What makes a good digital educational product?

Ms Charlotte Avery, Headmistress at St Mary's School, Cambridge

In the last of three essays about digital and education, Charlotte Avery, Headmistress at St Mary’s School, Cambridge, tries teaching with CUP’s new iPad app, Explore Shakespeare

St Mary’s, Cambridge prides itself on having excellent relations with neighbouring schools (undertaking much outreach with local state primary schools, the University and multi-national industries based in Cambridge.

We were delighted, therefore, to have been approached to trial Cambridge University Press’ new ‘Explore Shakespeare’ app, since Shakespeare always goes down well with our girls. We have superbly enthusiastic teachers, and once we’ve started acting, improvising, using the text actively and using film to refresh (or introduce) the plays, the girls really enjoy exploring Shakespeare. We were keen to see what else an app might bring to already dynamic teachers and enthusiastic students!

The Year 9 students (third years aged 14-15) chose to explore ‘Romeo and Juliet’. We set up a quasi-scientific study: half the group used the app while the others used the Cambridge Schools Shakespeare book as they read, discussed and explored the text; the idea being that the group swapped over at the end of each Act so that the girls had a fair share and can review the advantages and disadvantages more critically and usefully.

Whilst still at a relatively early stage of exploration, the English Department and the girls are clear that the app is an excellent educational product. One student summed things up very tidily: “It is fun, quick and easy to use”.

A good digital educational product makes things clearer.

“I like the app because it makes the play easier to follow,” according to one student. An example of this is the circle symbol which provides the students with a diagram of all the characters involved in a particular scene, making the division between Montagues and Capulets clear – e.g. in Act 1.1, where the confusion of the fight can translate into great confusion about whose side the characters are on!)

“It helps us to understand the vocabulary that Shakespeare used” according to another student. Indeed, the ease and speed with which you can find out the meaning of a word or phrase by simply tapping on it is appealing. Moreover, the glossary is set at different levels. This is far easier to absorb than looking at a separate glossary – or having to look at a dictionary for other words not listed. It ties up different resources into one place.

I asked my Head of English, Mrs Helen Garrett, for a comment: “I appreciated the app when we reached the Queen Mab speech. Instead of someone struggling through a longer speech, possibly tangling words and ideas and finding it difficult to read and make sense of it, we set one of the iPads to play it. The volume was sufficient for the whole class to hear; the presentation was direct and helpful without being too individual or unusual, and the girls were

able to concentrate on the meaning as they followed the words. Those on iPads could, at the same time, get glosses of some of the phrases, if needed. Their understanding was much better than it would have been otherwise. We will watch a film too, but that will present a highly individual and selective approach: this focused on the words without the distraction that, say, the Baz Luhrman film would give, exciting though it would be for them.”

A good digital educational product is flexible.

“It gives you lots of extra things to explore as you read,” and “I like the pictures so that you can imagine what is going on,” said a third and fourth student. There is an excellent range of colour photographs of various productions which, at a tap, can be focused on and made full-size, and presumably constantly updated as new productions appear.

Indeed, the girls have also appreciated being able to use other iPad programs at the same time, e.g. writing notes to go with the scenes. The one disadvantage of using the app on an iPad is that the iPad is less flexible, heavier and essentially more vulnerable than a paper based text: I wouldn’t be encouraging my students simply to drop the iPad as they do with books on the floor in order to have their arms free for enhanced gesture. But, the iPad app is excellent for the group discussion about a particular scene. It can be useful before and after the acting of a scene, if not during.

As an aside, and in comparison with the CUP app, through our links with Microsoft Research, St Mary’s Cambridge was invited last year to trial Gadgeteer, Microsoft’s new and very exciting product designed to give students the opportunity to learn some electronics, programming and computer-aided design. The product does this by allowing students to create their own “gadget”, for example, a digital camera, an MP3 player, or a reaction timer. The Gadgeteer kit comprised a variety of different components: a camera, touch-screen display, storage, a switch, sensors, speakers, etc. Students clip together the components they need before writing some simple event-driven code to make their gadgets work. As enthusiastic as our girls have been about Shakespeare app, so they were about building gadgets and using electronics and programming. In fact they entered a competition with their gadget and were thrilled to be runners up.

In a recent speech on the subject of “The Digital Age: Permanent Revolution”; Sir David Bell spoke of the need to ensure that “great educators work with inspirational IT”, which together have the power to satisfy the world’s thirst for learning. Ultimately, in the two examples of tools of digital innovation outlined in this article, both these aspects were present: at St Mary’s Cambridge we are blessed with great educators and furthermore had the opportunity to trial inspirational IT.

The winning formula for new technology is that it allows the students to be creative and to be in control, to be active masters of their own learning and at their own speed. In turn, it helps schools bridge the ‘disillusionment gap’ so that learning at school for every pupil has the possibility of having components which make both learning and school ‘cool’ i.e. innovative, interesting (read ‘fun’) activity in an essentially flexible learning environment.

You may also be interested in app developer James Higgs’s review of Explore Shakespeare.

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