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Digital Kids: The Classroom of the Future

According to Common Sense Media, from 2011 to 2013, the number of families who owned a tablet increased five-fold. At this point, there’s no question about whether kids are growing up digital or not. The question has become how we can we leverage technology not only to entertain but to educate? At Artefact, we have been exploring this topic with a passion — after all, it not only aligns with our mission to drive towards a positive social impact, but it moves forward our efforts to raise the next generation of creators, inventors, and scientists.

The theme of how we could bring meaningful technology to the classroom was the central theme of the Digital Kids conference in February. I had a chance to attend the event, which gathers developers and designers in the education space. This year’s agenda focused on gaming for learning purposes, the gender divide in STEM-related games and toys and creating partnerships in education to test technology for the classroom of the future.

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One of the themes spanning many of the talks I attended explored how children today are already immersed in the 21st century while many of the conversations occurring in education about gaming, technology and the environments in which we teach and learn are still lagging behind how kids actually interact with digital media.

As a human-centered designer, though, I couldn’t help noticing another theme that kept cropping up throughout many of the talks. The students and teachers are the people who actually receive information, treatment, and benefits, but are rarely considered when products are designed for them. This happens all too often in many other traditional industries, such as the medical space as well. The ‘user’ or ‘human’ who is most affected by the products is rarely considered. Instead, the companies that build the products and solutions focus on the needs of the buyers or decision makers – the school districts and administrators.

Ironically, many students as young as middle school age, are already savvy consumers of apps and services on their smartphones and mass media through TV and many other forms of ever-changing digital services. Emily Kirkpatrick, VP of National Center for Families Learning, summed it up nicely when she said, “Our children are way ahead of our debates. They are the 21st century.” Yet, insights about what they need and how they use technology are rarely used to inform the design of products.

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Yet, if the Digital Kids conference is any indication, this top-down approach is about to change. It was inspiring to see a few innovators paying attention to kids’ needs and sharing key pieces of advice that have contributed to their success.

Design for students as consumers

Students seem to be sitting on the receiving end of institutional disruption while having little opportunity to have a say in their experience. Some education tech companies, however, advocate that to truly have disruption, students need to be treated as intelligent decision makers that are invested in their own futures. They need to be allowed to have an opinion in the ways in which they learn.

GoNoodle, for example, creates software for short, desk-side, physical activities, also known as ‘brain breaks.’ The company was founded after hearing directly from students that they learn better after recess and exercise and as a result, designed their brain breaks with different aspects of the day in mind. There are breaks that focus on being calm and deep breathing and focus, as well as breaks that get the kids’ blood flowing and to help wake them up. While most teachers reported giving students about four brain breaks a day, some take as many as 20 and have noticed a great improvement in focus and engagement in their classrooms. GoNoodle’s CEO, Scott McQuigg, credits the success of the company to continuously asking teachers and students what works well for them. There are now more than 270,000 teachers using ‘brain breaks’ around the world.

The creators of several digital learning games, Filament Games, also design their product with users in mind, as Dan White, CPO, described. Using an agile software development approach, they have conducted usability (studio-based) and contextual, classroom-based research with small groups of middle school students and their teachers. Each round of research resulted in changes to the design of their games. Over time, they conducted more sophisticated user research using larger sample sizes and controlling experimental conditions. It’s the same technique of utilizing user feedback in product development that Fortune 500 software development companies such as Microsoft and Google use.

This was a good lesson learned, albeit it the hard way, by Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, the successful founders of Roominate toys. The female toy creators set out with the mission to create ‘builder’ toys for young girls, noticing a gap in toys that focused on engineering skills so prevalent in toys marketed for boys. Part of their mission was to intentionally not to make toys pink just because they were for girls, both to avoid the stereotype and also because they personally, as female engineers, weren’t attracted to pink products over others. After multiple rounds of testing, though, they discovered that their female target users perceived Roominate to be geared towards boys and not for them. Begrudgingly, the founders changed the product design to incorporate softer edges and the dreaded pink. It made a huge difference in both how girls received the toy and sales of the toy. Lesson learned; whether or not they agreed, the product should be designed for its users.

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Create communities of disruption

Like most huge, historical systems, in the education system, it’s impossible for change to come quickly or simply. So how do we create change? All moments of revolution, from the civil rights movement to marriage equality, begin with a groundswell; people coming together, working together, for the progression of the future. In education, movements can begin at small conferences where educators and technologists get together, share ideas, and connect to become communities of disruption.

Kim Verbonitz of Fingerprint spoke about this very topic. Specifically, she focused on the importance of creating a community from the bottom up and making them the disrupters. Her approach is to put the product in the hands of the teachers and students, and while incorporating their feedback, creating advocacy that demonstrates value to administrators. Teachers themselves present cases to purchase games by demonstrating clear success, ROI, and a road map to implement the software alongside the existing technology environment.

She warned that the biggest aspect of education technology that is “lacking today, is the clear benefit for the teachers to be involved in something that is disruptive.” Alignment with teacher’s classroom goals, speaking the same language as the teachers and their students, and offering capabilities they don’t currently have is key for a successful partnership.

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At the end of Digital Kids, I walked away inspired, as one does when surrounded by groups of other talented people who want to make a positive difference in the world.