5 Indispensable Tips for Creating an Education App

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In the past, there were limitations to your ability to solve problems in the classroom. But, as computer app development becomes more accessible, it opens up a new avenue for solving education-related problems on your own, or at least partly so.

Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, recognized this new reality earlier than most. In 2005, he began building a tech-based solution to a frustration he had with classroom response systems, or clickers. He felt clickers weren’t engaging enough and only offered a snapshot of students’ understanding, rather than the full picture. Five years later, his solution became a commercial product, LectureTools, which allows instructors to create and share presentations and receive real-time feedback from students.

Now, Dr. Samson can say two things. First, if students are given more opportunities to participate in class, they will. And, second, the best education technology products are built by instructors and students themselves.

So, if you’re considering taking matters into your own hands, learn from Samson’s experience about how to approach the app-creation process.

5 Indispensable Tips for Creating an Education App

Know the literature. Have a broad understanding of the latest research on best practices in teaching and learning, because from this point you can do an audit of available (or potentially available) technology to help you apply those practices. In Samson’s case, this meant knowing that what works in education is giving students opportunities to discuss material and to ask questions among themselves and the instructor. LectureTools allows for that kind of communication. What began, then, with an understanding of the literature became an effective education technology tied specifically to best practices. “It’s about looking at what’s been learned in the education research,” Samson says, “and determining where we can use technology to embrace those learnings.”

Be tech savvy… to a point. Samson describes a model that he thinks works best for building an application: First, the person with the “big idea” should be able to build a prototype demonstrating its core capabilities. Then, that person should hand it over to a professional who can make the technology work. Having the grace to back away, as Samson refers to it, can be difficult not only because you’re separating yourself from something you created, but also because assembling the right team of professionals requires patience and diligence.

Devote yourself to early-stage development. Depending on your tech chops, the prototype could be either a drawing or an actual simple webpage. The webpage will yield more valuable feedback because your potential users will be able to try the app out, which allows you to record user interaction and redesign in response to what you learn. “You learn a lot in a hurry by having a fairly limited number of encounters,” Samson says. In fact, he calls the process of developing LectureTools “organic,” since many of its features were a result of instructors and students coming up with ideas to make the application more useful. He also encourages getting a wide range of feedback, because what works for you may not work for your colleagues in other disciplines.

Get students involved. One constant throughout the development of LectureTools, and its recently released iPad app, was student involvement in everything from building the prototype to offering suggestions for future iterations. Samson relied heavily on students from the university’s College of Engineering and School of Information. He recruited them through announcements targeting those who wanted to get involved in an entrepreneurial education-related project. “Students respond very strongly to that because it’s a way they can be involved in creating something that’s got social value,” he says. Every university has students who are interested in and skilled at coding, design and usability; leveraging that is key, especially since these students are also future users — and, involvement can provide them with portfolio pieces. Students are also great at spreading the word about your product. If a student asks her professor to consider using a particular product, the professor might be more likely to do so than if the same request came from other faculty or administration.

Explore your money options. You can build a one-trick app for a couple hundred dollars, or a more robust program for several thousand. Either way, there are opportunities for funding if you’re resourceful enough to find them. LectureTools has been awarded funds a couple of times by the National Science Foundation. (Click here to check out a NSF grant opportunity coming up in early December.) If you’re building a less involved app, websites like Instant App Wizard, uBuildApp, App Designer, and Apps Maker Store, as well as Apple’s iOS Development Center can guide you through the process for far cheaper than it costs to contract a programmer and designer.

Please share in the comments your thoughts on instructor-developed apps.

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