Dr Chris Robbins takes an in-depth look at the challenges and pitfalls of developing mobile apps for the education market.
Originally posted in 2015: There is no doubt that mobile technologies such as smart phones and tablets have been very successful when it comes to embedding themselves in our everyday lives. They are our very own personal communication, knowledge and entertainment centres.
Importantly, they are tactile; you interact with what’s on your screen largely through touch gestures with the keyboard only appearing when absolutely necessary. Given their innate appeal, and especially to those of school/college age, it is natural to want to find ways to integrate them into education. How can app developers and educational experts best do this?
While I don’t intend to answer the question here, I hope I can give a few pointers as to what could be considered, and what questions can be asked along the way. I will look very briefly at content and pedagogy, use of technology, and platforms
Content and pedagogy
The content and pedagogy should be strongly directed by educational experts. They know the curriculum content, order and importantly have direct experience of different teaching techniques that help promote learning. As important as what’s right is the knowledge of what’s wrong, by which I mean, where students tend to have misconceptions.
On a more detailed point, the question can be asked “What should the content be?” and this is, I think, where the important discussion should take place when an app is being developed or used. There are five broad categories:
Should an app be used to teach in a stand-alone way? By this I mean the app is intended to convey information and understanding to a student undertaking independent learning.
Should an app be used as a supporting mechanism for teaching? This lets the teacher present and manipulate information on screen to help convey understanding. Of, course, this is widely using already with traditional desktop and laptop computers hooked up to smart screens.
Should the app contain revision-aid information to help retention of information? This is a very powerful use of the technology, especially for phone apps which are almost always with a student.
Should the app test students? Testing is part of education and mobile platforms can provide a method of electronically testing and collecting data. However, electronic testing has limitations which I will come back to later.
Should the app be a simulation that allows the user to deduce behaviour based on interaction? Simulation can be a powerful tool but it must be carefully constructed so as not to lead to misconception.
Of course, some apps may use several of the above. It is reasonable for an app to present information, test you on it and provide a revision aid. From my own personal point of view, I lean towards the use of apps for support, revision and especially exploring.
Use of technology
Interaction with tablet and phone devices is primarily through touch gestures and physically tipping the device. These features have been used very successfully for a wide range of game apps and I believe they should be exploited by an educational app as much as possible. However these interactions can be a benefit and a burden!
For simulation-type apps, a gesture interface can let you quickly assemble and move things on screen, or, if you’re simulating something physical with gravity, you can simply tip the device to see what happens. However, the manipulation should be easy as a finger does not convey the fine positional control of a mouse.
With a testing-type app you have to be creative and provide an interactive way of developing an response. A typed answer (common for maths-type web applications) isn’t the best for a mobile device as the keyboard invariable eats up at least half the screen. Multiple-choice, which has always been used for computer-based testing, is a low-hanging fruit in development terms. However as a testing approach it has a few drawbacks, not least of which is it is usually quite boring for the participant!
Of course, there are other technical considerations. Does the app need access to a network to collate responses? Does it need access to the internet? On a wider viewpoint, when considering using existing apps you can also ask will the app display adverts and are they appropriate? Will it require or allow in-app purchases? Will it collect, access or distribute personal information?
Apple’s iPad seems to be the product of choice for tablets, and for many good reasons. The hardware and OS give good performance, the App Store has an enormous number of apps, and to many the Apple way of doing things is very familiar.
From a developer point of view, going Apple gives access to a large market; it is why I primarily consider an Apple device when thinking about developing an app. Yes, there are a few hoops to jump through for development and deployment but they’re worth it!
Android tablets seem to be less popular than Apple’s. Part of this may be due to familiarity, part may be due to the variability of performance (speed and battery life) depending on the manufacturer and part may be due to Apple’s ability to produce very desirable products. However, Android is the most common smart-phone operating system so should Android be getting more use in schools? Certainly from a developer point of view, it is easier to deploy for Android. Indeed, this can be exploited in Computer Science classes using services such as MIT’s app inventor which allows students not only to use apps but to easily create and deploy them as well.
As another incentive to adopt Android, Google’s Play Store (the equivalent of the App store) has recently introduced Google Play for Education. The idea is to provide a quality control mechanism for educational apps. All apps submitted are assessed by an educator network to ensure they provide appropriate educational content and values that promotes the “4Cs” (Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration and Communication). There are tight controls on data collection, advertising and content maturity rating to ensure a teacher can be comfortable using the app in a classroom environment. Additionally, apps can be used on a limited free trial by teachers before purchase.
As a developer of educational apps, Google Play could be very useful as it allows discoverability by teachers in an environment where the educational quality has been checked. If it takes off, Google Play for Education should provide the “goto” place for educational app deployment.
This article has mainly asked rather than answer questions but I hope the questions are useful ones to ask. As final question – is there a science teacher out there who’d like to review a science app related to radiation before I finish polishing it for the App Store?
You can find out more about Chris Robbins and his company Grallator on his official website.