Creating Chrome* Apps for Education

By Dale Basye and Steve Burt, Clarity Innovations, Inc.

Developing for Education

Even if you just developed an A+ app, it still might get an F in the classroom. Why? Because what you make might not necessarily be what today’s students and educators really need to learn.

Technology in the Classroom

Loosely defined, technology can be any tool used to promote student learning: anything from calculators, smart phones, digital cameras, and MP3 players, to tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. Whatever the technology or delivery method, the technology—let’s say, an education app—should: keep students focused for longer periods of time than traditional media; it should make more efficient use of that time; it should make students more excited to learn; it should enable students to learn at their own pace; and it should—above all else—prepare students for the future.

Any education app should develop and reinforce critical thinking and workplace skills. Education is no longer simply the memorization of facts and figures. Modern education requires solving complex problems, collaboration with both teachers and peers; developing various forms of communication and leadership skills; and improving motivation and productivity.

Luckily, there are a lot of tools at a developer’s disposal to engage and educate with Google* Chrome apps—be they offline running packaged apps, Google Drive* apps, browser extensions, or web apps. And, as Chrome is the most used browser with a hugely popular store used by millions of people, these education apps have never had a wider audience.

Classrooms on the Move

Kids now have the opportunity to learn wherever they are. If they are curious about something they can pull out the device and learn. That’s tremendously powerful in terms of learning. It’s also powerful as a business driver.

According to a 2012 study by StudyBlue, students studying on mobile devices are:

  • Nearly three times more likely to track their progress
  • Are studying 40 minutes more each week than those who don’t.
  • Using apps that allow them to study with flashcards and quiz themselves.

Moreover, according to data gathered by education-focused research firm The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, around 57 percent of parents said that educational media helped their kids learn a lot about subjects such as math and reading. But when it comes to the arts and sciences, parents felt less confident that their kids were well taught by screen-based media.

In Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s 2009 report, the percentage of apps for children has risen in every age category, accompanied by a decrease in apps for adults. Apps for toddler/preschool children are the most popular age category and general early learning is the most popular subject category. To stand out, developers targeting young children should go beyond skill/drill for early learning and embrace the unique opportunities that touch screen mobile devices afford.

In-line with Education

While most developers focus on games, photo filters, and other types of popular apps, there isn't as much energy put into the realm of education. Which means, there is a need for quality education-centric apps. Despite the urgency, there are a lot of poorly thought-out education apps. Many aren’t developed with the needs of education in mind and are merely brightly colored games only loosely tied to subjects.

Education apps need to not only engage but to meaningfully teach and inspire. Many require the ability for teachers and peers to provide appropriate feedback to learners. Successful education apps also personalize learning through experiences that allow students to make choices about what and how they learn. Student choice not only enhances student interest, but also gives students more ownership and pride over their learning. With choice comes control. Students who have apps that help them learn what they need and how they need to learn it develop strategies for taking responsibility for their own learning.

Special needs students, for example, can get additional time and attention with education apps tailored to their learning abilities. Apps utilizing assistive technologies can make learning easier for students with disabilities. Advancements in technology coupled with increased accessibility enable opportunities to personalize learning for more students efficiently and effectively.

Similarly, apps that allow students to post their work so that teachers and student peers can review their work, translate into more student effort. Why? If students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. If they’re just sharing it with their teacher, then they just want it to be good enough.

Opportunities for Developers

The education space is very unique and, therefore, enterprising developers should take extra care in understanding their audience and never make assumptions before diving into a potential app project.

While many educational apps, perhaps unsurprisingly, focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects, there are surprisingly few apps in the literacy category. This may be an underserved market and represent an opportunity for developers.

Customization, collaboration, socialization features, and “gamification”—where learning feels more like playing a game—are big trends in education apps. But it’s more than just bells and whistles. Mental health apps—such as anxiety coaches for college students—foreign language and vocabulary flashcards, as well as assistive apps for users with disabilities are also enjoying popularity. Also, developers looking to have significant impact may want to consider apps that go beyond general early learning, as children most in need of early learning interventions are not likely to have access to apps.

WebGL

Immersive 2D and 3D graphics in education apps only enhance learning if they render quickly and smoothly. Some education apps like BioDigital* Human are now using WebGL—a web technology that brings hardware-accelerated 3D graphics to the Chrome browser. It has become the new Web standard for 2D and 3D, because WebGL doesn’t require teachers and students to install a browser plugin.

