Giving students a voice in their learning and their learning environment is very important and directly related to student engagement. (Side note: see my colleague Sara White's post about The Diamond Ring of Instruction: Student Engagement). In our iPad 1:1 program, we're working to balance student choice with teacher's desire for control. We want students to use their iPads for learning, and we want them to be able to choose which tools to use and decide what works best for them. Yet we also want students to be focused and not distracted by many of the available apps in the Apple store.
At the moment I write this, there are currently over a half million apps, much more than anyone could conceivably even try out in a lifetime. Some of them are great, and of course, some are less than worthy of attention.
I've seen opinions all over the spectrum when it comes to discussing whether a school's app environment should be under tight control or completely laissez faire, similar to some of the discussions that take place over Internet filtering. Multiple conversations I've had with educators and parents over the past few years have also helped me realize that there is a wide variety of opinions and comfort with this as well. I've had some parents thank me for our current system, others tell me that it's too restrictive, and still others say it's too loose!
We believe our current system balances all needs quite well. Over the past few years as more schools with 1:1 iPad programs have become more common, some of our new hires have transferred from other districts where 1:1 iPads were also in use. They've shared many stories of frustration when describing what teaching was like when students had wide open access to anything in the App Store. These stories, along with our own personal visits of other 1:1 schools, have reassured us that we have found a good middle ground.
As I mentioned in a previous post, we have a new compliance procedure with white listed apps which students can download from the School App Store. We currently have about 160 available apps in our Minnetonka App Store (complete list). This list is a compilation of suggestions and requests by staff and students over the past three plus years in our 1:1 iPad program. This list is not set in stone, in fact it is quite fluid. As teachers and students discover new apps that they want to use, they submit their notifications to us through the request form as pictured below. At least four times a year the instructional technology staff review these requests and new apps are added to our Minnetonka App Store. If there is an urgent need for an app to be made available for students when requested by a teacher, we certainly accommodate that need.
For example, there are many Screencasting apps, and we have selected two to make available: Educreations and Explain Everything. Educreations is free and pretty basic, great for quick recordings and simple projects. Explain Everything costs money and has a deep set of tools and features, better for complex tasks when something more than a basic screencast is needed. Students and staff focus do their screencasting work through these two apps, and get to know all of the features well. Students don't have to switch apps based on teacher preference, and teachers don't have to deal with trouble shooting student projects made in ten or more different applications.
Finally, I should point out that all of the apps in our Minnetonka App Store are rated for age 13 and under. There are many apps in the Apple App Store that are rated for age 17+, and our students cannot install any of these. By turning on this restriction through our Mobile Device Management Software (Airwatch) for everyone, the install button for these apps is removed completely from our students' iPads, helping to keep the inappropriate content away from students on school owned devices. We point out to parents frequently that these restrictions are also available on any Apple device through Settings, meaning that they could do the same on their child's iPod or iPhone.