As teachers and students know by now, cell phone use in class is frowned upon. Not only do they present a distraction, but they also aid cheating. Friends can text message answers, and students can take photos of tests with camera phones. But just because a phone isn’t welcome in the physical classroom doesn’t mean it is useless in the learning process. In fact, there are many BlackBerry applications that can help teachers and students alike. These computational, reference, and organizational applications can be excellent supplements to the teaching and learning processes.
Dictionary and Thesaurus
If a student needs just one non-school-issued resource, it’s a dictionary. The learning process involves reading more than anything else, and students at every level are bound to find more than a few words they don’t know. Having a dictionary nearby can not only help them understand the passage they’re currently reading, but also helps build a larger vocabulary. That will help with future readings. Then there’s the issue of writing papers. While teachers do not encourage students to use a thesaurus just to come up with a two-dollar word, sometimes amateur writing can get repetitive. Students do well to replace frequently recurring words with fresh alternatives, and the best way to accomplish that is by using a thesaurus. Not only can it make their writing better, but it can make the paper reading process easier on teachers. Even adults can benefit from having a dictionary handy. I read about a book a week, and nary a week goes by when I don’t encounter a word with which I’m unfamiliar. Sure, when there’s no dictionary around I can just jot down the word and look it up later, but it always helps to have something on hand. That way I have a clearer idea of what I’m reading right away, while building my vocabulary at the same time. There are two options when choosing a dictionary and thesaurus application — and it’s always better to get the bundle if possible. First is an application that uses online look-up. That means you have to be within cell signal range to use the application, which is a slight negative, but on the upside you can get one for free. I recommend the Dictionary.com BlackBerry app. It includes not only a dictionary and thesaurus, but will also pronounce words for you. That’s a big plus. The other option is a dictionary program that can be used anywhere, whether you are in cellular range or not. For that I recommend the MSDict Pocket Oxfor English Dictionary and Thesaurus, which costs $24.99 and is available on all BlackBerry models with OS 4.0 or higher.
Things started off calmly when I started off pre-calc my junior year of high school. I got by with my scientific calculator, inputting sines, cosines, and tangents with a near fervor. (Yes, precalc in my high school was broken into two parts, trig and then precalc.) As the first semester neared an end, the teacher reminded us that we would need a graphing calculator for the pre-calc portion of the course. This excited me. Not from a math standpoint, really, but from a fun standpoint. I knew that the new wave of graphing calculators had Tetris pre-loaded. Much fun was to be had sitting in the back of the class, fitting together blocks. That’s the way it went down, but not without consequence. I bombed pre-calc and, a year later, calculus. Had I paid attention in class rather than trying to beat my high scores in Tetris, perhaps it would have gone better. But I digress. The point here is to point out how a graphing calculator on your BlackBerry can help students and teachers. Unfortunately, it appears that it only helps out in the cost of a calculator. A cursory search for graphing calculators shows that they’re around the same price as when I was in high school, between $100 and $150. That’s a ton of money to drop on a device that will only be used for a year, year and a half tops. Maybe it gets dusted off for a college math class, but many students will find a way around that. Despite my mathematical proficiency (don’t let my poor calculus performance fool you), I took the most basic math class possible to fulfill my college requirement. No graphing calculator necessary. While the gWhizPro graphing calculator (plus reference guide and flash card application) costs about a tenth of what a standalone graphing calculator does, it presents a number of issues. First is that teachers would have to let students use their BlackBerry devices in class. That can open up distractions that range from text messages to Web browsing to games far more intricate than Tetris. Then again, we were never allowed to use our own graphing calculators during tests (plenty of opportunities to cheat with one), so the cheating aspect wouldn’t be that big an issue. Still, there are even greater possibilities for distraction, and as I can testify, that’s just not conducive to a learning environment. If a teacher allows it, and if the student has enough self discipline to pay attention in class, a graphing calculator application like gWhizPro can save a student (and his or her parents) plenty of money. The application is also good for cost-concscious teachers. They can also use applications like BlackBerry Viewer to display their BlackBerrys on their computers, and then on a projection screen. I’m not sure if modern graphing calculators can do this easily, but even so, it’s just $35 for the calculator app plus the viewer app. That’s far less than even the cheapest, acceptable graphing calculator.