3D Solar System* is another popular education app developed in HTML5 and WebGL. Using this application, the user can view the solar system and important information—such as name of the solar system, galaxy and much more—in beautiful 3D. The animations are smooth and crisp and the interface is vivid with colors and brightness. Users can even view the solar system from different time periods as well.

Screencasting

Screencasting apps are another avenue for developers looking to create relevant education apps for the Chrome OS. More and more teachers are capturing instruction on video in an attempt to flip their classrooms. In a flipped classroom, teachers post instructional material in the form of videos, text, links, and resources for learners to review outside of the classroom.

Screencasting apps allow teachers to create their own digital lessons and become video instructors. They also help teachers to meet a broader range of student needs and circumstances. For example, multiple video lessons could be deployed at various levels of difficulty or to support different learning modalities, with students receiving differentiated playlists based on their daily assessments. Students can also hone their problem-solving abilities by creating their own screencasts for their peers, narrating their process while deepening their understanding.

Some popular screencasting apps include:

  • Explain Everything (which can be shared with Camera roll*, YouTube*, Email, Dropbox*, Evernote*, Box*, and WebDAV*)
  • Educreations* (very simple for students of all ages to operate though not full-featured)
  • Doceri* (ideal for teachers, though not as easy to use for students)
  • Teach by Knowmia* (has the ability to progress to and from slides and offers a full set of drawing and creation tools)
  • ShowMe* (users can organize the screencast videos once uploaded to the website)

 Apps for Teachers

Education apps that help teachers stay on top of their classroom workflow are desperately needed.

Busy teachers need convenient way to learn student names, track their progress, and build knowledge of them as individuals. They also need simple solutions for organizing emails, tracking important events, recording learning outcomes, and managing documents.

Solutions such as Hapara* Teacher Dashboard provide deep visibility into student activity, improving behavior and productivity through granular monitoring. In classroom management terms, this means that if a teacher demonstrates to students that she is tracking how they are following, students are more likely to comply.

Exploit the Power of Intel-based Chromebooks*

Chromebooks are becoming more viable in schools. They are forward-thinking solutions, with room for industry leaders to push education technology towards the Web and the cloud. With the sophistication and volume of Web-based applications increasing, Chromebooks could, in the near future, fulfill all of a school’s needs

Principled Technologies—an industry-leading technology assessment, fact-based marketing and hands-on testing company—put two representative Chromebooks through scenarios that included tasks such as opening a presentation and using online apps. After evaluating the devices using four student scenarios, Principled Technologies found that only the Intel® processor-powered Chromebooks lasted over 57 percent longer unplugged than the ARM processor-based Chromebook while also requiring up to 50 percent less waiting. The Intel processor-powered Chromebook also lasted 57 percent longer than the ARM processor-based Chromebook while browsing the Internet—an additional 4 hours and 5 minutes without a charge. The full report can be found here.

The processing power is there with Intel-based Chromebooks, and richly featured apps that mimic the functionality of productivity software could be developed to fully utilize this power. Chromebooks can also benefit from Chrome apps that are as functional offline as well as when connected. Google is constantly updating many apps and extensions available in the Chrome Web store to be functional offline.

Some math apps— such as those that enable the graphing, handwriting equations and taking calculus notes—won’t work on traditional Chromebooks and laptops, requiring touch functionality. However, the new Acer C720P* Chromebook boasts a touch screen that can accommodate touch interactions.

Considerations for Developers

A growing ecosystem of app-based learning products has the potential to play an important role in children’s lives.  Be sure to develop with the following considerations in mind:

  • Create standards for products marketed as educational
  • Price apps accessibly for parents and educators to easily evaluate
  • Offer high-value expansion packs that expand the learning experience
  • Involve educators, students, and education experts in your ideation process
  • Strive for continuous improvement: engage educators and child development experts, test your app regularly with kids throughout development, and commit to continuously improving your apps over their lifetimes.
  • Protect children from digital age commercialism
  • Set a research agenda

Remember, since the education space isn’t strictly limited to students, there is plenty of room for powerful and relevant education apps for teachers, school administrators, and even parents, addressing any number of needs. Apps addressing remote workflow (for when students are sick, for instance), class or school orientation, student productivity and punctuality, efficient testing and study habits, how to have a healthy student lifestyle…the possibilities are infinite. When creativity meets a thorough understanding of the audience, recognizing a need and developing an app that fulfills that need in an engaging and useful manner is as easy as A-B-C!

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