Visiting Bett in London (22nd and 23rd January, 2015)

Bett is said to be the leading learning technology event. It was an ideal opportunity to get up to date with what is currently available in the world of apps for education and learning, which has really useful implications for the DSLangPlus project. There was a lot to see and to take in! Many leaders of the technological world were there, with topics being discussed such as entirely digital classrooms as a potential for the future. Of particular interest were the many companies presenting the latest various funky apps available for learning and School environments.

My key aim was to find out what types of apps are fun and exciting but also effective for learning – as this is a really important balance to strike. Of course, if we were to create an app that is fun and exciting, but it is not very effective in teaching children the material that we want them to learn then it’s not going to achieve successful training results. At the other extreme, if the app has well designed tasks included, but it is not fun enough to have the children engage in the tasks then it will clearly not be successful.

Finding examples of apps that looked like lots of fun was not a difficult challenge! I was impressed at just how many apps for learning there are on offer. Very few of the available apps and programs that I saw were based upon scientific research (e.g., comparing with control tasks or control groups), however, they were certainly ticking boxes for looking like fun, exciting programs, that kids would want to play.
Upon entering the exhibition hall it was tricky to know where to begin! Everyone was very keen to introduce their product and convince you to use their app or device– so it was good to keep in mind a clear aim and sense of direction to avoid getting drawn into talking to every person at every stand. My first day at the conference was Thursday, I met with Kari-Anne and we began with a focus on exploring the section on special educational needs (SEN) – We made our own way around the stalls to see what we might both stumble upon. In this section there were various sensory learning products and also some incredibly fancy high tech things on offer such as motor mirroring robots! There were, unsurprisingly, much fewer apps designed specifically for improving academic performance in children with SEN, relative to the huge array of products designed for typically developing children. These type of apps would have a smaller market for SEN children and it is perhaps more challenging to create programs that are successful in training children with learning difficulties in areas of academic performance, e.g., involving tasks that they will want to attend to and be able to do. There were a few games that certainly provided some relevant ideas, such as apps that allow children to tell a story by selecting from a choice of different (visually presented) characters and objects. Selecting items to tell stories is useful for teaching children to learn to use words in different contexts.

Apps also included technology to allow children to record themselves telling a story and then listen back to themselves, which really might encourage children to attempt to use words and hear themselves speaking. Other apps included tasks such as touching objects on the screen to hear the pronunciation of the item and then choosing all items with the same sound, e.g., initial phoneme.

There were also apps presented for keeping track of children’s progress, which is an important aspect to keep in mind for interventions. Keeping track of progress in a positive light is a motivating factor for the children taking part- and the way in which we incorporate this component in the intervention could have a real impact upon the child’s motivation and engagement. Kari-Anne and I discussed this during a break, ideas were raised such as asking the child to think about what they want to achieve and selecting some aims (from options that are part of the planned training program) – this might help the child to understand why they are doing the intervention and give them some personal reasons to want to progress and achieve their goals. We also thought about how regularly we should review and acknowledge children’s progress and reward them, for instance, children might receive weekly rewards in the form of an achievement report. The child could file each weekly achievement report in a personal achievement file such that they can visually keep track of their own progress during the project. We also discussed the additional need for immediate rewards, and how we can integrate immediate rewards with longer-term achievement rewards during the intervention.

Many of the available apps for typically developing children also provided some useful ideas that could be considered with regards to the intervention. A clear key pattern that was observed across all of the apps was a very large amount of animation, bright colours and lots and lots of stimulation in the program. This made us wonder just how important the high level of stimulation, in terms of background (e.g., landscapes), characters, and accessories is for the success of interventions. It seems, intuitively, that the more colour and sound in the app the more the child will feel stimulated and they will potentially view it as more fun and less like work. But, on the other hand, as I mentioned at the start of this blog post, it is also reasonable to expect that too many things going on in the app may be a little distracting, and could potentially deter from the key learning task with regards to the use of our intervention app, for example, fun cartoons may engage children but distract them from completing the task at hand. Perhaps there is a middle ground we should be aiming for with regards to our app design? This issue is something that we decided would be really helpful to try and find out a bit more about via a questionnaire that we have planned that we hope to give out to parents of young children with Down syndrome. In the questionnaire we can ask parents questions about their child’s use of apps on the iPad/computer, including the types of tasks they like to play, with questions regarding the level of stimulation that the child likes. Also important here is the different types of stimulation – the main two types being visual and sound (other aspects such as touch are also worth considering). We also had these things in mind before attending the conference – what we found was that nearly all of the apps were very multimodal. Multimodal app design will be a key topic discussed at the next meeting in Oslo; we will carefully consider the app design in the meeting, with attention to what the existing scientific literature in this area shows, as well as planning what we can investigate through pilot work and the questionnaire.

We also got some ideas for non-computer based tasks. There is a huge market of products and tools to support learning in children with all sorts of different learning difficulties and it will be really useful for us to be aware of what is available and decide if these tools have the potential to work for us. On Friday, Kari-Anne and I also met up with Ingrid and Lovise who are designing the picture books in the DSL+ project, it was great to have an opportunity to meet together again to discuss and share ideas from the exhibition. All in all, going along to the Bett show was a real eye opener – I think it will be really helpful to keep in mind many of the ideas that we got from the exhibitions as we move forward with planning various aspects of the intervention and think further about the best ways to design tasks and apps in order to achieve the intervention goals.

Finally, although I am often in London visiting friends, for me it is always just as exciting to see attractions in London! So I couldn’t resist taking a few tourist photos!

- Written by Liz Smith - 

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