Teachers play a major part in facilitating children’s learning, yet learning is driven by a natural human capacity to create, explore and expand. Learning is an ongoing process of the human being, leading to development, skills, knowledge and understanding. Ultimately, it is what learning can facilitate for the individual and, in turn, provide for society that makes the significance of learning of supreme value.
In today’s society, because education is highly valued, it has become commodity-driven; industries have sprung up around its delivery and parents consciously plan the best educational experiences for their children.
Technology has provided fascinating and exciting opportunities to reinforce and accelerate learning. Mobile mediums, such as iPads and iPhones, provide the perfect tool to deliver such outcomes. Being the most child-friendly technology, the iPad and iPhone have revolutionised user-experience and engagement, leapfrogging existing online and landline communications technologies.
Dr Joanne Orlando of the University of Western Sydney, in her article entitled Modern Technology Needs to be more than Child’s Play, acknowledges that technology is a significant feature of contemporary life. Life, in its many facets, moves in the direction of things that are current and builds on the knowledge of what has gone before. The latest technology is expected in all fields, whether banking, movies, communications, shopping and so forth. Therefore, as technology becomes more and more integrated into everyday life, so too will it be more integrated into school life and educational programs.
Some schools have already implemented ICT programs into subject delivery and student-enhanced learning. This varies along a spectrum of high-level technology integration to simple tool substitution. The promotion of the iPad as an educational device for delivering content has had variable response. Perhaps the main reason for the lack of standardised take-up is the lack of availability of quality educational applications.
Currently, there are tens of thousands of apps classified as educational in the App Store, yet most are unsuitable, non-educational or limited in their benefits. According to Dr Kate Highfield, lecturer and researcher at Macquarie University’s Institute of Early Childhood, around 85 percent have a design that encourages only very basic low-level thinking skills. These instructive, drill and practice apps do not promote higher order thinking, which has much broader educational benefit.
According to Dr Highfield, app engagement influences the connections that form between nerve cells in a child’s brain. This is a point of valuable learning and opportunity for an educational experience. Low-level interaction apps therefore create limits to what should be a time for learning.
Quality educational apps should allow for evaluating, synthesising, reasoning, communicating, creativity and thinking reflectively. They need to be based on sound pedagogical content and knowledge and provide for engagement, extension and enrichment. They should build from the point of a child’s current educational position and be focused on a process that drives development.
There are many criteria to use when evaluating the selection of apps, ranging from pedagogical and curriculum connections through to levels of usability. The Evaluation Rubric for Mobile Applications, created by Harry Walker of Johns Hopkins University and revised and validated in 2012, clearly provides a performance checklist for rating apps. Such criteria allow for teacher and learner performance priorities in the areas of curriculum connection, authenticity, feedback, differentiation, user friendliness, motivation and student performance. Each domain is then ranked for its performance, from outstanding alignment to meeting criteria down to low-level components and outcomes.
The levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which may be used to rank any learning resource, addresses the cognitive opportunities that a resource provides, such as remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating.
The Department of Education, Western Australia, has added to the Evaluation Rubric by incorporating the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model for enhancing technology integration. The levels of technology integration range from substitution (with no functional change), to augmentation (with some improvements), to modification (with significant task redesign), to redefinition (with the creation of new, previously inconceivable, tasks).
Together, these criteria provide ample assessment tools for writing quality applications for teaching and learning.
Traditional education has been based on student groupings by age and/or ability, being taught by a single, unified curriculum and a direct instructional approach, using textbooks and lectures, with students learning through listening and observation, knowledge, drill and division of subject areas.
Progressively, the emphasis moved to hands-on learning, interdisciplinary subjects, critical and creative thinking and application, collaborative and differentiated learning and standardised assessment. Such changes have brought, and continue to bring, demand for resources to align with these shifts. At the same time, technology has developed in leaps and bounds. It is teachers plus technology that will provide the best educational solutions.
Currently, schools and parents drive demand for quality apps. However, most providers of these teaching and learning materials are from ICT backgrounds and are less motivated by education than they are by sales. Nevertheless, it has been the IT industry that has created many exciting possibilities through the use of these applications.
The IT industry has developed functionality for apps that opens the door for a range of features and functions that can drive traditional teaching and learning methods into new adaptations. The current challenge is how to create resources that build on traditional methods and incorporate new and best practices, with learning as its outcome. It is only through the union of educational professionals and technology experts that the best educational technology solutions can be created.
The best educational applications offer features and functions that assist in creating a learning environment. Such features link the learner and the learning. The multi-sensory capabilities of mobile apps include functions such as drag, drop, slide, tap, pop-up, drop-down, dual scroll, split screen, animation, audio, programmable answers and corrections, highlighting, typing, screenshots, saving of information, writing, tracing, video, storage, 3D, audio recording, photos, information sharing and more.
The management of apps employs functions that support a superior user experience, when planned successfully. Such functions include main menu access, back and forward navigation, repeat/play/turn off audio, recognisable icons, reporting and tracking of scores and results, and rewards systems.
When considering the age-appropriateness and suitability of applications, a greater emphasis on audio, illustrations, touch and rewards, provides best correspondence for children from Pre-K to Year 3. For Years 4 to 6, a greater emphasis on text, content, instructions (both audio and written), tracking of performance, as well as personal achievement and attainment, need to apply.
A recent study by NYU Steinhardt found that an iPad app that engages children in a systematic program integrating word-sounds and storybook reading produced measureable growth in phonological awareness and understanding. The connections that developed between speech and printed letters for the group using the app, compared with the group using an art and activity app, produced significant differences in the level of print-concept knowledge.
With a host of features and functions available, educational tools can be created, if not recreated, by combining best practices and best content to provide the best learning outcome.
Marie Cullen is a teacher with 35 years’ experience, a love of teaching children and a commitment to developing the potential in every child. Marie is the author of educational content for LessonBuzz, an English literacy program, designed specifically for the iPad, for school children 4–13 years old. LessonBuzz is an example of an educator working closely with technologists, being app developers, system designers, audio and film engineers and illustrators, to create an engaging and developmental education app.
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