Heading back to school

Anthony Caruana
18 February, 2014
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Over 40 years ago, Alice Cooper sang ‘School’s Out for Summer’. Well, summer is almost over and that means that the bell has rung to start a new school year. That used to mean a school bag loaded with lots of heavy new books and preparation for a year of reading, rote learning and being told to turn to a specific page or exercise by a teacher reminiscent of Severus Snape. But times are changing.

Today, the start of school means it’s time to load up your Mac or iPad with a bunch of new apps. Primary school teacher Tanya Barlow is the ICT coordinator at Warranwood Primary School, in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs.

When it comes to apps for students, she looks for “apps that allow students to practise 21st century learning skills such as collaboration, communication and creative thinking – personalised and personal learning that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding”.

This demonstrates what has been perhaps the most significant change in education over the last few decades. A look inside a modern classroom shows that the process of education has shifted from teacher-centric and highly directed models to one where students are guided by teachers and learn using a far broader range of resources and techniques.

Finding the right apps is not easy. There are myriad lists of apps from different schools and educators just a few clicks away using a search engine.

But, according to Barlow, “Free apps may appear to be good, but are often limited in functionality and often have a lot of advertising or in-app purchasing required on them. More and more apps are available every day, so it is impossible to keep up with what’s currently available.”

Watch and learn. TEDEd videos are a creation of a teacher and animator collaboration.

As classroom connectivity has improved, schools are now able to access online content such as video more easily. Recent initiatives, such as TEDEd are prescient of a new future.

Teachers can be extremely creative with ideas on how to best teach and illustrate a concept. But sharing that creativity requires a different skillset. TEDEd links teachers with animators to produce short lessons on specific topics.

The iTunes U, available through the iTunes Store, makes it easy to share lessons from lecturers and teachers from some of the most respected schools in the world. There may be a time when teachers will co-teach classes with experts on particular fields from all over the world.

Kobi Searle, a Year Five teacher at the Knox School, in Melbourne’s south-east, has used video extensively with her classes.

“I use video in a variety of ways. Incorporating iPads, students have iMovie and they’re able to use the video tool on the iPad. Students did a video on the weather. They had to create their own weather report. They interviewed other students and had to be able to cut and paste that video and incorporate weather into their video.”

Anywhere, anytime. iTunes U is a great resource for students and teachers alike.

Students produced their own reports, but used their iPads cooperatively with one student’s iPad used for shooting the video while another was used as a teleprompter.

Students will also reap the benefits of connectivity. Many schools now have partner schools around the world. While these relationships are important, they are often underused and rely on students taking expensive overseas trips in order to meet and share ideas and to experience each other’s learning environments.

Everyday apps like Skype can completely change the way students and teachers access experts.

“We were doing an Antarctica unit. We video linked to an Antarctica station and my kids spoke to a scientist in Antarctica,” says Searle.

“It took months for me to find him,” she adds. “I went through an educational site, but they couldn’t help me. So then I just found scientists who lived in Antarctica and I figured that scientists must have families and must have a way to contact them.

“Nowadays, everybody is using Skype. So I found this scientist living in Antarctica in a little shack, like we’d spoken about in the classroom and seen videos of. Those videos made it come alive, but this made it really come alive.”

As a result of that contact the scientist sent the school one of the suits he used on the research station and students had an opportunity to dress up in it. Students prepared questions for the scientist and engaged in conversations with him.

“Being able to Skype with a scientist made the kids go, ‘This is real’. I’ve made the classroom come alive,” says Searle.

As well as having access to a massive repository of data through the internet and the ability to contact experts almost anywhere in the world, the digital classroom allows teachers and students to communicate in new ways.

“There are opportunities for students to share and receive feedback on their work from a wider audience through blogs, digital portfolios and other means,” explains Barlow. “They can connect with their class or teacher 24/7 and develop a learning network of peers and experts.”

What hardware?

So, what are some of the essentials that we need to look at in order to use Macs and iPads most effectively in our classrooms?

From a hardware point of view, integrating an Apple TV into your classroom or lecture theatre AV setup is incredibly useful. Assuming you have display systems with HDMI connection in the classroom it becomes easy to mirror an iPad or Mac screen, so that teachers or students can easily share their screens. It’s the ‘show and tell’ of the 21st century.

Where many schools fall over when implementing solutions such as the Apple TV is that they fail to understand the importance of their internal network. While a small fleet of six Apple TVs can be easily accommodated in most networks, adding more than 30 when you have an Apple TV in each classroom introduces issues.

Mirror. An Apple TV can provide a great way for students to show their work and interact with fellow classmates.

