This post, co-authored by Greg Kulowiec & Beth Holland, first appeared on Edudemic.

Lately, when talking with teachers about bringing mobile devices into their classrooms, a common concern has surfaced – that connections to the physical world are being sacrificed by over-emphasizing the digital. These thoughtful educators have raised excellent questions about screen time, losing tangible developmental opportunities, and the need to encourage face to face interaction. While the dichotomy between the physical and digital seemed more obvious when working between a classroom and computer lab, the lines have blurred as iPads, Chromebooks, and other mobile devices entered classrooms.

As George Couros (@gcouros) stated in his keynote at last week’s Leading Future Learning conference, “Technology is not meant to replace face-to-face interaction, but to enhance it.”  While it may be enticing to completely transition to digital creation when mobile devices are introduced into our classrooms, there is immense value in continuing to have students create in the real world. The device may allow for editing, remixing, improving and publishing, but the physical world plays no less of a significant role.

Dominoes + Books + Devices in Elementary Classrooms

In Kristen Wideen’s (@mrswideen) elementary class, using familiar, physical objects allows students to explain their thinking while working with mobile devices.

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For example, to reinforce the abstract concept of units of measure and size comparison, Kristen has students measure books with dominoes, take pictures of their problem solving, and then record their thinking using Explain Everything (a screencasting app that works on iPad or Android).

Though this activity could be completed without technology, integrating iPads allows her students to make their thinking visible, articulate their strategies, and describe their understanding through audio, images, and video. The students can work independently in a station while Kristen supports other students, and yet she can still have a record of their thinking. Additionally, upon completion, students upload their screencasts to their blogs, providing them with an authentic audience as well as the opportunity to gain feedback from others – extending the learning context beyond the walls of the classroom.

Twizzlers + Legos + Stop Action Animation in Science Classes

Science teachers have always embraced the physical world with labs and hands-on experiments, but as Jason Heim (@JasonJ1507) and Jodie Deinhammer (@jdeinhammer) prove, digital tools extend learning opportunities – especially when providing students with tangible means to illustrate complex concepts.

Jason’s 8th grade science students used legos, sticky notes, and stop motion animation to illustrate the difference between elements, compounds, and mixtures. In order to create these videos, students had to work in the real world to script, define, and illustrate their concepts, giving a concrete representation to an abstract idea.

Similarly, Jodie’s high school seniors demonstrate neuron structure and function with a combination of stop motion animation, leftover Halloween candy, neon markers, and any other object that they could find in the physical world. In addition to being tasked with describing the science, students also determined the best way to capture their explanations – including the construction of their own tripods for filming.

“My favorite part of this assignment really is how much fun they have with it.  It is something outside of the normal routine, and while they are using technology, they aren’t focused on it. The technology is just there to capture what they are doing on the table with candy and neon Expo markers.” – Jodie Deinhammer

While these projects were created with iPads, any tablet, smart phone, or laptop with a camera could have been used to capture the physical world and then publish the final product.

Tangible Play

In February, at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in San Diego, we met the fantastic team from Tangible Play. Drawn to their vendor table because the stacks of wood pieces, pens, and paper, we learned that Tangible Play allows students to interact with real world content in order to then manipulate their iPad interface to solve tangrams, construct small machines to manipulate falling balls, or decode word problem games by moving small letter tiles, allowing the physical to manipulate the digital world.

As iPads, Chromebooks, and other devices continue to proliferate classrooms, lets continue to have students create in the real world with pens, Play-do, Legos and paper, and use our devices to capture and share the process.

Greg and Beth will be further exploring this concept during a number of EdTechTeacher Summer Workshops as well as at the Learning Futures Summit in Chicago this July.

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