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Tech-savvy teachers build educational apps in pilot program

EDesign Lab members brainstorm ideas in group meeting. (Courtesy of Hsing Wei)
EDesign Lab members brainstorm ideas in group meeting. (Courtesy of Hsing Wei)
Lisa Larson-Walker/Slate

Dara Ross didn’t know how to write code or develop online software until she joined a pilot program that offered to help teachers use technology in the classroom last year. By the program’s end, the high school English teacher had helped build several of her own educational mobile apps, including one that assesses her students’ emotions after they read. Another one featured an animated robot that acted as a reading buddy.

She and five fellow teachers did that with the help of tech savvy mentors as participants in Digital Teachers Corp, a program launched last year by New Visions for Public Schools, a national non-profit organization, and as lab members in EDesign Lab, an initiative to bridge the educational technology gap between software developers and educators.

“It was valuable to work on education with teachers and technologists; I think that combination is not usually talked about,” said Ross, who teaches English as a second language at Brooklyn International High School. She became interested in incorporating technology in her curriculum when she started creating online videos for her students.

The EDesign Lab is entering its second year and looking for a new crop of teachers to join.

Getting technology into the classroom has been a slow process, in part because the people who develop software and build digital tools aren’t in touch with the learning needs of students. Participants in the pilot said the program helped them quickly bridge that divide by getting in the same room and working out problems together.

“The main purpose of the lab is to enable the joint collaboration between two disciplines who rarely connect,” said Hsing Wei, a New Visions employee who was one of the program’s design facilitators and in charge of directing the lab. Wei said that teachers responded enthusiastically when they were approached to work on something that diverted from the traditional classroom setting.

The teachers had a yearlong partnership with mentors, who are software developers with expertise in developing apps and designing games. They met every other week after school or on weekends to share ideas on how to use technology to enhance their teaching skills.

“I would have never had that type of exposure of the kind of tips and tricks they taught us,” said Ross. Besides helping the teachers brainstorm and build educational programs, the developers gave Ross and the other teachers links to useful websites that they could make graphs and charts.

But the partnership also benefitted developers, who usually often have no experience teaching in a classroom.

“Everyone working in education software needs to run what they do by teachers because they’re the ones who are going to be using it,” said Scott Peterman, a lab member who acted as a mentor. “It’s a much richer environment and can lead to a much more productive way of making educational software when the teachers are in the room the whole time.”

The teachers in Peterman’s group began by asking their students how they could learn and still have fun. Many students mentioned the Discovery Channel television show called MythBusters, where scientific myths are tested through experiments.

Peterman and the rest of his team created the designs for a video-sharing website called, where students could pose questions and post videos of their experiments.

The other team created an app called the Reading Robot, which involved a small robot that could guide students as they read and ask questions about the material.

“The majority of students identified him as a friend,” said Nate Finney, a teacher at Columbia Secondary School. “This was part of the goal because they were trying to alleviate the stress involved with reading.”

For now, the EDesign Lab’s educational apps are still in test form. The emphasis is on forging the relationship between technology and teachers and allowing teachers to feel empowered to design tools they will use in the classroom, said Ralph Vacca, another design facilitator.

“Hopefully, funding dependent, we might be able to take one or two projects from this past year,” added Wei. “It’s okay if you don’t invest 100 million, it’s about the experimental process.”

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