Apple TVs rely on AirPlay to stream content from computing devices. However, AirPlay is a fairly bandwidth hungry protocol, so you’ll need a very robust internal network in order to enjoy trouble-free connectivity to Apple TVs.

Despite the popularity of the iPad, schools still rely on printed output. If you’re contemplating a new printer for your school or study, give some thought to AirPrint support so you can easily print work from an iOS device. You might not use it often but it can be very handy.

Education Application Showcase 


Numbl, from Andy Wise, is a game that lets students combine arithmetic skills, quick thinking and hand-eye coordination.

The premise of the game is simple. A grid of numbers is presented with a number at the top of the screen. Players tap on two or more numbers in the grid that add to the number at the top of the screen. The goal is to use all the digits in the grid as quickly as possible.

There’s a competitive element as players can compete to see who clears the grid first. If connected to the internet while playing, students can compete globally for all time, daily and weekly honours as the fastest Numbl players.


iMovie is an exceptionally powerful editing application. With an iPod, iPhone or iPad, students can capture video and then edit and share it.

There are both OS X and iOS versions of iMovie, so students can, by using iCloud, work on editing projects across platforms.

The iOS version of iMovie used to be a poor relation to its OS X big brother, but that’s no longer the case. There is strong feature parity between the two, so moving a project across platforms does not mean the loss of transitions, titles or other affects.

Explain Everything

Here’s a bold claim. Explain Everything, an iPad app, claims that it can be used to explain anything and everything. It’s an app that allows you to annotate, animate and narrate explanations and presentations.

Explain Everything converts an iPad into an interactive whiteboard that records your actions. You can draw on the iPad screen with your finger and display the output via an Apple TV. However, you can also use the app to annotate images, PDFs or presentations, and to record your actions, complete with audio. In essence, you can record a short lesson and then distribute it to your class.


ShowMe does a job that only a short time ago needed a team of experts. It allows you record a short video made up of images, annotations and commentary that can be easily shared to either a limited number of students or with the whole world. This requires a monthly fee of $5, although the app and sharing without restrictions are free.

The great thing about ShowMe is that it is easy to use. It’s not only useful for teachers wanting to impart information to a class, but also for students to develop ideas and present them back to their classmates.

Math vs Zombies

This one is for primary-aged students. Who doesn’t like avoiding a zombie apocalypse by being a wizard at maths? Math vs Zombies pits the students’ skills in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division against some rampaging zombies.

There are four worlds, each with seven levels of problems to solve. The premise of the game is that you are a part of a squad of maths scientists who use their mathematics skills and powers to treat infected zombies and contain the threat. The goal is to complete as many problems as you can before the zombies catch you. Who said maths couldn’t be fun?


Connecting students to each other, to teachers and to experts all over the world – that’s what Skype can bring to the classroom. The voice and video connectivity, even when just using the free services Skype offers, allow classrooms to work in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago.

We’ve spoken with teachers that have used Skype to include students that have been absent from school for health reasons, to contact experts in far-flung, remote locations and to engage with partner schools across the world. In short, Skype isn’t just a social media platform – it can be a valuable tool in the modern classroom.


While the Apple ecosystem delivers lots of power and functionality, it does also come with some limitations. For example, AirPlay is limited to Apple’s preferred video formats and resolutions. Beamer overcomes that limitation.

Beamer is a movie player that works with AirPlay, but isn’t limited to Apple’s preferred codecs. Simply launch your movie inside Beamer and it can then be directed to an Apple TV over AirPlay.

In classrooms, where videos aren’t always delivered in Apple-preferred formats, Beamer saves you the effort of converting movies or having to jailbreak your Apple TV. Beamer works with AVI, MKV, MOV, MP4, WMV and FLV files.


Like Skype, FaceTime has the capacity to connect students and teachers to the world. Although it’s an Apple-only system – you’ll need an account with Apple to use it although that’s not likely to be an issue as it’s likely that you’ll have an iTunes account – it works very easily.

In our experience, FaceTime is easier to use than Skype although you’re limited to iOS and OS X connectivity. However, given the ubiquity of the iPad, it hasn’t been a huge limitiation in our experience. Video quality is very good and we’ve found it works better than Skype where bandwidth is limited.


There are very few research assistants that can do what Evernote does. Its ability to capture content from just about anywhere makes it an invaluable tool. With the ability to capture images using your device’s camera as well as audio, web pages, PDFs and your own notes. The information that is captured can be synchronised to the cloud and retrieved from other devices.

Evernote also allows you to tag your data for easier retrieval and share information easily either by email or social media. It works on just about every computing platform you can think of ,so you can capture information using an iPad or iPhone and then refine it on your Mac.

iThoughts HD

Mind mapping is a technique that’s been around for a very long time. It’s used for planning, analysis and for fleshing out ideas. iThoughts HD is an iOS application that makes it easy to create and present mind maps.

