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.

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