Difference by Design: Taking Learning Tools From the Home into the Classroom


Technologies developed as learning tools that will be used by children at home are judged by a different set of criteria than those educators use to determine their suitability for the classroom. Teachers must consider the broadest range of students' needs, while parents have the luxury of concentrating on the needs of their own children. Teachers want clear evidence that the manufacturer or publisher thoroughly understands all of the issues involved in making products for a school setting such as their durability to accommodate constant use by many children over several years. Parents, on the other hand, are not likely to focus on these issues, given their expectations are that one or two of their children may use the product for fewer hours over a shorter life span.

While educators and parents share some similar goals for technology-based learning tools, such as instructional efficacy, a teacher's perspective encompasses a wider view. Educators always have a basic set of questions when evaluating a technology platform: Is it appropriate for the grade level? D'es it significantly enhance my teaching or student learning? D'es it address more than one learning modality? Is it flexible enough to address different types of students in a typical class? D'es it make learning more fun and engaging for the child?

Consumer vs. Education Markets

Sometimes, as with our firm, the choice is made to differentiate the consumer and education markets by creating two corporate entities to serve the needs of each target audience. That way, research, resources and technology are easily shared, while the actual products, packaging and support materials can be designed to fulfill the specific requirements of the intended market.

When developing technology-based learning tools for the home market, for example, a company's consumer division might place a priority on ensuring intuitive interactivity and creating a dynamic, discovery-based learning experience for individual children. From that foundation, the firm's school division can further expand, adapt and refine the type and frequency of practice with specific skills.

In addition, when marketing a learning tool to parents, one needs to identify the age range for which it is appropriate and generally describe the skills it covers. Teachers and administrators, however, require much more detailed information. They also require it to be couched in terminology that, while clear to them, wouldn't be understood by the average consumer. Because of the pressure educators are under to meet the strict requirements of state standards and federally funded programs, information that relates to learning benchmarks must be included in teacher manuals and resource materials. So, while underlying technologies may be the same, the resulting products and presentation are notably different by deliberate design.

Physically Tailoring Products for Schools

Touch-based technologies, which are inherently interactive and easy to use, are especially well suited for learning tools. LeapFrog's NearTouch technology, for example, basically replicates finger pointing with a stylus that activates software and audio. When the pen nearly touches a "hot spot," its location is instantly triangulated and transmitted by radio frequency to a receiver built into the product. LeapFrog acquired the company that first developed this technology and, with the same engineering team, created the first paper-based multimedia device, the LeapPad in 1999. This new media has been used to teach children everything from phonics and reading to math, music and science.

To be suitable for use within a school-based setting, however, designers have to go beyond thinking just about how a child will interact with a product, regardless of its technology. After all, the needs of a teacher in a classroom with 10 or 20 children and curriculum to follow are vastly different from those of a parent.

To explain the distinction, let me briefly trace the evolution of one product from its original consumer incarnation to the edition developed for schools. LeapFrog was launched in 1995 with a home-consumer product called the PhonicsDesk, which integrated basic touch and audio technologies. The product used uppercase letters and taught letter names and sounds, consonants, short and long vowels, diphthongs, digraphs, and R-controlled vowels. Teachers were buying these products in retail stores to use in their classrooms. They would write or call, telling us how they loved the products and how this multisensory device had helped students in their classrooms "crack the code" on phonics.

Then, in 1999, we developed a classroom version of the product called LeapDesk. It offered teachers a more advanced voice chip, added uppercase and lowercase letters, industrialized many of the components, added an AC adapter, and inserted an assessment and prescriptive teaching component. We listened to teachers and added the features they needed to make the product beneficial in their classrooms.

Providing More Content in Smaller Chunks

Another significant difference between designing learning products for consumers at home and those for schools lies in how content is handled. While the same concepts and skills may be covered in both versions, products made for schools will incorporate additional practice and will break the content down into smaller portions.

Designers of learning systems for schools recognize that a high degree of granularity is needed to match the realities of how students actually acquire skills and learn concepts. Not only do educators teach very specific skills, they also teach them in extremely small and discrete chunks. Thus, a phonics product for the consumer market might provide four hours of total instruction on diphthongs, whereas a similar product designed for use in schools would supply seven hours of instruction on the topic plus many more opportunities for students who need extra instruction to practice.

Content will always be a high priority for educators. Teachers will embrace instructional technology as a long-term tool once they find it effective in their classroom. They will go to great lengths adapting lessons so that they can differentiate instruction. Parents, on the other hand, are more focused on the immediate, specific needs of their children.

How well a technology-based learning tool can deliver differentiated instruction is another priority of teachers. The ability to deliver a highly personalized learning path, based on students' current skill levels, and provide one-on-one instruction without the need for intervention are clearly of more interest to a teacher with 25 students in the classroom than to a parent with only two children in the family room.

Product designers must also accommodate teachers' needs to easily integrate the learning system into their curriculum's scope and sequence. This is not a concern for consumer products except in the most general sense. Product designers address this by adjusting a learning system's content and pace. Vendors address this by providing additional instructional materials and resources for teachers.

Adding Assessment

To be successful in the K-12 market vendors must always be asking: What do teachers need? Sometimes it's something relatively simple to provide such as adding more lesson plans; other times it's something more difficult to deliver. The latest push, for example, is to integrate assessment components within technology platforms. In response to the high-stakes testing implementation in schools nationwide, teachers need more timely and accurate ways to measure the mastery of skills and content from their students. Naturally, they are looking to technology for help, and vendors are certainly answering the call.

For example, our school division developed our LeapTrack system, which measures student mastery and prescribes content so that it fully and quickly assesses students' discrete skills. We developed new hardware to allow teachers to record and store that data for a whole class — making sure the system enabled educators to print out detailed reports on how each student is performing against particular standards. It also lets educators aggregate reports on the progress of groups, classes, buildings or even whole districts relative to state standards.

Of course, we are not alone in these efforts. Better assessment and reporting functionality can be found in many firms' latest-generation products. It is the common thread among all companies serving the K-12 education market — a deep commitment to helping teachers, administrators and learners.

Contact Information
LeapFrog SchoolHouse
Emeryville, CA
(800) 883-7430

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.