AMITIAE - Saturday 12 October 2013

Cassandra: The iPhone and Apps as Teaching Tools - Using an App to Teach Writing

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers

When the iPhone was introduced by Apple in January 2007, many people realised that this was most certainly a game-changer. Initially, there were just a few Apple-developed apps, but eventually, the way was opened to allow independent developers to create their own. The creativity that followed made the iPhone (and subsequently the iPad), a powerhouse. As new APIs were brought in and more apps used these, the value increased far beyond what had originally been imagined.

As tools used in teaching, iOS devices have made my job much easier in many ways. With Keynote available on the hand-held device, I can create a presentation on my Mac at home, transfer it to the device (either by synchronisation, or more recently with iCloud) and display the information on a large screen in class.

Drop Box With writing, I use several tools that allow writing on one device and transfer of data to others that I use. A good example is WriteRoom, which works on my Macs as well and synchronises using DropBox, so that writing on one device, makes the text available on others. Also using DropBox is the FTP app, iFTP-Pro. There is also a limited free version of this. It works on the iPad and iPhone, and I can transfer files from a Mac to the iOS devices so that I could update my website when on the road.

There are certain apps that are useful specifically in teaching, such as Documents to Go (standard version), which I have used since the time I used a Palm PDA, not only for handling files in the DOC format, but more specifically, XLS files. It is useful to have such data available, particularly around grade time when students become super-polite and just happen to appear. Similar to that app, I can also use Air Sharing (basic), Files, Spreadsheet (no longer shown in iTunes) and the excellent Doc2.

The apps (above) are mostly for my use, although at times there is some interaction with the students, particularly with Keynote (for example). Recently, however, I used an app as a source for student writing input.

The students I teach are non-native speakers of English, with a wide range of English skills. They are all intelligent and, as engineering students, know more about the intricacies of technology than I do. However, while they all know essential equations (e.g. V=IR), when it comes to the grammar that was taught at high school, that is not remembered as it has never been regularly used.

Part of my job, therefore, is to remind them (many times a day when we are working together) of the basic rules. Another problem comes with the idea of using large sections of text. At high school, they were taught one sentence at a time, with an occasional paragraph thrown in. At the university level, they are rarely called on to write, until the Senior year. By this time, they are locked in to three methods: read large amounts from the internet and believe that they know this; copy large sections directly from the internet and provide a reference; or translate.

With the first, I have to re-affirm what plagiarism is and sometimes have to be harsh; but if they have never been taught this, I cannot hold them fully accountable. Not the first time, anyway.

With the second, while they are doing the right thing by using a reference, there is a question of balance. A reference is to support, not replace their ideas, so this needs to be put under better control.

Translation is the first refuge of many of my students, and as they are taught English in this way - teachers read the English, then provide a translation - there is not the motivation that I had when learning French, for example, or even Latin (at university). Add to that a cultural resistance to using anything other than the native language - especially between two Thais - and the ordinary university student has been severely hampered for years when it comes to English use.

With my Senior year classes, one of the papers I ask them to write, is a process paper. This is well-suited to the technical thinking of Engineering students. With most groups, I ask the students to test condoms: it is testing materials; the cost is low; they can create their own tests and their own data easily; and there are spin-offs in reminding these young students that they can go some way towards protecting themselves.

Color Blindness This year, with a group of Biomedical Engineering students, I decided to take a different approach and had them run an app called Color Blindness Test by Enchroma. I had reviewed this myself some months ago and noted then that the way it was organised makes it a good choice for a writing task. As it is also available as an Android app (with some minor differences) this would not need the students to be iPhone users to complete the task. There are now a number of apps that use the standard Ishihara card system.

Without telling the students about the app, I began by asking them to write down what they knew about colour blindness, with access to online sources banned. Naturally, some knew less than others, but by pooling the ideas on a white board, information was shared.

I then ran the app. I connected the iPhone to the overhead projector and showed them all the parts, repeating some to emphasise the necessary points. As I was demonstrating, a couple of students downloaded the app and more sharing of information began to take place. It is somehow more real on a student's smartphone than when demonstrated on a large screen by the teacher.

Color Blindness Color Blindness Color Blindness

Of particular note was the menu system that is organised by 5 buttons. The first two are concerned with the test and the second two with information. The last is an Exit button (not in the original version of the app). This does not work on iOS devices, but does on Android. This in itself is worth a sentence in the description.

I also advised the students to report on the information buttons first. The texts in here are shorter and less important. Dealing with these first, would allow proper focus on the more important Test and Result buttons. Instead of the standard Ishihara colour blindness test, the Echroma app uses a series of shapes: square, circle and diamond.

I ran the test once for the students, but over the next few weeks reminded them several times of how the displays work; and the reasons for differences. Before the test, there is a demonstration. The screens show the shapes in pink with a grey background. Below the panel are four buttons. Three have the names of the shapes and icons of the shapes so it is not necessary to know English to take the test. The final button has "Nothing" and a question mark ("?") for "don't know" or nothing.

After the demonstration and a brief text explanation, the test itself is run. In this there are 40 screens and the colours of shapes and backgrounds are different, to test for the three types of colour blindness. Shapes on screens at the beginning and end are easier to see, while some screens in the middle have nothing: residual images may make users see what is not there. After the test, there are some panels concerned with results.

Although it is not a proper diagnosis of colour blindness, students are able to make inferences and write concluding remarks about the effectiveness of the app.

The organisation of the app into sections, as described by the buttons on the main screen of the app, the test itself, and the results, made this useful as a guide for students who must improve their writing skills. The way it was set out helped the students impose control on the writing process that they need to effectively produce their own output.

They were able to record the information as they ran the app, but first had to work in order to define the syndrome, explain its causes, and examine the problems that sufferers can have (certain jobs are not available for example).

The use of such apps and the technology of smartphones is far more relevant to students now, so helps maintain their interest while concentrating on the basics of writing. This was clearly not the original purpose of the iPhone, but the "internet communications device" has come a long way.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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