Students' App Scores High in Elementary Classroom

The hair-raising roar of elephants, unexpectedly embedded in a Singapore third grader’s science report, trumpets the early success of a new learning applications program for smartphones, as a team of U-M undergraduates and their professors marvel at the children’s ingenuity.

Some 352 science students in the Nan Chiau Primary School recently were introduced to MyDesk, an application suite that sparks self-directed, creative, and effective learning. The app grew out of a U-M course aptly titled Learning Apps for Primary Education.

“[The children] ended up turning in all this stuff their teachers didn’t expect,” says project manager and graduate assistant Cody Bird—namely, elephant and monkey sounds to augment a report on animal diversity. The third graders did this by repurposing a voice recorder note-taking application.

“How could we predict the recorder would be used that way?” says Elliot Soloway, the Arthur F. Thurnau professor who taught the unique course. This is exactly the sort of ingenuity he hoped the applications suite would spark. “The kids learn by doing,” he says. Soloway has appointments in U-M’s College of Engineering, the School of Education, and the School of Information.

Scoring High

The first round of test results from Singapore comparing students using MyDesk to those who were not using the app revealed that users had significantly higher science scores. That was just the early proof the app developers hoped to see.

“[The children] created documents in response to the assignments; they created animation that described the growth of a plant,” Soloway says. “That represents their understanding of multiple linked representations.”MyDesk also serves as a mobile classroom where children can do work and teachers share feedback. There are apps for concept mapping to talk about cycles and processes, a basic part of science learning. “There’s no better way to develop an understanding and demonstrate an understanding of a scientific process than by developing some concrete digital model of that process,” Soloway says. “That’s exactly the kind of educational software we provide.”

“To the best of our knowledge no other company, organization, or university is attempting to address technology-collaboration in education with this comprehensive of an approach,” says Vidal Borromeo, a student who worked as a research programmer on the applications suite. “Eventually, every student in America will be using a mobile device for learning. Our goal is that every single one of those devices will be running the MyDesk learning platform.”

Making it Work

Borromeo remembers well his first day in Soloway’s classroom. That’s because he and other students got their first look at their instructor not in person, but via Skype, from Singapore. Soloway got right to the point, explaining the class would be starting from scratch writing the software for the smartphones and the server, as an integrated platform. “He said we had to deliver, and everything just stepped up a notch,” Borromeo recalls.

Soloway and his students.

Elliot Soloway (left) works on mobile phone apps with students in his class. (Photo by Lon Horwedel, Michigan Photography.)

Students also focused on building a center for educational games to add to the MyDesk suite. Before, a teacher would have to find the games separately. The idea, here, is the phone is something that can deliver an infinite amount of content via the Internet, to reinforce the curriculum. One key development of MyDesk is that tools have a similar look and feel, making them easy and quick to learn. “Teachers hate wasting classwork time when they have to teach students different applications,” Soloway says. His students also are working to add a classroom social network application to the MyDesk suite.

It’s All in the Details

While still students, recent graduates Jason Long and Alexandra Burrell traveled with Soloway to Singpaore, where they remained for several weeks. “We would see how [the children] were using the apps and if there were any problems,” Burrell says. She recalls a time when a student sought help with the MyDesk drawing application, wondering if it had an eraser. It did.While Singapore is perceived as rigid with strict laws to maintain an orderly city, Long found the Singaporean third graders lively and fun-loving, much like their American counterparts—and just as eager to embrace things technological. “The first time the students got to use the phones was on a zoo trip,” he recalls. “As little kids getting new toys, they were ecstatic about the phones. They were constantly snapping photos of different plants and animals to do their assignments. They had little trouble using the software and most took more than 100 photos.”The third graders learned more than new applications, he adds. “I think the students learned about looking at things in detail. Some of their assignments were to photograph an animal and then explain its different characteristics.”

Added Benefits

In addition to the learning evidenced by higher science test scores, MyDesk users also scored better in language-verbal skills, says Borromeo. “This was not expected since MyDesk isn’t being used in other subjects yet. We attribute this added benefit to the very nature of the collaborative learning fostered by the MyDesk platform.” He notes the applications suite soon will expand to other subjects.

And the third-graders were not the only ones who benefited from the project. Burrell, who recently began a job with Apple, says the value of Soloway’s class for her was witnessing the possibilities of technology. “It was seeing kids using it,” she says. “Technology has been treated as a difficult thing. But it’s reaching a point where it’s not unique, its ubiquitous. It can be part of a second brain for third graders.”

“We built software that kids are actually using on the other side of the planet,” says recent U-M graduate Jacob Steinerman. “To still be in school and to make such a huge difference was amazing.”

Collaboration and Competition

The learning apps project is supported by Singapore’s Ministry of Education. “Singapore knows this is a global marketplace and to compete you have to be self-directed learners and collaborative learners,” Soloway says. Nokia, Microsoft, and Qualcomm are also involved in the project.

Joining Soloway in directing the project is his research colleague of 15 years, Dr. Cathie Norris. She also works with him in Singapore. Norris for 14 years was a classroom teacher, and focuses her attention on teacher and curriculum issues while Soloway focuses more on technology. “There are so many moving parts at Nan Chiau; I am so lucky to have a partner in Cathie who can focus on classroom issues and make sure the technology fits smoothly into the classroom,” Soloway says.

This story originally appeared at Michigan’s World Class, a website that showcases innovative teaching at the University of Michigan.


  1. Eric Sinclair

    Where can we download the MyDesk application?


    • Lisa Suarez

      I agree! How do we download and try out MyDesk?


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