Arts and minds

While the first educational apps majored on STEM, they now support schools' entire subject ranges, with a particular blossoming in the arts

When Martin McKay was a lad, computers in school “were just used to talk about computing”. After that, recalled the Chief Technology Officer at literacy software providers Texthelp, “people writing software for schools were technical and developing for technical products. But that’s not the case anymore – technology has permeated.”

Thus, the appearance in the sector of such un-techy figures as Ivor Novello Award-winning songwriter, George Hammond-Hagan. The man behind music-based learning apps Studytracks, has his own theory as to why arts and humanities were late in coming to the edtech party. “App makers start with science and maths because that’s where a lot of schools are judged,” he said. “Those subjects work across all territories – an atom splits the same way no matter where you are. But the arts are more regional – apart from Shakespeare, our arts content in the US is completely different to England. You have to localise and it’s a lot more work.”

It isn’t only educational software breaking beyond its STEM roots; there is hardware, too. 3Doodler is a fantastical piece of classroom kit allowing users to draw solid lines in thin air, and the company’s Head of Education, Leah Wyman, has noted the change: “We’re seeing more and more blended learning where art is being incorporated into the major study areas. It makes sense, because that’s how it is in the real world.”

Crucially, these new teaching tools are not simply garnishes to place atop the meat and two veg of traditional learning. Rather, they offer hearty educational sustenance in their own right. Texthelp’s Read&Write, for example, assists with comprehension by reading text aloud and offering talking and picture dictionaries. “All over the world there’s a very wide language set, lots of kids who aren’t learning in their first language; in many UK schools it can be 30%,” explained Martin. Throw in the wide range of abilities often gathered in one classroom, including children disadvantaged by learning disorders such as dyslexia, and the playing field of learning is about as level as a railway embankment. Step forward the virtual picks and shovels deployed by Read&Write: a quick look at the sentence being typed and it will predict the context to suggest appropriate words. “Helping kids read and write is important, but so is giving teachers analytics that saves them time assessing writing,” added Martin. “Take a kid that spells well but uses immature vocabulary – we can benchmark that for teachers and help give pupils a target, kind of like a Fitbit for writing, encouraging them to take a few more steps every day.”

3Doodler

Writing words is one thing, pronouncing them quite another. We’re talking phonics, one of the districts of learning that together comprise Education City. Online Marketing Manager, Kathryn Marchant, explained how playful animated characters help children find objects beginning with a target sound. “It’s a very engaging way of introducing phonics,” she said, more effective than traditional learning because “the children can reinforce what they’ve learned in their own way and at their own speed, and immediately understand whether they’re right or wrong. It gives them that element of independence.”

A sense of autonomy is a key benefit of 3Doodler. While printing 3D objects still feels thrillingly futuristic, the form they take is nothing if not predetermined; with 3Doodler, that same tangible result is borne of freehand spontaneity. Not that anyone is about to give your procurement officer free-drawn kittens by suggesting that maybe you didn’t need that 3D printer after all. “If you’re doing design you’ll do a 2D sketch of something before going to a screen,” said Leah. “3Doodler is an extrapolation of that. It’s a quick, easy way to make a small prototype and really tighten up the design before going to the 3D printer and using that longer, more intense process.”

Studytracks has its roots in a eureka! moment worthy of Archimedes himself. George Hammond-Hagan (below) recalls how, as he was watching his physics-phobic son putting together a YouTube playlist for study background music, a treble clef-shaped lightbulb came on. “I thought ‘what if the music was useful?’ I took his physics book and put it to Fat Joe’s Lean Back and he lost his mind. About a week later he had a physics lesson and had all the recollection, all the answers. When he came home he was bouncing off the walls about it.” 

A business was born. Educational consultants set down the facts a song should include, and George and team set to work in the studio. Using music to retain knowledge is a little like fly fishing: the hook is paramount. “If I was to say ‘Abba’ and ‘Waterloo’, your brain will start singing it,” explained George. “Take that premise and apply it to chemistry, you’ve got a really powerful learning tool. When you listen to music it releases serotonin and elevates your mood, and in that heightened state all your learning modalities engage; your brain is constantly looking for patterns and songs are just that. The transition from the sciences to the arts for us was quite easy – it’s just another song to write.”

As 200,000 global downloads help attest, the benefits are manifold. “Your learning environment is where you put your headphones on. The feedback isn’t just that pupils are more engaged, but their retention of knowledge is through the roof, so teachers can really drill deep into a subject and get the kids excited.”

Business aside, that moment of being a father so tangibly able to help his son must have been quite something? “Absolutely. Seeing him light up over something he was completely uninterested in, you can’t put money on that. We’ve had students from across the world saying ‘I’ve learned in a few seconds what my teacher tried to teach me over two years’. It makes the hair on the back of your neck go up.”

Martin, too, knows what it is to see edtech help make a paradigm shift in learning outcomes. “We have dyslexic kids who were written off at secondary school, used our software, and have gone on to graduate university. Others have seen real strife, fleeing from somewhere like Syria; they’ve not had English as a first language, but have used our tools and it’s helped them become literate more quickly. It really is life-changing stuff.”