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Educator-Led App Creation in Canada

By Michael Bowden
 | Jan 19, 2017

TWT 011917As educators in British Columbia, we never set out to be app designers.

Our school district challenged educators to be innovative in the classroom, and they were finding a lot of pressure was put on the school system to get up to date with technology. At the same time, they were struggling with the cost of new technology and how to justify it as it applies to student achievement. Does technology make a difference?

The other pressure on schools concerning achievement was focusing on foundational skills, particularly skills in literacy and comprehension. Schools were noticing a significant lack of growth in literacy results after grade 4. A conversation started between Gloria Ramirez, an education professor from Thompson Rivers University, the district literacy coordinator, and me to address the drop in literacy at the grade 4 level. A plan began to form.

We knew that at about grade 4 the curriculum and structure of learning shifted in our school system, with a greater focus on nonfiction reading and literacy and an increased use of subject-specific academic language and vocabulary.

We turned to the school district to ask if they would allow us to work with a small group of teachers and target academic- and subject-specific vocabulary instruction. We also wanted to focus on rural and high-risk classrooms in grade 4. We were fairly certain that targeted support in vocabulary at grade 4 would make a difference but wanted to prove our theory. The other part to our plan was almost an afterthought. The district, as well as our education research team, wanted to know if using technology would help. Wanting some advice on how best to approach introducing technology into the classroom, we invited a technology professor from a local university to join us.

From there, we started our study. Using a number of classes in grade 4, we compared classes on the basis of the following parameters:

  • Classes that had no interventions or supports from the team.
  • Classes where the teachers received focused instructional professional development around explicit vocabulary instruction.
  • Classes that received the vocabulary professional development but also had tablets as part of supporting the vocabulary instruction in the classroom.

But even with support from Musfiq Rahman, a technology professor from Thompson Rivers, we ran into challenges right away.

We struggled with finding applicable apps to match the instruction in the classroom around vocabulary. We found most of the commercial apps were too standardized in their approaches. In other words, the vocabulary selection did not match the specific academic and subject vocabulary introduced by the teacher in the classroom, so it lacked relevance.

Also, the way the apps introduced vocabulary was not always using high-yield strategies on how we learn and comprehend vocabulary. Finally, the information gathered by the apps and shared with the teacher was subject to privacy issues.

Even with all of these challenges around using technology and finding the best app, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that classes using technology showed greater improvement than those that didn’t.

Excited to discover that technology makes a difference, but also frustrated with the flexibility of available commercial apps, we asked if it was possible to design an app, LearningApp, to meet the needs of our teachers and perhaps even produce better achievement results than what we found in our initial study.

The answer was yes!

Rahman set out to bring some of his programming students to help design an app that could be customized by the teachers and integrate some of gaming features students would find engaging.

Students and educators from the university started working with classroom teachers and students from the elementary school to design an app that would meet their needs. If you want a lively discussion, you need only to ask your class what video games they enjoy and why. You can engage a whole class by just talking about their gaming experience. Even before the prevalence of video games, games from cards to board games have captured the attention of children and even involve learning. If only we can tap into that motivation!

We learned that the use of technology allowed for increased opportunities to individualize learning. This was especially helpful in isolated rural areas or where a child’s opportunity for exposure to diverse vocabulary might be limited.

We have currently developed a back-end platform with a number of capabilities requested by teachers and students:

  • Teachers can collaboratively design simple instructional tasks for students and specific to their subject material.
  • Instructional tasks can be shared among teachers as a databank of options when personalizing their instruction.
  • Students are able to complete the tasks and get immediate feedback on their progress.
  • Data and results can be gathered to give teachers immediate feedback on how students are progressing.

The back-end platform was designed to allow expansion of more complex instructional tasks. It can also be hosted on a secure server at the school board office to address privacy issues. Finally, it is a web-based program that can be used on all devices capable of accessing the Internet.

The next phase of the project is developing a gaming platform to work with the back-end platform and present students with a gaming experience. We are involving students in helping design a game that will work with the instructional components of the program and allow students to access the motivational aspects of gaming technology.

Once the app is completed, we will be able to follow up with action research to determine the level of impact on student achievement. With our initial research, in addition to what we know about gamification of learning and individualized instruction, we are positive we will see great results.

bowden headshotMichael Bowden is principal at Raft River Elementary in British Columbia, Canada.

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