Ensuring new classroom apps will get good grades from users

Winnie Valbracht - Cronos

October 2015 - IT integrator Cronos works with hundreds of customers to develop and deploy new digital technologies, products and services. One such innovation is EduTablet, which aims to improve students’ and teachers’ experiences through tablet use in secondary education. Cronos came to iMinds to set up a Living Lab that would involve teachers, students and educational publishers in the co-creation of educational apps.

We spoke with Winnie Valbracht of Cronos about the company’s experience of the Living Lab process and how it contributed to the development of the kinds of apps users want.

Q: Cronos has helped companies in many industries adapt and integrate digital solutions. What got you interested in the education sector specifically?

Winnie Valbracht: The future of education is digital. Students use digital devices outside of school and will rely on them when they enter the workforce, so the education sector needs to keep up. It’s trying to: many schools in Belgium have digital whiteboards, they almost all have computers, and some are integrating tablets. But there just isn’t enough content right now, and what exists isn’t necessarily designed to make the most of these digital tools. That’s an especially big problem here in Flanders, where the curricula are in Dutch, so the pool of available content is much smaller than if we were looking for English or French resources. We can get some material from the Netherlands, but it’s not specific to Flanders, so there are gaps in histo ry texts and literature, for example.

Q: What challenges are associated with digitizing information?

Winnie Valbracht: In the technical realm, content availability is an issue. Educational publishers have a lot of material but it’s not designed to be accessed by apps or delivered digitally. There are some legal and privacy issues as well. If there’s a ton of digital information coming from apps, where will it be stored? Do schools need to buy servers? How can that data be accessed, and by whom? Making the right business cases is also a challenge. Who’s going to pay for these apps, is there a model that will make sense for publishers to invest in the development and delivery of digital course material? With the Living Lab model, we’re hoping the co-creation process and the continuous feedback will help us answer all these questions and to learn how educational apps could be experienced and used in the field.

Q: How did you get involved with iMinds?

Winnie Valbracht: As part of Belgium’s innovation community, we of course were aware of iMinds. It was our partner, BLCC, who told us about the Living Lab approach. BLCC is a language-training institute that offers both e-learning and classroom training. We met them at a seminar and they invited us to take part in the EduTablet project. For EduTablet, we knew we wanted — and needed — direct input from schools, technology providers and educational publishers to make sure tablet-optimized content would provide added value for users and be educationally effective. We needed to show the benefits this type of digital content can offer, because that’s going to be the incentive for educational publishers and schools to come on board. So the Living Lab approach was a perfect fit.

Q: Can you describe your Living Lab experience?

Winnie Valbracht: We started in January 2014 with six months of inquiry in schools. We spoke to teachers and students, found out what they were looking for in digital apps, what they hoped they could learn. Based on that, we decided to focus on three types of applications. One for multiscreen interactivity, so, helping teachers and students share information and work together on tablets. The second for ‘inquiry learning’, which encourages students to interact with content, ask questions, formulate opinions, feed back into the system and guide their own learning. And finally, there was a lot of interest in adaptive learning. So, when students are doing exercises, an app could track how well they’re doing and how quickly they’re completing the work to decide how quickly to move ahead with the lessons. There’s also a strong feedback component here, where the student can comment on how difficult or simple they’re finding the work, so we’re not moving ahead before they’re ready.

Q: Did you move immediately to application design?

Winnie Valbracht: There was an interim stage. We took our three ideas and designed some apps in general terms. We didn’t get down into the programming, we simply described the functionality and purpose in ‘rough draft’ form. We took that back to the students and teachers, showed them what we were planning, and incorporated their feedback into the actual design. Again, here’s where the Living Lab process was helpful, because before we even got down to building the apps, we’d gone through two rounds of feedback with our user base. Every stakeholder — from the publishers creating the content to the teachers delivering it to the students using it — has been involved in every stage of the process. That’s what makes it a ‘living lab’. We’re all creating this together.

Q: Where are you now in the process?

Winnie Valbracht: The three demonstrations are currently in the hands of our users. They’re working with them, providing feedback, testing them out. After we finish collecting their feedback and our data from how the apps were actually used, how effective they were, we’ll fine-tune the apps, go back to students and teachers, and then see what the final verdict is.

Q: What have you learned so far?

Winnie Valbracht: We’re still in the process of testing the actual apps. But one of the things that surprised us early on related to ‘gamification’. We assumed that would be a popular choice: making the lessons fun, basing some of them on game principles, having the students unlock achievements and badges, things like that. That was very popular with younger students, the 11 and 12 year-olds. But older teenagers — those aged 16 and 17 — wanted real rewards. They weren’t all that interested in badges: they wanted to collect points, maybe that they could apply to their mark at the end of the year, for example. Something a bit more practical. We were surprised by that, a bit, but we’re integrating it into our designs.

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