Stuart Swann is an Apple Professional Learning Specialist (APLS) and former teacher. He now works with schools to help them to make the most of technology, supporting the development of long term teaching and learning strategies with technology as a core tool and creating curriculum content and training to make sure best practice is embedded in a fun and creative way.
We recently asked Stuart if he would be kind enough to cast his professional (and critical) eye over the Sparkjar platform and provide us with his independent and unbiased feedback in the form of an expert review. Here is what he came up with...
Sparkjar platform review by Stuart Swann (APLS)
Sparkjar is an app for iPad that allows teachers to create and share content and assignments with their students, for those students to submit work to be marked and for work to be stored and evidenced. In other words, it is what is commonly known as a “classroom solution”.
Sparkjar has been designed from the ground up, and specifically for UK schools who have 1:1 iPad deployment. It is also suitable for use in all year groups, from KS1 to KS5.
If you have used and are familiar with other classroom solutions, you will notice some inevitable similarities (sending work out to a class, the ability to mark that work using annotations etc and to communicate with students), but Sparkjar is a little different. The first thing that struck me (I, along with a select few ADEs / APLS trainers have been granted a ‘dummy’ account) was just how easy it is to use. Creating topics is simple, as is adding in content for the students. Content (or Resources) includes: files stored on your device (or in a range of cloud services - Sparkjar supports iCloud, Google Drive, One Drive, Dropbox etc), web links, photos, videos and the use of the camera, and a whiteboard, where content can be added using notes, drawings and voice recordings.
Teachers can choose to make these resources visible to the whole class, or to selected students, and resources can be shared with other staff members.
The chat function within the app means teachers can converse with their whole class or individual students.
Students see pretty much what the teacher sees, and when work is handed in (or submitted), marking is a breeze. Teachers have a range of tools at their disposal, including annotation, text, voice notes, and even video with which to feed back to the student. Every time a piece of work is marked, it is kept as a version, meaning all marks, comments and iterations can be seen. Nothing is overwritten.
Sparkjar have included some nice touches. I really like the clean, uncluttered interface and menu system. There are just a handful of icons used to create topics and add resources (Topics, Classwork, Homework, and Chat - plus a Marksheet). I especially like the way the interface separates Classwork and Homework. This is a simple but effective and useful tool for the teacher.
So far, so good and - some would say - so familiar and no different to other classroom apps. However, Sparkjar has an ace (or 2) up it’s sleeve…..
As a teacher, I can share live content to my students, including websites, images and the whiteboard. I can do this for all students in my class, for specific groups or for individuals.
The whiteboard is a very powerful tool. It can be used like a slide deck, but it is also a ‘live working’ document. As teachers make notes, add annotations and record audio onto the whiteboard, students will see these appear in real-time. Students can also add their own content, but this will only be seen by the individual - meaning the board won’t get crowded with dozens of student annotations.
And there’s more…. As well as sharing live content, Sparkjar has video conference facilities built in! No more relying on other software to video conference and share content. It’s right there in the app and as easy to use as all the other tools.
All this makes Sparkjar a very powerful classroom solution and means that teachers do not have to rely on several different apps - they can do everything they might need to within the Sparkjar environment.
I know that, during 2020 when many schools were teaching remotely, video conferencing and sharing content was key to learning. However, there are still a multitude of reasons why teachers and learners would use these facilities and I see them as an integral part of the Sparkjar experience.
What I keep coming back to as I use the app is just how intuitive it is - whether you are a teacher or a student. I can’t emphasise enough how straightforward Sparkjar is to use.
Tech-wise, Sparkjar is a breeze to set up for school admins. Classes are created by linking to the school’s MIS. Students then receive a code from their teacher in order to join a class. For students who are timetabled for other classes (in secondary for example), they will be automatically added to these classes.
If a student changes classes, Sparkjar will sync to the MIS and all the admin for these changes will be done automatically.
Security is taken very seriously, and the fact that Sparkjar has been designed for UK schools means that things like GDPR requirements are all taken care of. Sparkjar do share data with one company - Wonde for set up purposes, but that’s it.
Sparkjar are competing with some big hitters in this market, but I do believe that they have something that schools who are investing in iPad will want and need - a product that takes the best of what the competition has to offer, mixes it with some truly unique features and simplifies the lot to give teachers and students a time-saving, meaningful classroom solution.
Do reach out to Stuart using the details above if you think your school could benefit from an experienced technology expert to support your digital planning and delivery.
If you would like a chat about Sparkjar or a demo of the platform, please get in touch.