Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

My year with an iPad

My very first classroom in Grapevine, TX had a Macintosh LC550 connected to a 32″ television. This was 1995, and I had never seen anything like this. Once I figured out how to use it, I was enamored. The thought of displaying digital content while I was teaching was mind blowing, and I immediately began to experiment with ways to use this technology in the classroom. Perhaps I watched too much Star Trek during my formative years, but my expectations were quite unrealistic. I envisioned video clips, simulations, digital text, animations, detailed images and other graphics being elicited on command in response to my students’ curiosity. But this was 1995, and mainstream technology had not caught up to my imagination. Resolution was typically low, digital content was scarce, processors were slow, and bandwidth was a term generally associated with the radio, not computers. Although I did discover several ways to use my available technology in the classroom, my dream of using the computer as a digital content command center was never realized.

Over the years, I have experimented with other methods of using digital content in my teaching. Computers have gotten faster and are connected to the World Wide Web, streaming video is commonplace, and there are more digital resources than there is time to sort through them. I have used everything from built-in teacher workstations to PC tablets connected via VGA cable to interactive whiteboards, and each innovation has gotten me a little closer to what I originally dreamed about in 1995. Still, each method had its drawbacks and left me wanting something better. 18 years later, I may have found my answer.

When I started my new faculty position at TCU last fall, I was given a MacBook Pro and iPad for my professional use. One of the requirements for getting the iPad was that I (along with other faculty in my college) would participate in an iPad Learning Community. Coincidentally, I co-led this group with a colleague, and we met about once every month to discuss creative ways to use this device within the context of higher education. After a couple of meetings, I realized the questions and comments from our group could be arranged in three categories: iPad as a personal productivity device (i.e., replacement for a laptop), iPad for student projects both in and out of class, and iPad for presenting content to the class. My job for the rest of the year, then, was to organize our learning community meetings around the interests and tech skills of the rest of the group. Personally, I found the third category to be most intriguing, which is what I would like to spend some time talking about.

As an active member in this learning community, my personal goal was to research and pilot different ways to use the iPad as a content-presenting device. My first discovery was that this can be done two ways. First, I could mirror my computer display on the iPad and control presentations that way. Second, I could mirror my iPad display onto the computer, which is the method I prefer. For the first method, I tried a variety of tools, such as Pocket Cloud, Splashtop, and DisplayPad, and each of them worked pretty well. I never got used to controlling my computer from the small display. I would routinely touch the wrong link or icon, and it was quite awkward. Each of these methods worked over the WiFi, and as long as the signal was good in my classroom, there were no problems.

For the second method, I used two different apps to mirror my iPad display onto the computer: AirServer and Reflector. I ultimately settled on AirServer, and it was a pretty reliable tool once I figured out some quirks. The wireless network at TCU is set up to block Bonjour and other mirroring ports, so I had to pair my iPad to my MacBook via Bluetooth and mirror that way. The Bluetooth signal was a little squirrely at times, which caused some more awkward teaching moments in the classroom. There was also a slight lag between the two devices, but most of my content did not rely on precision transitions so this was not a problem. The main issue I encountered was with streaming video. The Bluetooth connection simply would not handle it, so I had to use the computer to show video clips. Overall, I was able to do what I wanted. I could easily switch between Explain Everything, Socrative, Google Drive, and Safari from anywhere in the room, which I like a lot more than feeling trapped behind the instructor workstation.

This experience of exploring new ways to use technology in my teaching has taught me some very important lessons:

  1. I should never stop investigating and trying new ways of teaching. Even though I had a few embarrassing moments when I couldn’t get the technology to work correctly (One student bluntly told me in the course evaluation to “quit using that iPad thingy and use PowerPoint like everyone else.”), I believe the process of discovery ultimately made me a better teacher. In my quest to display a screen, I also had to think about deeper issues of student engagement, how and when to ask the right questions, how to maximize the effectiveness of video and images, and whether or not I needed those media in the first place. I believe this process made me a much better decision maker as an instructor.
  2. Failing does not necessarily lead to failure. Failure is the result of quitting after failed attempts. I had more than a few mishaps along the way, but just a little persistence helped me see problems from a different perspective and I almost always learned something new in the process. Each mishap turned into a necessary step for doing something in a way that worked. I also learned better techniques for troubleshooting and getting the lesson back on track.
  3. Technology will not save a bad lesson. With so many different ways of presenting content to students, it’s easy to get caught up in the Prezi vs. PPT vs. Keynote vs. Explain Everything debate. Which is better? Cooler? Trendier? Beyond the technical side of presenting lessons to a large class (Did I mention one of my classes had over 100 students?!), the most important thing to remember was how to keep their attention. This generation of students may be initially engaged by cool technology, but it won’t last. I had to concurrently think about important aspects of the lesson like the driving question, learning objectives, assessment, and the attention span of 18-20 year old students. Teaching is complicated and classrooms are complex, and I learned to put my energy into those areas of teaching that will keep the students engaged and help them learn. Sometimes that involved technology, but not always.

The past year was quite a ride. Even though I have been in this career for 18 years, I learned a lot about teaching and technology just simply by deciding to introduce a new tool into my repertoire. I had come to a place where I thought I was pretty good at what I do, but the process of discovery allowed me to see my own craft very differently. Additionally, I was able to experience the kind of technology use in my classroom I envisioned so many years ago. I can now control and distribute from anywhere in the room many different types of media using a small, lightweight device. It still isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty darn cool. The first-year teacher version of me would be so proud.

About the Author

My name is Curby Alexander, and I am an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Texas Christian University. I love teaching and teaching future teachers about teaching. I also happen to use A LOT of technology in many different ways. I am especially interested in the convergence of technology and creativity, and given the choice I would want my students to be creative innovators over techies. Ideally, they will become both.

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3 responses to “My year with an iPad”

  1. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    I like your three categories, Curby. Did you all create a wiki, Google doc, our other site that listed different apps that you found helpful for each one?

    I’m glad to know about the option to connect to your server with Bluetooth. I didn’t know that was possible. Another workaround I’ve used on networks which are not bonjour friendly is to create a local hotspot with my MacBook, or use my Verizon my wife

  2. Pansy Dillahunty Avatar
    Pansy Dillahunty

    What school did you teach at in Grapevine? Also will you be returning to TCU this fall?

  3. […] blog, but seems to really enjoy technology in education.  I particularly enjoyed his post titled “My Year with an iPad,”  in which he discussed leading an iPad Learning Community during his time working at TCU.  He […]