A BlackBerry is a great place to store reference materials. Because the device normally goes wherever you do, you can access these reference materials anywhere, without having to lug anything else along. I think this works especially well with the Periodic Table of Elements. A staple of any chemistry class, the periodic table is an oft-used reference. The problem is that it normally comes in two forms: in the textbook, which students won’t lug around unless necessary, and on a worksheet, which is easy to lose. Students who have BlackBerry devices can benefit from having the periodic table right on their handsets. Again, because the BlackBerry goes everywhere you go, you won’t lose the worksheet, and you don’t have to lug around a textbook. It also allows you to study it anywhere, in case you have a class that requires memorization of parts or all of it. Toysoft Development has two versions of a periodic table application. You can get the Storm version or the non-touchscreen version. They’re $1.99 each, which is the absolute cheapest periodic table application I could find (I couldn’t even find a free one on an unreliable site).
By the time students enter high school, teachers discourage the use of encyclopedias for sources when writing papers. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re completely useless. In fact, encyclopedias can be excellent jumping off points, giving students ideas that they can pursue further in other sources. There’s the always-trusty Britannica, which you can get for $24.95. Then again, you can just go get a free Wikipedia app. Remember, the sources at the end of each article are a far better bet than the article content itself. Finally, facts and figures are always a part of the scholarly life. You can have everything at your fingertips with World Almanac for BlackBerry, which is available for $24.95.
Planner and Organizer
Every year in high school, in the first homeroom period of the school year, the school issued us daily planners for the year. They were neat, spiral-bound books, intended to help students remember all of their assignments. Like many of my friends, I would vow at the beginning of each year to use my planner and finally get organized. By the third day of school that plan had already failed. The BlackBerry is already an excellent organizational tool. You can use the native calendar to write down all of your assignments. You can create memos to help you remember certain things that you would otherwise forget. You can create task lists and plow through them. It’s all native, right on your BlackBerry. The only shortcoming is that everything isn’t tied together in one place. Again, I hope that in the future RIM better integrates the calendar, tasks, and notes. Until then, there are applications that can take care of the task. Designed specifically for students both high school and college, StudentDocket has all of the planning and organizational features you’ll need. It keeps track of your class schedule, professor information (office hours, phone number, email address), assignments both short- and long-term, and more. I particularly like it because it uses a Getting Things Done style project management system. This way you can plan out a project, rather than saving it for the last minute (i.e., when you see on your calendar that it’s due the next day). You can get StudentDocket for $19.95. It seems worth the investment. Teachers can also use their BlackBerry devices to set lesson plans. Again, it’s a combination of tasks, contacts, and calendar that works well here. While StudentDocket can help teachers as well, there are applications out there that tie together these applications, rather than creating a new one. A popular one is Agendus, and it comes with recommendations from many sources. This will work well for teachers, because instead of checking three applications, they can do everything in Agendus. That said, the application is not for everyone, and you’d do best to read the application description to make sure it’s exactly what you’re looking for. It appears that many of the negative reviews are from people who would have been better with a different app. You can get Agendus for $19.95. Another quality resource for teachers is Teacher Pro. It doesn’t work that well for lesson planning, but it employs databases to help track student names, profiles, and grades. It’s more of a helpful tool than an application a teacher would lean on for help organizing classes. It’s on sale from now through October 31, so you can check out Teacher Pro for just $9.99 until then.
You can be the best organized student in the world, but if you don’t study for tests and quizzes, chances are your grades won’t reflect your planning efforts — unless you’re my friend Scott, who breezed through everything he’s ever done. Beyond reading all the material assigned, there are plenty of ways to prepare for a test. A BlackBerry application called Cram uses various methods to help students get ready for a test they would normally dread. The application is social-minded, allowing students to upload study material for others to see. This creates a collaborative environment — and as anyone who has ever gone to law school can tell you, group study is better than merely individual study. WIth multiple people contributing to the study effort, everyone learns more. This is especially handy for high school students who might not be able to drive places and meet people for study sessions. You can use the flash card mode to work with rote memorization, or you can use multiple choice mode to simulate the test taking experience. There is also a section for long answers, though without a reliable reviewer, I’m not sure this amounts to anything more than unchecked practice. You can even browse tests from random uploaders, who perhaps picked up on something you didn’t. You can get Cram for BlackBerry for just $9.99. It might be an even wiser investment than all of the planners and reference guides listed above.
How can we expand this list?
While we put a lot of time into compiling this list, it’s not going to be perfect. None of us at BBGeeks is a certified teacher, and we haven’t been students in a while. If you’re a teacher or student and use any additional BlackBerry applications for teaching and learning — or have any feedback on the ones we listed, leave them in the comments.