and invite kids to peruse them or plow through the tried-and-true class novel.

I figured they’d respond well to my innovation from last year: virtual book clubs. But what more could I do to engage them? How could I meet these learners on their own ground?

Even as I considered these questions, I had no idea that by mid-year, my sixth graders would be designing a virtual book club app for Apple’s iOS platform. Will the app work? I hope so. In some ways it doesn’t matter. What’s more important is that we’re learning together on my students’ turf. Each day they are fine-tuning their literacy skills by working on a virtual project that is rigorous, relevant, and fun.

For me, the experience has been exhilarating, frustrating, and enlightening. Here are some takeaways for teachers:

  • Even if you’re a new digital immigrant, you can engage your students with relevant digital learning. You’ll find a wealth of helpful resources online.
  • Let your state standards drive instructional objectives. That way, you’ll plan rigorous student outcomes, not frivolous activities just to employ technology.
  • Model what it looks like to face the unknown.

During the 2010-2011 school year, I launched a virtual book club (VBC). Looking for the right platform, I read everything I could about Web 2.0 technology, from blogs to Moodles to Vokis. Finally, I settled on creating a class wiki using Wikispaces. With input from students, I set up a basic page and some guidelines. Then students created sub-pages for individual books, complete with reading schedules, discussion threads, and multimedia content.

The engagement was immediate, and more importantly, student-driven. Students unpacked vocabulary, debated character motivations, and tracked themes. I loved the authentic discussions taking place outside of the classroom.

The VBC whetted appetites, but it wasn’t enough. Limitations remained. We couldn’t chat in real time except in class. E-mail notifications were slow. We had no easy way to rate books or make personal recommendations. The wiki is web-based and lacks portability. My students clamored for more and eventually convinced me to listen to their virtual learning ideas.

Where It Got Scary: The App Idea

Fast forward to late fall 2011. I chugged through a reading unit with a new crop of 11-year-olds in Walker Middle School’s brand-new International Baccalaureate (IB) program. One day I noticed the kids were not truly engaged. Luckily, I had a good question to write on the board: How can a young person change his or her community?

We then read an article about 11-year-old Cameron Cohen, a Los Angeles sixth grader who created his own app for the iPhone. While recovering from a surgery, Cohen immersed himself in online research about computer programming and app building. His creation, iSketch, is a popular download in the Apple app store. The class discussion livened with a sudden passion absent all week. “Who is this kid? How did he do it? Is he rich now?” My students were all inspired by Cohen’s innovation and ability to teach himself.

A few days earlier, I had published an article outlining VBCs for teachers. After the Cohen lesson, I arrived home to find an intriguing Tweet from an app developer: “Have you considered designing a virtual book club app for your students?”

The Cohen lesson. The developer’s Tweet. Light bulb! We could design our own book club app. But there was a major hiccup: I didn’t know anything about computer programming. Neither did most of my students. Of course, I hadn’t known anything about wikis either.

The next day I passed the message along to all six of my classes. Each period, my students begged me to let them create a VBC app.

“But we don’t know how,” I said.

“You can learn anything,” a boy blurted. “Isn’t that what you always tell us?”

“If Cameron Cohen could do it,” a girl said, “So can we. He’s, like, our age!”

I had excuses galore. “This is Reading and Language Arts, not Computer Science.”

The students presented rapid-fire arguments, tossing aside the need to raise hands.

“You’re always making us research.”

“And write plans and reflect.”

“Kids will want to read more. We promise.”

Clearly they were going to pester me until I practiced what I preached. And why not? They had valid points. What is more rewarding than creating a real-world solution to a problem? And why not show students how I learn? So we set out to build an app to improve our VBC.

The Terror of a Steep Virtual Learning Curve

My excitement turned into terror. How could I teach technological skills when many of my students knew more about them than I did? How could I align the app project with our Common Core English/Language Arts standards? How does this fit into my packed curriculum?

I stuck to one major rule: tailor the project to the standards, not vice versa. Focus on what you already know about instructional design and use it. Virtual learning doesn’t require special pedagogical skills the way teachers might fear it does. I approached the project with the same sound pedagogy I would use for any classroom lesson. I asked myself, what content and processes will students master? How will I assess them? What reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills will I ask students to demonstrate?

“You mean we have to write?” students asked as I introduced the project.

“Yes,” I said. “This is still English class. You’ll read, research, write and present.”

Online research would be critical to the project, so we focused first on analyzing, summarizing, and evaluating sources. Students pored over websites and Googled app design, quickly discovering the materials needed — a Mac computer running on Snow Leopard (or more recent update) and the free Software Development Kit (SDK) from Apple, which included the actual tool used to write iOS apps: XCode. I already had the Mac, and it was easy to download the software and register for free as an Apple Developer.

Tools in hand, we discovered free resources — articles, videos, and templates — for learning Objective-C, the programming language of the Apple iOS platform. We learned that Cameron Cohen had viewed free courses from Stanford’s School of Engineering on iTunes U. I perused these at home before asking students to follow along.

Every day, we discover new questions. Our exploration has taken place via two-column notes, a virtual discussion board, and team Google Doc pages that students can access from home or school. Homework includes exploration of online resources and participation in basic coding. We bring questions to class, tackle thorny concepts, and summarize what we have learned in writing.

Word spread. Administrators encouraged me to apply for a magnet grant to fund ancillary materials like design stencils and books on Objective-C. Parents even volunteered to help. One of them, software engineer Steven Splaine (author of The Web Testing Handbook) reviewed our project plan and offered advice about outlining it for funders. Another, Michael Sanford, founder and CEO of Flipside5 (an app development company), advised me on the nuts-and-bolts of iOS development.

“Start with a simple, yet useful test app,” Sanford said. “My first app was a game called Tic-Tac-Touch. You’ll want to get the basics down first.”

Now we’re trying to code a test app. My students have a working knowledge of design principles, thanks to Stanford and iTunes U. We practice icon design and code writing by toggling between a Brightlink (like a SMART Board) and the XCode Editor I project onto the board.

Virtual learning has its detractors. They say that when students learn online, they risk losing interpersonal skills and shortening their attention spans. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have a real working laboratory in my classroom. The “digital natives” want to learn, but they want to use their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways.

Sanford agrees. “During the 21st century, technology will be the cornerstone of innovation. This [project] provides key tools to enable students to innovate for tomorrow.”

“I can’t wait to come to class,” says Matthew, 12. “I’ve never worked on a project so exciting. I feel like Steve Jobs.”

Who knows? Maybe the next “Steve Jobs” (or “Stephanie Jobs”!) will say it all began in sixth-grade English class.

Ryan Kinser teaches sixth grade English in Hillsborough County, Florida, where he is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s New Millennium Initiative He blogs at transformED, and you can get in touch with him via Twitter: @ryankinser.
Comments & Ratings

  6/18/2012 9:04:41 AM

New Comment 
I'm very happy with the product, but plseae add these few simple features:- ability to set our own homepage (your blog always loads 1st)- tabbed browsing or at least multiple windows plseae- remember forms and passwords for easier logins- ability to delete cookies, and/or temp filesThe app is great but if you add these features it will complete this great program. Thanks so much.
  4/16/2012 8:27:44 AM

I am delighted to see you have found "engaging" techniques and tools to inspire students, the community and yourself using state of the art technology that challenges and teaches everyone involved. I look forward to hearing even more "engaging" tales of your endeavors in the months to come. Keep up the terrific work!