Global Phone Connections

The hair-raising roar of elephants, unexpectedly embedded in a Singapore third grader’s science report, heralds the early success of a UM-developed learning applications program for smartphones.

Called MyDesk, the application suite is developed by Elliot Soloway and his Learning Apps for Primary Education undergraduate class.

The program meets goals of providing easy access to learning tools that spark self-directed, creative, effective learning.

This past semester, 352 Nan Chiau Primary School third grade science students used the app to research and complete assignments — and to surprise their teachers, Soloway and the U-M students.

“They ended up turning in all this stuff teachers didn’t expect,” says project manager and graduate assistant Cody Bird — namely, elephant and monkey sounds to augment a report on animal diversity. The third graders did this by repurposing a voice recorder note-taking application.

“How could we predict the recorder would be used that way?” says Soloway, smiling. But he says this is exactly the sort of ingenuity he hoped the applications suite would spark. “The kids learn by doing,” says the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, College of Engineering, professor of education, School of Education, and professor of information, School of Information.

The applications suite is working as hoped. The first round of test results comparing students using MyDesk to those who were not revealed users had significantly higher science scores. “That was the proof we needed to see,” says Vidal Borromeo, an Ypsilanti senior working this summer as a research programmer on the applications suite.

Soloway says third graders can sit and listen to a lecture about the water cycle. But learning by doing, aided by MyDesk, promotes deeper understanding. “They create documents in response to the assignments, they create animation that describes the growth of a plant, that represents their understanding of multiple linked representations,” he says.

MyDesk also serves as a mobile classroom where children can do work and teachers share feedback. There are apps for concept mapping to talk about cycles and processes, a basic part of science learning. “There’s no better way to develop an understanding and demonstrate an understanding of a scientific process than by developing some concrete digital model of that process,” Soloway says. “That’s exactly the kind of educational software we provide.”

“To the best of our knowledge no other company, organization, or university is attempting to address technology-collaboration in education with this comprehensive of an approach,” Borromeo says. “Eventually, every student in America will be using a mobile device for learning. Our goal is that every single one of those devices will be running the MyDesk learning platform.”


Borromeo remembers well his first day in Soloway’s classroom. That’s because he and other students got their first look at their instructor not in person, but via Skype, from Singapore. Soloway got right to the point, explaining the class would be starting from scratch writing the software for the smartphones and the server, as an integrated platform. “He said we had to deliver, and everything just stepped up a notch,” Borromeo recalled.

In mid-April, Soloway enters a classroom in the Dow Building and offers a bag of snacks for all to share as he opens a Learning Apps class session. He tells students, “Why don’t you take your phones out and put them on the table? You’re going to be programming for kids who are using the phones.”

From their laptop computers, students access branches of MyDesk system codes for testing. “We’re just trying to make sure it’s stable, and performing the way users expect it to,” says Andrew Sapperstein, graduate computer science student.

Several minutes in, Soloway asks the class, “Any bugs so far?” Rachael Fleischmann, a CoE junior from Palo Alto, Calif., tweaks the computer code to fix a glitch in a MyDesk sketchbook application. It allowed a slideshow image to grow so much that it obscured controls at the bottom of the view screen.

Students in this class also are building a center for educational games to add to the MyDesk suite. “Before, a teacher would have to find the games separately. The idea is the phone is something that can deliver an infinite amount of content via the Internet, to reinforce the curriculum,” says Prashanth Sadasivan, a CoE junior from Seattle, Wash.

One key development of MyDesk is that tools have a similar look and feel, making them easy and quick to learn. “Teachers hate wasting classwork time when they have to teach students different applications,” Soloway says.

His students also are working to add a classroom social network application to the MyDesk suite. “We’re trying to get kids working with one another in a controlled environment with oversight by teachers to guide the discussion, to get students discussing topics rather than just receiving lectures,” Bird says.


“Upon alighting the plane, my glasses fogged up and my skin moistened with sweat. I had not expected it to be so blisteringly hot and humid,” says Jason Long, a recent computer science graduate from Rochester Hills.

Long, Soloway and Alexandra Burrell, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computational informatics this spring, visited Singapore as the project began in January. Both students remained several weeks. “We would see how they were using the apps and if there were any problems. We were there to help resolve questions,” Burrell says. She recalls the time a student sought help with the MyDesk drawing application, wondering if it had an eraser. It did.

While Singapore is perceived as rigid with strict laws to maintain an orderly city, Long found the Singaporean third graders lively and fun-loving, much like their American counterparts—and just as eager to embrace things technological. “The first time the students got to use the phones was on a zoo trip,” Long recalls. “As little kids getting new toys, they were ecstatic about the phones. They were constantly snapping photos of different plants and animals to do their assignments. They had little trouble using the software and most took more than 100 photos.”

The third graders learned more than new applications. “I think the students learned about looking at things in detail. Some of their assignments were to photograph an animal and then explain its different characteristics,” he says.

Long himself learned about Singapore’s unique character, including its food. “There are so many different cultures here, and its food is truly a melting pot of all their best dishes,” he says. Long’s favorite was a barbecued pork dish offered at food courts and by vendors. “The meat is always tender and the skin crunchy. It’s usually served with cucumbers and rice or noodles.”

The learning apps project is supported by Singapore’s Ministry of Education. “Singapore knows this is a global marketplace and to compete you have to be self-directed learners and collaborative learners,” Soloway says. Nokia, Microsoft and Qualcomm are also involved in the project.

Joining Soloway in directing the project is his research colleague of 15 years, Dr. Cathie Norris, also works with him in Singapore. Norris for 14 years was a classroom teacher, and focuses her attention on teacher and curriculum issues while Soloway focuses more on technology. “There are so many moving parts at Nan Chiau; I am so lucky to have a partner in Cathie who can focus on classroom issues and make sure the technology fits smoothly into the classroom,” he says.


In a recent keynote address before the Enriching Scholarship 2012 conference at Rackham Auditorium, Soloway declared this as the Age of Mobilism. “Smartphones: that’s what the future is,” he says. “To make the transition from a paper-based textbook educational model; that’s what’s really going on. They’re moving from a typical worksheet instruction method or didactic instruction, to what’s called a work-by-doing model, in which kids are creating all kinds of artifacts. In the creating of artifacts learning develops,” he says.

Soloway’s progressive learning-by-doing teaching philosophy actually is rooted in old-school progressive education theory. He is influenced by educator and philosopher John Dewey, whose career included a stint on the U-M faculty. Dewey found that education and learning are social and interactive processes.

“He built the (U-M) School of Education,” Soloway says. “He believed teachers should give students something to do and in the doing comes learning.”

Borromeo says in addition to the learning evidenced by higher science test scores, MyDesk students also scored better in language-verbal skills. “This was not expected since MyDesk isn’t being used in other subjects yet. We attribute this added benefit to the very nature of the collaborative learning fostered by the MyDesk platform,” he says, adding the applications suite will be expanded to other subjects in the coming academic year.

Burrell, who recently began a job with Apple, said the value of the class for her was witnessing the possibilities of technology.

“It was seeing kids using it. Technology has been treated as a difficult thing. But it’s reaching a point where it’s not unique, its ubiquitous. It can be part of a second brain for third graders.”

“We’re building software that we see kids are actually using on the other side of the planet,” says Jacob Steinerman, from Long Island, N.Y., who recently earned a Bachelor of Science degree in social computing informatics. “To still be in school and to make such a huge difference is amazing.”


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