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Global phone connections in Singapore

January 29, 2013
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The hair-raising roar of elephants, unexpectedly embedded in a Singapore third-grader’s science report, heralded the early success of a learning applications program for smartphones developed by the University of Michigan.

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

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

Using a voice recorder note-taking application, the children added elephant and monkey sounds to a report about animal diversity.

“How could we predict the recorder would be used that way?” said Soloway, smiling.

This is exactly the sort of ingenuity he hoped the applications suite would spark. “The kids learn by doing,” said Soloway, a professor of education, information, electrical engineering and computer science.

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,” said Vidal Borromeo, a 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,” the professor said. “They create animation that describes the growth of a plant, that represents their understanding of multiple linked representations.”

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 said. “That’s exactly the kind of educational software we provide.”

Borromeo added, “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. 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.”


As he stepped off the plane in Singapore, Jason Long said his glasses fogged up and his skin moistened with sweat. “I had not expected it to be so blisteringly hot and humid,” said Long, a recent computer science graduate.

Long, Soloway and Alexandra Burrell, who earned a B.S. degree in computational informatics this spring, visited Singapore as the project began in January. Both students stayed several weeks in the prosperous Southeast Asian nation, which has one of the world’s best-educated societies.

“We would see how they were using the apps and if there were any problems. We were there to help resolve questions,” Burrell said. She recalled the time a student sought help with the MyDesk drawing application, wondering if it had an eraser. It did.

While Singapore is an orderly city-state with strict laws, Long found the Singaporean third-graders lively and fun-loving, much like their American counterparts—and just as eager to embrace technology.

“The first time the students got to use the phones was on a zoo trip,” Long recalled. “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 said.

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 said. Long’s favorite was the barbecued pork sold at food courts and by vendors. “The meat is always tender and the skin crunchy,” he said. “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 said. Nokia, Microsoft and Qualcomm are also involved in the project.

Joining Soloway in directing the project is his research colleague of 15 years, Cathie Norris. Norris, a classroom teacher for 14 years, focuses on teacher and curriculum issues, while Soloway concentrates on technology.

“There are so many moving parts at Nan Chiau,” he said. “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.”

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,” she said. “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.”

Jacob Steinerman, who recently earned a B.S. in social computing informatics, also had a valuable experience. “We’re building software that we see kids are actually using on the other side of the planet,”  he said. “To still be in school and to make such a huge difference is amazing.”

A longer version of this story is available on the Michigan’s World Class site.

(Kevin Brown is an associate editor for the University Record, a faculty and staff newspaper at U-M.)


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