Attendance: Who’s here, who’s not: recorded in half the time, saved where you can’t lose it, and easily turned into comprehensive student-by-student summaries. Welcome to taking the roll, iPad style.
A faster, smarter way to mark off
Because taking attendance is both regular and unavoidable, any improvements to the process that save even a small amount of time get multiplied by a lot of teaching days each year.
With schools having obligations to create and maintain accurate records though, the system needs to be more than just quick. Rolls have to be readily shareable with school admin, backed up so there are redundant copies, and then easy to interpret when report-writing time or communication with parents happens.
Fortunately, there are some canny app developers who are well aware of all this, and have built tools that not only speed up the whole process, but add fresh options that were never possible with paper and pen.
What we’ve put up with all this time
Long before iPads were conceived, all four of those attendance-taking conditions were obviously met by whatever various systems schools used, but the practical limitations of pen and paper in particular could make the process clunky. With long lists of easily-misaligned names, quick was compromised by having to visually scan back and forth between each name and the (as the semester went on, increasingly distant) correct checkbox; shareable usually meant having a student run the completed roll down to the front office; backed up meant someone in that office double-handling those records by entering them into the school database, while interpreting meant wading through all those records, and counting up absent days at report writing time.
Any alternative process that improves or removes these inefficiencies would have an immediate and tangible benefit: it would give time back to teachers and office-admin staff. As we’ll see in a moment, several iPad developers have been busy exploring that very idea.
How this could work instead
Depending on which of the apps below is used, marking a student present can be as simple as tapping their photo, which is quick. Once you’re done, you can tap again to email the roll to student admin, which means it’s shareable, while those soft copies that exist on both your iPad and in that email are now backups which can be readily imported, with no further entry required from anyone.
And at report writing time, turning an entire semester or year of raw attendance data into student-by-student summaries can be done with a couple of further taps, so it’s easy to interpret.
In short, the outcome is everything needed, but the process itself is much faster—reason enough right there to make the switch. But what’s really exciting for teachers are the extras these apps bring that traditional paper-and-grid attendance systems would never have accommodated.
Beyond what’s possible with paper
One of iPad’s most potent advantages is that apps usually don’t just mimic what’s possible with the tools they would supplant; they extend it.
So, for example, some attendance apps allow you to arrange students on your roll not in alphabetical order, but by seating location, so what’s on your screen matches what’s actually in front of you in your class. To take attendance, simply record where the empty chairs are today—you don’t even need to call names.
Combine that with the fact that iPad rolltaking apps usually include photos of each student and you won’t have to spend the first few weeks of each semester asking students for their name, rank and serial number, even if you teach a dozen different classes. Instead, your photo roll/seating chart acts as a cheat sheet so that you’re addressing every student by name from day one.
Some of the apps also allow you to integrate notes into the roll, so you can record observations about behavior/progress/grades/whatever—nothing new about that in of itself, but these notes are all datestamped, timestamped and searchable. Again, at report writing time, it means all your records are in one place, making it much easier to summarize the year that was with not just impressions, but data. (We look much more at this in the chapter on Report Writing)
Apps to start your search with
Visual roll-focused apps
These apps aim to make the process of taking the roll as frictionless as possible, with user-friendly interfaces that are based around tapping photographs to mark students as present. This visual approach means that you can take the roll silently, without having to call names, even if the class in front of you is filled with students you don’t really know yet—ideal, for example, for marking off students as they get off a bus for a school excursion.
TeacherKit cleverly uses a classroom metaphor in its interface design—click on a classroom door to select a particular class, then once inside, tap on each desk to record which students are present. Photos on those desks help you match names to faces, while the desks themselves can be dragged to match the actual layout of your classroom.
A variation on this theme is Roll Call – Attendance Made Simple. Sporting a photos-only interface, the app feels very iPad-like in its clean and no-manual-needed design. Again, you simply tap on students to indicate they’re present, while the photos of absent students will become grey. This app also allows you to indicate what time students were signed in and out, and by whom.
Both apps allow you to generate comprehensive attendance reports for any time period you specify—this comes in handy not just for report writing, but for intercepting problem absenteeism well upstream of an end-of-year written comment. When the phone call to the parents happens, you’ll have the evidence you need to hand.
Multi-purpose admin tools
Some of these apps do much more than just take the roll. Several offer attendance taking as part of a much larger set of administrative features—the tradeoff for the additional power is a steeper learning curve and busier interfaces.
One such app is TeacherTool, a genuine swiss army knife of iPad teacher administration apps. Expensive, complex, well documented and powerful, it allows you to work with everything from lesson plans to annual schedules, course manuals to detailed student grade management. Overkill if all you’re looking to do is take the roll, but an all-in-one solution worth considering if you’re looking to consolidate your administration apps, and are prepared to put in the time to learning to use it.
Much more user-friendly and almost as feature-rich is iTeacherBook, which sports a familiar teacher’s diary interface, and integrates attendance with lesson planners, assignment trackers and a calendar. Put together by the same developers behind the student diary software iStudiezPro (we look at this again in the chapter on homework management) it’s clean and simple to use, allowing for both rapid-fire roll taking, and comprehensive records of just what happened in each lesson.
Fusing the old with the new
STEARsoft—School Teacher’s Electronic Attendance Register Software—provides a familiar text-only roll in digital format, but does so in a way that creates striking visual contrast in the records between those who are present, and those who are absent or tardy, using a traditional herringbone-vs-circles visual.One limitation is that it’s not possible to email an attendance summary directly from within the app, but you can copy the stats page and paste it into a Numbers spreadsheet—it’s easy enough to email from there. The app can also integrate with STEARsoft’s own paid proprietary online service, allowing centralized, schoolwide attendance records that sync automatically every time you take the roll.
Archiving paper records
If you’ve got a traditional day book that you’ve used for years, and are perfectly happy taking the roll with, then your iPad can still help by providing digital backups of the data. Check out the previous chapter on Archiving to see how your iPad can quickly be used to scan and email any paper roll you take. This gives you both an emailable version for the front office and your own records, plus a backup in the event that your day book finally has a Catastrophic Coffee Incident.
Take the roll in less than a second
You don’t even need an app for this: all you need is a sign on every student’s desk with their name on it, and another sign with today’s date. At roll taking time, have students sit at their desks; make sure one of them is holding the date.
Then use the iPad to take a photo.
Shoot the photo through to student admin. Absentees are clearly identified as names on empty desks.
No need to call names, or ask for quiet…just click and get on with your teaching day.
Not the technique with the greatest utility—it does create double-handling downstream, and requires some seriously big name labels for them all to be legible in the shot—but if you hate the roll eating into your day, it doesn’t get much quicker than this.
…or don’t use your iPad at all
If your school has its own roll taking system that works well but happens to be completely incompatible with iPad, then so be it. Part of your challenge as you read this book is not just to triage (you won’t have the budget or the time to use every idea in here), but also to recognize when trying to use iPad in the way described would actually make life more difficult in your classroom.
In short, it’s important this early in the book to understand that just because you can do just about everything with an iPad doesn’t mean you should…a reality-checking thought for teachers or students who get dazzled by the fact that iPads are so shiny and hard to resist…