Category Archives: Education

iPads and tech in schools update

Since our last post, NYC public school teachers participating in the Arts Achieve pilot have had 3 months to start working with their new projectors, iPads, styli, microphones, and other tech stuff.

Here’s a glimpse into the tech training sessions we did with teachers last March, in close collaboration with my colleague in the education department, Marianna Siciliano.

Our teachers have now had the summer to process the training and in-classroom experience, and share feedback with us about the ups and downs.

Here’s what we gave out to teachers.

What have we learned since putting tech in teachers’ hands?

1. Camera, camera, camera.

The iPad camera is by far the most popular and widely-used feature of any products we gave to teachers. Video and stills are pouring out of the classrooms. They’re handy for more than sharing outward; often the camera is being used as a way to “take notes” or play back video for review locally.

2. When it comes to projectors, quality trumps portability.

We thought the portability factor would be great for teachers who do “art on a cart,” however the pico projectors we provided did not go over as well as we’d hoped. This might be because these guys are in the arts, so strong image quality is important to them. Also, more and more classrooms in NYC are being outfitted with high-res, high-brightness Smar

This is the tech support printout we gave our teachers

tboards, so it looks like pico projectors, with their dim lamps and small images, are not an exciting addition to most classrooms. Additionally, the pico projectors were confusing for the few teachers in the project already fluent with Smartboards.

With teachers, any existing familiarity is priceless, because you can spend precious training hours on other topics.

3. People like DropBox and iMovie.

It’s a really good idea to use services and brand names that are already familiar to people. It lowers the intimidation factor and opens the possibility of finding easy, instant tech support from family, students, colleagues, or Google search. DropBox and iMovie had a level of instant familiarity and both are being used.

Ning Network activity and survey data after three months of tech in the classroom.

4. Play is the way!

In our trainings and tipsheets, we outlined a bunch of best practices. Some teacher frustration has arisen from the feeling that these outlines were the only way to operate. We should have emphasized even more that it is OK to play, poke, experiment, test, and try stuff. This is definitely the best way to learn “tech stuff” (it’s why kids are so good) and It’s really hard to get this ethos across to adults!

Some teachers have also reported to us that they have had great success when they simply asked their students for help with their tech questions. We like to see teaching flow both ways!

5. AirWatch was unnecessary.

We killed our subscription to AirWatch mobile device management. I found the product limited; it didn’t do anything useful for us. In the dream scenario, we could keep all the iPads uniform, add apps and manage media remotely, make changes on the device without user consent (which is hard to get when some users need instructions outlining how to consent), and troubleshoot remotely. None of this was actually possible with AirWatch. When any given iPad gets too far adrift from the original image with crazy apps and settings, we simply re-image it from iCloud. This works very well, and quickly, and it’s free!

Thoughts on Skillshare's Penny Conference

Last week I went to Skillshare’s Penny Conference about re-imagining education for the 21st century. Here are my reactions to the some of the ideas that caught my interest:

Michael Karnjanaprakorn, founding CEO of Skillshare, opened the day with a talk that drew a distinction between learning and education. His company is built on the idea that in the information age, people don’t value a highly-trained expert lecturing at the front of a room as much as they used to. Education today is de-centralizing and democratizing. His triumphant tone here reminded me of Robert Wong at Bill’s Design Talks. Robert was really excited about the widening availability of digital design and media tools and their democratizing effect on culture.

Skillshare is an organization whose mission is to transform education by empowering teaching and democratizing learning.

A sense of triumph was also in the air when various speakers brought up themes of intellectual rebelliousness and dropping out of college. Rote learning, formulaic testing, and traditional metrics of success were denounced as the enemies of innovators and dreamers everywhere. These ideas uphold a lot of 20th century American lore surrounding the lives of entrepreneurial and creative luminaries. Our culture loves the stories surrounding famous dropouts like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. I find these legends to have a strong Modernist aroma, distinctly un-21st century– the romance of a great lone genius. My hope for education in the 21st century is that our culture will put very high value on humility & interdisciplinary teamwork as weapons against big complex problems. A good team, I think, would have a healthy blend of rule-following experts and rebellious thinkers. Actually, I think both traits can coexist in one person. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a dropout or a PhD– what matters is what you bring to the table.

