Extending the Educational Experience Beyond the App

by Moms With Apps on August 20, 2012

I met David Ng of Vertical Learning Labs through the App Friday program and in our forums. He started a discussion with other developers about ways to provide supplementary educational materials with apps (he has been writing curriculum for 17 years). David focuses on STEM education at the middle school level, and has several iBook textbooks plus an app on the app store. I invited him to write a guest post about “education beyond the app” , given our focus on Back to School. I hope both teachers and developers find it helpful. 

A piece of curriculum designed, marketed, and sold for classroom use is typically bundled with a teacher’s guide and an activity book, with workshops and in-service training often also available. Some more sophisticated curricula can’t even be purchased by a school system unless professional development for the teachers is included. As educational apps become richer and more innovative, app developers need to figure out how to provide similar levels of support to the users of their apps instead of simply tossing them into the deep end and expecting them to swim.

However, before rushing in, you should ask yourself several important questions:

  • Why are you providing supplementary educational materials? What is your goal? For example, materials can extend the usefulness of the app, demonstrate how to get the most out of the app, explain the educational theory behind the app, or align the app with specific learning standards.
  • How many of your users are going to want or care about these educational materials? Adding features that few users are going to use adds complexity and can bloat your app. Trying to make your app do too much can compromise its core functionality.
  • Should updates to the educational materials be tied to updates to your app, or do you want to keep them separate?
  • How discoverable should the educational materials be? Adding links within the app can help users discover and access the material, but links can also behave like cross-promotional ads that degrade the user experience and can raise privacy concerns for kids and families.
  • What form of educational support should you provide and are you the best person to design it? If an element of an app is beyond your area of expertise, bringing in a professional artist, programmer, musician, or narrator can add tremendous value. This applies equally to your app’s educational content. Writing general tips and answers to frequently asked questions is one thing; creating standards-based follow-up activities, small group lesson plans, assessment tools, or integrated curriculum units is something else entirely.
  • How can you gather feedback from your users so that you can assess how effective your materials are, how and how often they are being used, and what your users need?

Adding Educational Value to a Game

The first thing I did as I was developing my first educational math game, Chocolate Chip Cookie Factory: Place Value, was envision how I would want to use the game myself as an educator. While Cookie Factory can be used as a fun game to engage kids and get them to practice their math facts, it can also help kids explore, develop, and apply place value concepts… building a foundation for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing multi-digit numbers on paper before they see it in the classroom.

While hands-on discovery is crucial in the learning process, so is building and testing theories and practicing other metacognitive skills. Therefore, I created a practice mode (a pressure-free environment in the game) where an adult and a child (or two children on their own) can sit down to share, discuss, and experiment with new strategies together. This practice mode (coming in version 1.1), simply turns off the game’s clock and gives the player unlimited time to solve the problems and clear a round.

Next, I developed a short learning guide accessible on my website. Parents are often uncertain about how much guidance to give a child during the discovery process. This learning guide lays out simple, scaffolded learning progressions that parents and teachers can use to guide a child toward conceptual understanding without telling the child what to do and depriving him or her of the learning experience. Locating the learning guide on the web instead of within the app allows me to update it whenever I want; it also provides more information to parents and teachers researching the app before buying it. I have decided to provide a non-active link to the learning guide in the app description and on the game’s start page (coming in version 1.2) because I feel that anyone actively looking for ways to use the app as an educational tool won’t be deterred by having to enter a link manually into a web browser.

As a professional educator and curriculum developer for the past 17 years, I am still struggling with how much and what form of educational support to provide in my app. Right now, I am just dipping my toe in the water. The key will be finding some way to create an ongoing dialog with the parents and teachers using my app so that I can learn how to support them better. Writing curriculum is much tougher when your students are no longer sitting right in front of you!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Carolina August 20, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Great post David. Your questions and suggestions are taking educational apps in a thoughtful direction. I, too, like to see supplemental and supportive materials that are directly related to teachers (and parents) needs.

I’m glad that you are providing the pedagogy and lesson ideas right in your app.

Pierre - L'Escapadou August 21, 2012 at 1:34 am

Thank you for this nice post – really helpful for developers that have not your background.
I think it’s really great for teachers, but my experience is that most parents are not really involved in educating their kids – they rely on school- and thus will unfortunately never read the learning guide. Of course, some parents are involved and I think you should ease the access to the guide, and at least let them read it from the app (in a protected parent). It’s really easy to display a web page in an app, so why not do it ?

David Ng August 21, 2012 at 6:06 am

Hi Pierre,

You raise some really great points. At this point in time, I don’t think we know what the best strategy is for extending the educational experience of apps – I have far more questions than answers – so all I can do is share my thinking process with you.

Using an embedded web view in an app to display supplementary educational materials is very easy to implement in most SDKs. However, it locks updates to the educational materials to app updates. I feel freer to experiment and iterate with the content of my educational materials when they are on the web. One of my goals is also to open a dialog with my users, and I feel that is going to be easier to do when they are visiting my website. If I find that there is an audience for my educational materials and they are visiting my website, then I’d like to start blogging, gathering user comments, etc. That feels more difficult to do within the app itself. Finally, I would like some of the educational content that I am creating to be accessible for those who do not necessarily own an iPad or mobile device.

If I find that only 2% of my users are actively using my educational materials when they have to manually enter a url in a web browser, 5% are using them when they can just click an active link in my app that takes them to my website, and 10% are using them when the materials are embedded in the app, then I would certainly re-evaluate. One of my assumptions is that there is an audience hungry for hands-on, inquiry-based learning materials to develop conceptual understanding and general learning and thinking skills, and that this audience is currently underserved by the market. Of course, I could be wrong. I frequently am!

David Ng August 21, 2012 at 7:57 am

Hi Carolina,

Can you recommend any sites where developers can find and link up with educators who can help with either creating supplementary educational materials or improving the core educational content/mechanics of an app? I know that there are some great sites out there for connecting with artists, programmers, narrators, etc. And I’ve seen some educational review sites offering consulting services, but I don’t know much about them. Maybe this is an area that Jeoud could explore in Review at Dev? I’d feel more comfortable reviewing an app and giving private feedback on educational content than in reviewing an app in general and having that feedback posted publicly.

Sarah Towle August 22, 2012 at 1:40 am

Excellent post – and thoughtful commenting, too. So much to chew on and think about and do. Thanks for all the wonderful ideas.

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