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By Sarah Guckert • August 28, 2014

Educational Apps: In the Making

We were thrilled to sit down with David Ng of Vertical Learning Labs, the developer of iPad app Chocolate Chip Cookie Factory: Place Value (an eSpark favorite!).

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your experience with education and technology?

I was studying for a PhD in chemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley when I realized that I had a passion for helping kids learn. I was reading about motivation theory and volunteering at a local elementary school. I got a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and started teaching middle school math and science. One of my earliest applications of technology in the classroom was setting up a webcam to capture collision experiments so that students could analyze them frame-by-frame and discover the conservation of momentum and other principles of Newtonian mechanics. This was in 1995, so we were pushing the state of the art to get 320 x 240 video at 5 frames per second. I went on to become a coach and curriculum specialist, working with other teachers to design curriculum and improve instructional practices. I believe in empowering teachers just as much as I believe in empowering students; I don’t think that you can have one without the other.

How do you go about creating an educational yet fun app for kids?

Humans are innate problem-solvers, so I try to engage kids by immersing them in a rich problem space. Like any good game, a good educational app should take place in a world that makes sense and presents the learner with a series of increasingly difficult challenges to work through. When I was designing Chocolate Chip Cookie Factory: Place Value, I thought about situations where kids would be manipulating groups of things without really thinking about it or realizing that they were using place value. I also wanted a scenario that would scale from counting to adding to long division. Having the kids work with stacks, boxes, cartons, crates, and pallets of cookies seemed like a natural fit, and I thought that they would get a kick out of working on the assembly line of a chocolate chip cookie factory.


What do you think about the shift toward blended learning in the classroom, specifically teachers integrating technology with learning?

Like any good idea, it can be misused. The key is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the technology and then only using it appropriately and to achieve a clear purpose.

As a teacher and curriculum developer, I am always looking for tasks where the task itself also functions as a teacher. In Chocolate Chip Cookie Factory: Place Value, students are trying to ship and deliver orders of cookies. If I have to ship an order of 15 cookies, I could fulfill that order by tapping on 15 individual cookies, or by tapping 1 stack of cookies and 5 individual cookies. As the size of the orders get larger, I will try to fulfill the orders more efficiently and, over time and through trial-and-error, I will learn to recognize that 246 cookies is 2 boxes, 4 stacks, and 6 individual cookies. The task is encouraging and guiding me to develop and apply place value concepts in a natural way, and it is providing me with a steady stream of feedback that I can use to improve my performance. Here, the app is creating a fun and safe environment where students can get lost in the task and focus on what they are doing. The app is facilitating the development of number sense with place value.

However, an app is often not very good at helping students raise their internal theories to a conscious level and then test them. Knowing in my gut that 246 cookies is 2 boxes, 4 stacks, and 6 individual cookies is not the same as knowing it in my head. Both kinds of knowing are important. As a learner, it would help me take my understanding to the next level if someone (a teacher, parent, or peer) asked me: “Hey. I noticed that you tapped 2 boxes, 4 stacks, and 6 cookies when you had to ship an order of 246 cookies. How did you know to do that? Does that work every time? Can you explain why that works?” By raising that theory to a conscious level and testing it, I will gain the confidence to build on it later. As an educational app developer, I have tried to find ways to build that kind of interaction into my apps, but I can never figure out how to do it. That is why I developed a learning guide for Chocolate Chip Cookie Factory: Place Value for parents and teachers. An app is not a very good substitute for a conversation or classroom discussion. We learn by doing, but we also need to pause and reflect on what we have learned. With blended learning, you have the opportunity to take advantage of both technology and in-person teaching.

What suggestions would you give a teacher trying to develop a lesson plan around apps?

An app is simply another resource that a teacher needs to use wisely. In general, I would recommend integrating apps into lessons and building on them. I’m not a huge fan of apps that only help students practice skills; I prefer apps that help students develop new skills and concepts. When developing new skills and concepts, students need to apply them and build on them to solve increasingly complex problems or complete increasingly complex tasks. Have a learning progression in mind and make sure that the app serves a clear purpose. But don’t be afraid to take risks and try new things. Experiment, and then share and discuss those experiments with colleagues. Teachers are learners, too.


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