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Making Sure They've Got the Touch

A two-day workshop provides pointers on education app development
By Siddhartha Mitter

On a wintry Saturday afternoon, Cameron Fadjo, a TC doctoral student in Cognitive Studies in Education, was teaching 19 TC students and staff members how to park a Ferrari. If they failed to steer it into the right spot, the car collided with a wall, and they lost points.

The Ferrari was virtual, of course—part of a two-day intensive workshop on how to write iPad and iPhone applications for education. Young children today are using these new touch-based tools from a very early age, but Fadjo, a former middle school teacher who spent two years at Apple before earning TC Master’s degrees in Instructional Media and Technology and in Educational Psychology, is part of a group of TC researchers who worries that the new technology isn’t being utilized to its maximum potential.

“When the tool gets into the classroom and it’s just meant to supplement a previous technology, that’s the concern,” Fadjo says.

The real promise of touch-based tools is the opportunity they create to enhance grounded embodied cognition—anchoring understanding of often abstract-seeming concepts in direct sensory experience. Studies by many researchers, including Fadjo and his advisor, John Black—TC’s Cleveland Dodge Professor of Technology and Education—have shown that grounded embodied cognitive experiences with technology dramatically improve learning and academic performance.

“The research on touch-based devices is as important as computer education literature was 20 years ago,” Fadjo says. “But unfortunately, there aren’t yet a lot of people doing work on cognition and gestural interfaces in education.”

Beyond covering the basics of how to program apps, Fadjo’s workshop—now in its second year—simply seeks to get participants thinking about the breadth of possibilities for using the new technology. At one point, Fadjo gave the group just 45 minutes to come up with app ideas to pitch to the class. An educational purpose was preferred, but not necessary.

Deborah Wraight, a TC Master’s student in Instructional Media and Technology, proposed an iPad-based classroom assessment tool that would be more convenient to use than traditional rubric charts and also allow teachers to gather more personalized information about students to more easily store and transfer that information.
Three employees from the TC Web office cooked up a plan for a handheld app that would give TC students access to everything from tuition billing data to campus events. Still other workshop participants suggested creating prep tools for the GRE exams.

The jump from brainstorming to making a “real” app can be rapid. Wraight said she intended to create her assessment tool as her master’s project, while Marquina Iliev-Piselli, a master’s degree student in Instructional Media and Technology, said that since taking Fadjo’s workshop last year, she had project-managed an app for Hollaback, a non-profit group that focuses on creating awareness of gender-based violence, that enables users to report and help crowd-source data on instances of street harassment.

Iliev-Piselli said she thought designing apps for education would be harder because the technology can be “such a quick fix. I play a game, I close it and it’s over. I’m not learning anything. As an educational device, it needs to be incorporated in a broader curriculum. You have to think about why you’re using this tool.”

To Fadjo, that comment was evidence that his listeners were thinking like marketers as well as educators—a critical requirement for bringing ideas to reality. “The market penetration for these devices is huge,” he said. “And the marketplace is open enough that entry is not prohibitive. It makes sense from the perspective of the TC student to be a part of this revolution in creating learning opportunities through touch-based mobile devices. These devices have the potential to be more than just fun and this workshop helps to guide students toward constructing this future.”

Published Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2011


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