Baratunde Thurston spoke about something that interested me– the idea of a porous, infinite book. He talked about his unique process of writing How To Be Black, the coolest part of which was the idea of “live-writing.” Live-writing entails publicizing a web link where anyone may view a broadcast of the author’s computer screen as he works. I think this is a really cool idea. Anybody who works on a computer could try this “open process”–a video editor, a graphic designer, an architect. Baratunde said he did not pay attention to the comment stream as he worked, however he did review the comments at the close of a writing session. I like how this, as a gesture, takes some of the mystique out of creative work. Now that the book is printed, he uses Twitter provocations and other web means to keep the conversation flowing and open. He views the final book as porous– not a finite, bound object. In the 21st century, printing no longer implies that a book is complete. I like this infinity idea because it feels truer to the way people really interact with a text–always citing, discussing, debating, revising.

Zach Sims of Codecademy argues that in the 21st century, “understanding algorithms” ought to be added to the core skills of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.


I liked what Charles Best had to say about “pushing intelligence out to the edge.” The phrase comes from the security industry, referring to advanced device networks where a non-central node in the network can make intelligent decisions without querying the central node. Charles is excited about web platforms like Kickstarter, Etsy and his own website, Donors Choose, because they jettison the traditional gatekeepers and middlemen of cultural production, pushing [cultural] intelligence out to the public, which allows good ideas to come to life more easily and quickly. Charles pointed out another great outcome of pushing intelligence out to the edge, which is that “solutions can come from the front lines.” Many good examples of this phenomenon are included in our Design With The Other 90% exhibition series. The 90% series features lots of design solutions for different problems that originate from the end users themselves. There’s no need for products and services to come down from on high (governments, large companies, powerful institutions) any more. If you are interested in this topic, check out the Social Impact Design Summit we held early this year.

In sum, decentralization of ideas, learning, and teaching was the major theme of the day.

I thought the day could have been even better if someone had discussed an important group of concepts: prestige, class & social mobility. If we’re really going to re-imagine education for the 21st century in an inclusive, sweeping way (which was, I think, what the conference organizers intended) it’s important to keep aware of the different meanings “education” has for all. There’s a powerful association in our culture between education and social mobility. Adam Braun’s talk about building schools in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala did introduce the idea of access, but nobody made the more challenging mindset leap–it’s the shorter leap–to the complicated, insidious disparities in our own city. The opportunity to affiliate oneself with the status and high regard of a respected institution is a privilege. I think it’s a mistake to excessively glamorize an informal educational ethos without acknowledging the reality that going out on a rebellious limb is most comfortable for those with an economic safety net. Hacking education is great, but the traditional currencies of prestige and status can’t be omitted from a conversation about transforming education for all.

Teens & Tech Focus Group

On Saturday, at Cooper-Hewitt, we had a focus group with about 20 teenagers to learn how they prefer to capture and create media. The focus group was held jointly by Cooper-Hewitt and the American Museum of Natural History. Our two museums are connected by MacArthur’s HIVE Learning Network, which aims to create and connect informal and formal learning opportunities for youth in virtual and physical spaces.

My group used exclusively iPads– even when other devices were readily available.

Both museums had experienced some digital follies over the last few years in our efforts to incorporate new digital tools into youth programs. From 3G connectivity woes to buggy beta software, these issues are an educator’s nightmare. Any one who has some experience teaching or running programs for kids can tell you that there’s no time for glitches when you’ve got a room full of students and a short amount of time. Stuff has to work, and you want the focus to be on content, not on tools.

Before diving in to a new season of fashion workshops and biology labs with hundreds of NYC teens, both museums wanted some fresh insight on how today’s teens relate to tech.

We wanted the students to get educational value out of their day with us, so we designed the focus group as a typical DesignPrep program, but with some added surveys and discussions about technology. Here was the structure of the day:

1. Pre-Survey for students

2. Cooper-Hewitt educators’ excellent “What is Design” and “Learning to See” presentations.

3. Ready, Set, Design— a hands-on activity to get the group “thinking like designers.” The activity challenges were tailored to the context of Central Park (“I need to find my way around the park efficiently,” “I want my walk around the reservoir to be more fun and interesting,” etc)

4. Announced the students’ challenge– to collect a diverse array data from a given zone in Central Park, identify something in that zone that could benefit from a design solution, and finally present their ideas to the group.