What we like is that the application mimics the same process we’d use if we were developing a mind map on paper. However, it adds the benefit of being able to easily collapse and expand branches of the map and to project through an external projector so we can present our mind map to others easily and logically. As it can be displayed via a projector, it can be used in class by teachers presenting information or as a way to assemble input during class discussions.

Book Creator

Designed for both teachers and students, Book Creator makes it easy to create ebooks directly on your iPad. It’s free to try, but you’ll need to stump up $5.49 if you want to use it to create as many books as you like.

The app lets you choose the style of book with options for portrait, square or landscape formatted books. You can then embed images, text, video and sound, so you can create a rich, interactive experience. It’s not as sophisticated as Apple’s iBooks Author (which is an OS X application), but makes it easy to create interesting learning materials. Books can be shared by email or sent to iTunes directly from the app and it works with Apple’s AirPrint as well.

Story Me

With the plethora of drawing and photo-manipulation apps out there, Story Me takes things to the next level by allowing teachers and students to combine those images and use them to create comic strips.

Story Me uses templates that you drag your images into. You can then add captions and speech bubbles to create narratives and stories. Teachers can use these to illustrate concepts. For example, they could add speech bubbles to an image of Shakespeare and let him recite a famous soliloquy.

Comic strips can be emailed, printed, saved to your camera roll or shared over social media. Story Me is a standalone application that doesn’t require a user account.


GoodReader is a bit of a Swiss Army Knife. As well as delivering a powerful PDF reader that supports annotations, it allows you to connect to a number of online file services such as DropBox, Google Drive and SkyDrive. In addition, it can be used to connect to WebDAV and FTP servers making it a versatile tool.

The annotation features of GoodReader or very powerful. It supports highlighting, sticky notes and handwriting with the ability to save the annotations separately to the original file. Files can also be emailed from GoodReader or uploaded to filesharing services. Although it costs $5.49 GoodReader is a very hand app that fulfills many useful functions for teachers and students.

Doodle Buddy

One of the great things about the iPad and its multi-touch display is that it has enabled people to embrace creative tasks easily and without the need for lots of equipment. Doodle Buddy makes it easy to use a huge variety of colours, brushes, stamps and other effects to create your own artwork.

As well as being used for creating images, Doodle Buddy is a free application that makes the iPad into a scratchpad that students can use cooperatively. For example, it can be used for playing games like Hangman, or problem solving together. Your Doodle Buddy creations can be shared by email.

Music Keys

Music Keys is a free iOS app that helps students learn their way around a piano keyboard and train their ears to learn different tones. The focus is on gameplay to achieve this, with the developers working with children to deliver a child-friendly experience.

There are two modes in the application: Train and Play. In Train mode, students learn their way around the keyboard by listening, looking and locating keys on the keyboard.

In Play mode, a competitive element is added with students competing against the clock to locate as many tones as possible in a minute. Results can be optionally shared over the internet so you can compete globally.


Edmodo is an online learning management system that connects students and teachers. Rather than looking like a boring ‘school’ application, Edmodo is an educational social network that bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Facebook, which allows teachers and students to collaborate and easily communicate.

As well as working on a web browser, there are iOS apps so teachers and students can work with Edmodo on whatever device they have on hand. If teachers assign work to students through Edmodo, they can also assess it there and analyse students’ results directly within the application. As discussions can be held online, complementing the classroom, teachers can work with students who are less confident speaking up in the classroom. Despite its sophistication, Edmodo is free.


Teachers often need to work through very complex ideas and lots of information in order to present them succinctly and cogently to their students. Outliner is an iOS app that allows you to organise thoughts and ideas in a structured hierarchy.

At its simplest level, Outliner allows you to create task lists and simple outlines. But the ability to drag and drop items in order to organise more complex ideas makes it a very handy tool. Outlines can be synchronised to DropBox so you can access your work from multiple devices. Although it costs $5.49, Outliner can be a very powerful tool for structuring lessons, keeping track of projects and organising complex information.


Managing notes taken in class can be a pain. CourseNotes aims to deliver a single app that can be used for storing notes, managing assignments and other classwork and making it easy to find important information.

While typed notes are easy to manage, CourseNotes also allows you to create sketches and annotate images. Notes can also be shared by email, Bluetooth or across a Wi-Fi network – a great feature when it’s hard to keep up with the lecturer. Notes can also be printed from the iOS verion over AirPrint. As well the $5.49 OS X app, CourseNotes has an iOS companion – there are separate iPhone and iPad versions that cost $4.49 each.

by Anthony Caruana


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