Apps for Education

Faculty members design better educational apps for kids.

by Sara LaJeunesse (September 2011)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- During the 2010-2011 academic year the State College Area School District piloted the use of iPads in the kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classrooms at Easterly Parkway Elementary School. The goal was to help kids get excited about learning.

“The students were excited about math!” one teacher wrote in her blog.

The pilot study was such a success that the district plans to buy 400 more iPads—enough for all eight of its elementary schools—for use during the upcoming school year.

zimmerman_sml.jpgAccording to Heather Toomey Zimmerman, an assistant professor of education in the Instructional Systems program, youth are very interested in mobile learning devices and apps, short for applications. “Learners of all ages want to use smart phones, iPads, and similar mobile devices to explore their worlds through playful learning interactions,” she said, “and parents, teachers, and other educators can engage and support this interest in learning.”

Zimmerman added that while many apps exist now that schools can use for free or at a low cost, educators are limited in what they can provide to students because many of the apps available today don’t allow for very sophisticated learning. “Through our work with Penn State’s College of Education, we hope to change that,” she said. “We want to provide children, families, teachers, and informal educators with better tools.”

As a member of the recently formed Apps for Education Research Group within the College of Education, Zimmerman is working with graduate students in Instructional Systems to take educational apps to the next level by designing new apps that allow for more complex learning.

land_sml-2_cp.jpgWorking with the research group’s coordinator, Associate Professor Susan Land, Zimmerman is exploring new ways of using apps and mobile devices, such as iPods and iPads, in informal science education settings, such as in museums and arboretums. So far, the team has developed a project, called ‘Tree Investigators,’ which elementary students—specifically fourth graders—can use to identify trees.

Zimmerman and Land tested “Tree Investigators” at an Arbor Day event held at the Arboretum at Penn State in April. They told the children they needed to solve a tree mystery, in which someone donated a tree to the arboretum, but no one knew what type of tree it was. To solve the mystery, the students had to learn to identify trees and then search for clues about what the mystery tree was. The children used the cameras on iPads and iPods, along with a Microsoft Tag Reader app, to access additional information, characteristics, and photos about the trees. They then used an app called “U.S. Trees” to narrow down the type of tree that was the mystery tree based on the characteristics presented. The benefit of the "Tree Investigators," according to Land, is that it was designed for the Arboretum site, taking full advantage of the local community resource.

“The ‘Tree Investigators’ project is an example of a research methodology called design-based research,” said Zimmerman. “Design-based research involves applying theory to the design of an educational intervention—such as a curriculum, a technology, or a museum exhibit—and then studying the impacts of the intervention on learners. The methodology is novel because it is an iterative research method, meaning you develop the intervention, study it, redesign the intervention, study the new intervention, and repeat. The result is improved educational theory that has been tested with real learners in real learning environments.”

Hooper_Simon_cp.jpgSimon Hooper also is testing his ideas with real learners in real learning environments. An associate professor of instructional systems and a member of the Apps for Education Research Group, Hooper has created an app that can be used by teachers to assess young children’s literacy.

“It’s like taking a child’s temperature,” he said. “The app assesses a child’s literacy in about a couple of minutes. Then the data is fed into a visualization system that can allow teachers and parents to monitor a child’s progress over time.”

So far, Hooper’s app is in the form of software to which only he and his colleagues have access, but his next step is to put the software into a form that can be used on a handheld device. “Teachers spend an enormous amount of time grading and recording students’ work,” he said. “Having a literacy app that they can use in their classes would enable them to quickly assess where their students stand and help them to make better decisions about the students.”

By creating new educational apps that go beyond just learning numbers and letters, faculty members in the Apps for Education Research Group are combining youth’s interests with important skills and content. “The research group is gathering empirical evidence on how kids learn with these devices as well as then applying these findings toward creating better apps,” said Zimmerman.