5. “Hardware Buffet”– we put out Android phones, iPads, still cameras, video cameras, notebooks and pens. We observed carefully while the students chose their tools.

6. We split into 4 groups and headed to the park. The students lead their own processes of data collection while Museum staff observed. Staff also carried bags of “buffet leftovers” to allow any hardware swaps along the way.

Collecting photos, videos and statistics in Central Park

7. We returned to Cooper-Hewitt, where the students synthesized their media and created presentations.

Synthesizing multimedia and ideas for a final presentation

8. Presentations, group discussion about technology, followed by an exit survey for students.

Student presentation using Tumblr

9. After the students left, Museum staff completed a survey to record fresh thoughts on the day.

What did we learn? Here are some excerpts from Museum staff’s surveys:


Deploying 129 iPads to NYC Schools

One of the exciting projects we have underway is deploying 129 iPads to teachers in New York City public schools. As you can imagine, this is a somewhat challenging project and not just from a technical perspective.

This is happening as part of a US Department of Education funded project called Arts Achieve. Here’s Katie Shelly, who is handling the tech for the project.

What is i3 and Arts Achieve?

i3, which stands for Investing In Innovation, is a new grant program of the U.S. Department of Education. Established in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the i3 Fund provides competitive grants to cultural and educational organizations to expand innovative practices that will have an impact on improving education by advancing student achievement, student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing graduation, college enrollment and/or college completion rates.

In 2010, Studio in a School was awarded an i3 grant in conjunction with five partner institutions – including Cooper-Hewitt. The winning entry, called Arts Achieve, proposed the development of an ambitious pilot program in New York City public schools to improve student achievement in the arts by building high-quality, digitally replicable arts assessments, along with a corresponding digital community and resource kit. Each partnering organization brings a different expertise to the development of the pilot. Carnegie Hall, The 92nd Street Y, ArtsConnection and Studio in a School bring music, dance, theatre and visual art expertise respectively. Cooper-Hewitt brings expertise on the innovative use of technology for education and design thinking expertise, and The NYC Department of Education brings expertise in curricula, state and national standards, and very importantly, the ability for us to connect with public schools. We’re currently in year 2 of 5, which means the Arts Achieve program is up and running– with 43 participating schools, hundreds of educational professionals and thousands of students participating. Our online community, powered by Ning, is abuzz with about 200 members who use the space to share lesson plans, media, resources, and feedback, bringing hundreds of individuals with different areas of niche expertise together in a single network focused on developing and implementing high-quality assessments for the arts.

How did you come to select iPads as the most appropriate technology? What can they do that others cannot?

We considered laptops, PC tablets, linking up peoples’ phones.. we even considered commissioning an elaborate arts assessment booth or kiosk (we jokingly call this wild idea “the laser box”).

The iPod touch and smartphones were cheap, but had too small of a screen for good collaboration.

Laptop user’s “don’t bug me” body language.

Laptops are highly capable but too individual-oriented to cultivate the feedback-rich classroom environment we wanted. When people are working on a laptop, it sends out this message that says: “I’m working–don’t bug me!” We wanted technology that would set the stage for collaboration, teamwork and most importantly, many layers of feedback– from student to student, teacher to student, outside the school to inside, and so on. Constant feedback flow is a big philosophical pillar in the project.

The kiosk idea, though tempting for the ability to infinitely customize for our project, was too pricey to be nationally replicable. A key goal of our pilot is to create something that can be replicated elegantly and affordably in any public school classroom in the United States. So for that reason we deciced to adapt existing technologies rather than develop something proprietary.

The only thing we rely on schools to provide is an Internet connection. Everything you need to participate is included our package. The package has 3 customized iPads, wireless access point with 14ft ethernet cable, speaker/pico projector combo dock (chosen for its wonderful lack of hookup cables) some styli, iRig mic, and durable iPad cases.

iPad users’ ‘hey, let’s explore together!’ body language

We liked iPads because we know that many teachers and students are already familiar and comfortable with the interface. The touchscreen was a big thing for us, because the flat, “swipey” interface fosters body language that says “come play with me, let’s explore!” We could imagine a bunch of kids gathered around a video or a group game, working together. And we had seen compelling reports of classrooms around the country using iPad to do just that, which confirmed our hunch that this was the best way to go.

