Apps for Good is transforming opportunities for students — the data points to massive impact, writes Heather Picov
‘‘Before Apps for Good we thought tech was boring!’’ agreed Anna, Michelle and Lily from The St Marylebone CE School, creators of the Sign Time app and winners of the People’s Choice Award at the Apps for Good Awards 2017.
Getting the opportunity to design a digital product that will make a difference to the everyday lives of others helped the team realise the diversity of skills involved in working in the technology sector. They also learnt that computing can have diverse applications and a positive societal impact, which research shows is especially important to encourage girls to pursue a career in technology. (See also "'We're Okay!' Challenging stereotypes with an app" and "A legend in their own lunchtimes – Apps for Good".)
They chose to create their gamified sign language learning app after seeing how a young hearing-impaired cousin was struggling to learn sign language. The team wanted to make sign language learning more fun through games and apply machine learning to customise the experience.
The Apps for Good app development courses teach the whole process of the app development cycle, similar to what a real entrepreneur or business would undertake in developing a product, from user research to creating wireframes and prototypes to business modelling. During the course, Apps for Good educators have access to a network of more than 1,300 technology and business professionals who provide students with real-world insight as they develop their ideas.
Creating apps is a good, contemporary way to ground students’ learning in the real world, and to make this attractive to students. Students aren't being told to learn something because a teacher or parent tells them it's important, nor are they memorising and reproducing known solutions to known problems.
Instead students learn to build fast, to test assumptions by collecting real feedback on a solution they have come up with, and to work in a diverse team. They learn problem solving that is much more relevant to the messy problems of the real world. They build their confidence and resilience by seeing failure as part of the problem-solving process.
'An app idea must come from the students themselves'
There is a key rule in Apps for Good: the app idea must come from the students themselves. Why? Because the ownership of the idea is what drives students' learning forward.
Building a great product is hard. Learning how to code is hard. Developing a business model is hard. But if it's based around something students care about they are more likely to invest the time and energy. At the end, they have a product that they can be proud of.
For many students, the main takeaways from the course are skills such as teamwork, resilience and problem solving, and the confidence they generate. The marked impact on student confidence has consistently been reported by a high percentage of pupils. In responses to our annual surveys, more than 85 per cent of students who completed the course in 2016/17 told us the course improved their confidence. More than 90 per cent of students in 2016/17 also reported an improvement in their problem-solving skills. The presentation and pitching element of the course is beyond the comfort zone of many students and pushes them to conquer the challenge of presenting their ideas to peers and adults, with 91 per cent saying they improved their communication and presentation skills.
According to recent research by Nesta, Oxford University and Pearson, it is our uniquely human skills such as problem solving and creativity that will become increasingly valuable as artificial intelligence and machine learning transform the world of work. Resilience and a learning mindset will also be important in a rapidly changing and uncertain employment environment.
Gathered through self-reported survey data, the feedback from educators about the content of the course and how it impacts their approach to teaching is always very encouraging. By supporting educators to not only improve their subject skills and knowledge, but also their confidence and teaching methods, more young people can be reached. Looking at the impact on partner educators who deliver the courses is just as important as surveying the changes the young people themselves experience as a result of the course.
On her experiences with Apps for Good, student Tasneem Rahmen from Denbigh High School reflects: "Many girls have asked me, especially in my school, how I gained the confidence to speak at all these events in a more male dominated field; and I tell them that Apps for Good and its Fellowship Programme have taught me that anything you want to do is possible with the right quantity of perseverance and stimulation." The Fellowship Programme gives students opportunities to continue their involvement with the organisation and wider network once they have completed the course.
The value of the learning experience which Apps for Good brings into the classroom is fittingly summed up by Chris Aitken, computer science teacher at another highly successful Apps for Good member, Wick High School in Scotland: “Never has an educational programme opened up so many opportunities to students and so many doors to industry."
The People’s Choice Award prize this year was sponsored by Virgin Red. As part of their prize for the Sign Time app, Anna, Michelle and Lily will participate in a mentoring session with Holly Branson. The session is due to take place and the girls are excited for the opportunity to speak with a female role model. They are keen to talk next steps for their app idea as well as being eager to quiz Holly about her own career path. It’s great to see the girls are no longer so bored by the thought of technology!
Heather Picov is UK managing director at Apps for Good