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Designing for Students and Teachers

It is with the best of intentions that educational software developers try to create apps to help students learn. But, ahem… “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Indeed, if (usually “when”) software developers’ apps place additional burdens onto the backs of the classroom teacher, developers are making a huge strategic error. Making more work for teachers is just not a good idea if the goal is to get one’s app used by teachers in their classrooms.

Mea culpa! Rather than picking on other’s apps for making this mistake, we will pick on one of our own apps that is wonderful – for students – but the app definitely adds burden onto teachers. (And we thank those teachers who are using the app with their students – in spite of the extra work we have placed on you!)

WeMap, developed by us at the Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center, available for iOS and Android, enables two or more students to work together, synchronously, each on his or her own mobile device, to co-create a concept map. WeMap works well – teachers and students tell us so. (An article describing WeMap and WeKWL, written in part by classroom teachers who have used WeMap/WeKWL, will appear in the MACUL Journal Feb. 1, 2015.)

But in supporting students work together, we created the following “challenges” for the classroom teacher:

  • Formative Assessment Challenge: So three students are working together to create a concept map for the key points in the textbook chapter on infectious diseases. A teacher wants to know: Who did what? Did some students do no work and others all the work?

    Currently we give the teacher no information about who did what, when. We are working on it!
  • Grade Recording Challenge: Assume that all three students did equal work and thus should get the same grade. Now, the teacher’s grade book – be it a simple spreadsheet or a more sophisticated digital grade book – is typically organized alphabetically, by the students’ last name. So, in order to give the same grade to each student in the three-student group, the teacher needs a separate spreadsheet that lists who is in each group, and the teacher must manually make sure that each student in the group gets the same grade.

    Why can’t the teacher give a grade to the group and the “system” access the gradebook and enter the grades for each student. That would save a teacher time! Ahhh ... we are working on it!
  • Classroom Management Challenge: In WeMap, in order to work together, one student creates a collaboration session and the other three join the session. It takes about 15 seconds to do this session joining process at the start. Not unreasonably so, a teacher will want to drop in and see the concept map that each team is co-creating. (And since the teacher’s iPad is wirelessly connected to a projection unit via Apple TV, the whole class can see the concept map created by each group – and hear the group talk about their concept map.)

    Now, once the student groups have been working for a period of time, their concept maps may well have 15 nodes (concepts) and 25 edges (expressing relationships amongst the concepts), it may well take 30 to 60 seconds for a teacher to join a group’s collaborative session and have the group’s concept map recreated from scratch on the teacher’s iPad. If there are 10 collaborative groups, it will take five to 10 minutes out of the 40-minute class period for a teacher to sign into a group’s session and view that group’s concept map. Oh, and during those 30 to 60 seconds the whole class, too, is waiting oh so patiently doing ... doing what exactly?

    Ahhh ... we are working on that too!

Space limitations save us from identifying still other burdens we have placed on the teacher with our wonderful for students’ app! Phew!

If you have been reading our blog, you will no doubt have noticed that we have been giving “personalized learning” quite a drubbing – precisely because it does not integrate a teacher into the learning process. And, in this blog posting, we are giving ourselves a drubbing for being less than respectful to teachers!

Are we hypocrites? Ourselves guilty of what we criticize others about? Ouch!

We think not – but clearly it’s a complicated issue! We welcome your thoughts!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at