What Apps did you select? What criteria did you use?

Our custom iPad image has 90 apps pre-loaded for the classroom. We asked our partner institutions in the different arts disciplines to suggest high-quality apps for their disciplines.

We looked for apps that we could picture a group of kids using together collaboratively. There’s a beautiful one called Visible Body that lets you zoom and spin around the entire human anatomy–bones, muscles, ligaments. I could see that engaging a group of students trying to draw from life or learning to understand their bodies through dance. I also like one called Educreations, which lets you draw on the screen while speaking/explaining, which you could imagine being useful for theater students planning out blocking while speaking cues, and perhaps using the recorded video to explain their vision to others. A drawing teacher could make a demo video to open a lesson on 3-D shading techniques, or as a tool to support students in need of extra help.

We included several video and photo editing apps to help teachers record and share what’s happening in their classroom in the Arts Achieve online community too.

If an app required elaborate setup or login, we nixed it. We operated on the assumption that since teachers are always extremely pressed for time and juggling many demands, there’s no time for anything that takes more than a few taps to get up and running.

What were the challenges in setting the iPads up for use across so many different schools?

A huge issue for teachers trying to harness the educational power of technology is simply getting online. Find the right wi-fi network, track down the IT guy to get the password, enter a 15 character password… enter a proxy setting, possibly another password in the browser… and repeat that process for multiple devices…. By now your 40 minute lesson time is halfway over.

A huge win for us was the ability to pre-configure these iPads for instant web access. All the teacher has to do is plug in an Airport Express brick to the outlet & the nearest ethernet jack. They turn on their iPads, which are pre-programmed to look for the Airport and pre-configured with DOE proxy settings. They plug in the brick, turn on the iPads, and they’re online. A little bit of configuration legwork from us will save hours of accumulated time for these teachers.

Each iPad has the same disk image that has been custom configured and optimized for the project. They’re pre-loaded with networking settings, relevant bookmarks for the Ning network, wallpaper with our logo and even keyboard shortcuts that reflect the Arts Achieve vocabulary. The iPads are centrally tethered and controlled using AirWatch, so we can see when and how they’re being used, where they are, push out new apps as we learn about them, and block whatever latest new distracting game is out there. We can also troubleshoot problems remotely, which is huge because the test schools are far-flung all around the city.

How did you balance the locked down needs of schools with the needs of the Apps?

3G connection was not an option because we needed to keep everyone inside the school firewall. So we’re satisfying a lot of the schools’ online safety needs because we’re staying inside their firewall.

Transferring photos easily and wirelessly with Photosync App

Use of e-mail to send and receive media is also not something we can encourage because that is currently not allowed for students. To get around this, we found two brilliant apps that let iPad send and receive data with any computer wirelessly– Photosync and MP3 player. This avoids the annoying issue of having to designate a computer and active iTunes account for a given iPad to sync up with. All the teacher wants to do is get their video or photo out of the iPad and onto a computer so they can work on it later or post it online. These apps allow them to do that in the simplest way possible.

What extra features did you wish the iPad/iOS had to help with these sorts of rollouts?

The iPad is designed for an individual to use and sync up with their personal computer. It would be nice if there was a “group mode” or something for iOS that made it easier to deploy multiple iPads  to a user group who don’t have syncing computers. In our dream setup, Arts Achieve central would have a Master iPad, and any changes we made to the master unit would automatically push out to the classroom iPads, without the teachers having to log in to iTunes, memorize any passwords, punch in credit card info, or any other time-killing, lesson-derailing obstacles. “Group mode” would be good for schools, or for a company issuing iPads out to employees, or a parent who wants to manage their kids’ devices. iCloud is close, in that it eliminates some of the headache of plugging in and physically syncing, but again, that service is designed for an individual consumer managing a personal media library… it wouldn’t work that well for a project like Arts Achieve, which demands replicability & uniformity from one classroom to the next.