[Originally Published at Forbes.com on 13th June 2012]
There has been much excitement about the possibilities for using tablets and mobile devices in education. Because they are so easy and intuitive to learn, they do not create barriers for kids. There is much experimentation going on as a result. To date, some of the most successful apps replicate learning games in the classroom but perhaps with a little more fun. Futaba create games that can be played up to four people to help with reading, mathematics and other more rote learning concepts. These games do not provide learning per se but create a set of competitive games where you do better if you have paid attention in class. Kids find it fun but I wouldn’t class it as a learning experience. That said, it is a fun game for adults to play with their kids.
Beyond this, apps that actually allow for learning that have real potential. On the high end, there is this excellent app that teaches you to visualize higher dimensions. But perhaps more relevant for kids is the magnificent Algebra Touch teaches algebra the right way by allowing kids to manipulate objects (e.g., dragging a term from the left to the right hand side of an equation). It does something that is very difficult to do in a classroom.
Today, a couple of apps were launched that allow for learning but are clearly games. DragonBox+ is an app that teaches kids to play algebra. It is a puzzle game with animations that are a bit Angry Birds and a bit Fruit Ninja. I tried out this one and to say that the fact that it is teaching mathematics is subtle is an understatement. Basically, you have to eliminate ‘objects’ on each side of the board but you are restricted to moves that, when you think about it, follow the rules of algebra. The idea is that you get comfortable with the game and then can move on to doing exactly the same thing with equations.
Also launched today is a different type of learning app, PenyoPal Food Frenzy. Before I describe it, some disclosure. PenyoPal is a start-up that is part of Canada’s Next36. This is a very exciting entrepreneurial incubator project that takes 36 of the brightest Canadian undergraduate students and puts them into nine teams each with up to $50,000 in start-up funding. The teams come up with mobile app ideas and then come to the University of Toronto for the summer where they work more and receive lectures in business. I was one of the instructors this year teaching them about competitive strategy. So I have more than a keen interest in the apps developed on the program.
PenyoPal Food Frenzy is the first of the apps to reach the market. Its goal is to help kids learn Mandarin. Not surprisingly, there is a keen interest in this nowadays but also, in particular, from parents of Chinese origin who want to pass on the language to their kids. Of course, as with all of these things getting kids to learn a language is difficult. PenyoPal want to make it fun.
As with many of these things, achieving that is much easier said than done. But what PenyoPal’s first app has managed to do is provide an environment where you learn in the game and the more you learn the better you get. It is a little like the Khan Academy that way. The basic idea is that you have to identify Chinese words with particular food objects. But the words can come in a phonetic English form, Chinese characters and even spoken form. It is a little frenetic but kids actually seem to learn. My 11 year old tried out the beta version the other week and he played nonstop for an hour. And this was not playing where the alternative option was normal classroom instruction. This was playing when he could have just played any other game. In other words, for him at least, the game was fun in of itself. But what impressed me is that it could only be fun if you progressed — that is, learned the words. Now my son is actually taking Mandarin at school so it is hard for me to judge how much he learned but the time spent told me something. What is more, as a parent I could view a report to see how far he had progressed mastering the concepts.
What this taught me about these apps is that there is a way to embed learning in a game. But the learning cannot be like mixing in tomato sauce to make the vegetables taste better. The learning must actually be the achievement in the game. PenyoPal have more apps coming including a very interesting conversational version that requires you to speak phrases properly to progress. Food Frenzy is available for free in the iTunes App Store with in-app purchases giving you more word options. From what I can see, parents will end up being surprised as their kids ask them to buy vegetables!