I write this post in part as an apology, in part to remind me not to repeat the error, and in part (and this is why it is public) to explore with you some fascinating lessons that can be learned along the way.
In short, on Friday I experienced a new app and judged it wanting. I was too quick to judge and learned a lot from my children about how I might frame a deeper understanding of educational mobile apps.
On Friday someone passed an email around from the Smithsonian excitedly touting what they labelled their “first game app,” called Shutterbugs. This I had to check out. The email described it as follows:
- The Smithsonian Science Education Center has created a free learning game that can be played online or downloaded to a tablet device. Shutterbugs: Wiggle and Stomp is aligned with national standards for science education. Children ages 3–5 can play the game to learn how to describe movement and motion while visiting exotic animals from the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park.
I was quite dismissive of its potential when I downloaded it and tried it in my office. It looked nice – anyone would be proud to show this to a supervisor or funder and say “Here’s what we got for our money” – but did it actually teach anything? And was it fun?
I am very critical of anything using game language to dress up something that is really just traditional education. Isn’t Shutterbugs really little more than a quiz, repeating the same question over and over: from the selection of the following three animals which one is displaying the following action? Of course it doesn’t look like a quiz. It looks like three cute animated animals jumping, kicking, running, and more. Adorable, but that’s a quiz, not a game.
So I dismissed it. I wrote back to my colleagues the following:
I found it really disappointing. All it is is an animated quiz with nice graphic design but weak user interface and educational design. But I am glad they made it.
Then I went home to my family and everything changed. I could write volumes about what happened and my attempt to draw lessons from it, so I will try to keep this brief.
My daughter Miri is 4 and my son Akiva is 7. Saturday morning, before her ice skating lessons and his bowling league, I told Miri I had a new app for her. I wanted to see how she’d respond to it. Over the next two hours:
- Both she and her brother, using their own accounts, completed every animal and action in the app, collecting stars for each.
- Completing an animal rewards you with a coloring page you can print out, with your name, the name of the animal and its associated action. This motivated her to learn for the first time how to wirelessly print to our home printer, which she soon mastered and was able to do on her own.
- My daughter colored more than a half dozen of the animals, using the animal in the app as her color guide:
- She then cut string and hung them all above her bed (in the bottom of a bunk bed) to make her own zoo.
- My son, meanwhile, completed the app but cared little about printing and coloring. Instead he printed out and nicely cut out his certificate and helped his sister do the same.
- On Sunday she cut down her zoo and collected them all together. My son powered his iPod. We just HAPPENED to have plans to go to the Bronx Zoo! Miri printed out additional animals I knew would be at the zoo that she had yet to color (which she did on the car) and off went!
- Miri explained that she was bringing her drawings along to use as a checklist. She wanted to mark them off when we found each animal. (I don’t think she understood we were going to a different zoo than the one in the app, or perhaps that different zoos have different animals).
- My son had a different plan. He wanted to create his own collection by photographing the day’s zoo animals, noting their actions, and planning to later print them out as a project. The narrative within Shutterbugs is that you are taking photos of the animals. It is thin enough to have been missed by my daughter but it became the primary point of identification for my son.
- Once at the zoo, my daughter marked off the first animal she saw, a sea lion, but, when she learned I did not have a mobile printer (!) and we could not print out new animals, she set it aside for the day and instead used her drawing pad animals she saw.
- My son however took photos all day. I haven’t seen him take photos like this for over a year, when we went hiking and he broke the screen when it fell and hit a rock. He choose his subjects carefully, reviewing then afterwards deleting the bad ones, and proudly narrating the collection to the family later at dinner. (below: stork eating, penguin swimming)
- Meanwhile (yes, there is more) we picked up a child-sized pamphlet while walking the zoo entitled Animal Activity Trail. It presented the same type of information as the app – animals and their actions – but rather than present it as “quiz” game it was a simplified scavenger hunt, sending us to the various locations around the park where you might see the animal and its activity. It also required parent-child interactions as the pamphlet, unlike the app, did not scaffold the experience with audio guidance. We never actually saw a designated animal at their location – for example, a running ostrich – but the pamphlet suggested ways children could mimic the action. The suggested running game – Sprint as fast as you can in 5 seconds – and the variations we came up with became Miri’s preferred activity until we left the park.
There is so much here to unpack! An app versus a pamphlet. A quiz versus a scavenger hunt. Self-directed learning versus parent-supported. I could go on and on. But the main lesson I am choosing to take from this is to avoid judging an app on its own. It needs to be evaluated within the ecology of activities and relationships it will insert itself, and only then through user testing and iterative design. How did the design of Shutterbugs support (or discourage) my children’s creative exploration of the content, both within and outside its digital confines? How did its design support (or discourage) interactions with her brother or parents?
I am also left with a question worth pondering: How did a zoo app played at home provide better motivation and scaffolding to learn about animal behavior than a location-specific pamphlet that included the live animals? And are there ways either could be improved by being integrated with the other?