Summer 2015

They collaborate to educate

Mother and son turn lessons into apps

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
The map in Anne Gardner's classroom pinpoints the countries in which Keith's apps have been downloaded.

It’s not often that you hear about a college student taking time out of his busy schedule to partner with his mother on a technology project. But Keith Gardner — who will graduate with a bachelor’s in computer science next spring — does just that: He develops math and bilingual reading-comprehension apps for young children, using curriculum written by his mother.

The apps have been downloaded more than 10,000 times in more than 100 countries in one year, allowing Keith to purchase an iPad to work on and to pay the tuition for one of his Binghamton courses. He has free versions to show the content and design with in-app upgrades, as well as paid versions, which start at $1.99 and go up to $5.99 for a three-pack bundle.

His mother, of course, loves how the fates have aligned: “I always thought that, in the natural course of things, Keith’s interests would be pulling him away from a focus on family at this point in his life,” says Anne Gardner, MSEd ’90. “Creating these materials is bringing us closer together. The only challenge I can think of is finding enough time to tackle the projects we’d like to complete.”

Partners in learning

Anne has worked as an elementary school teacher for the past 20-plus years, spending much of that time as a response-to-intervention teacher for the Newark Valley School District near Binghamton. She provides support to kindergarten and first-grade students who need extra instruction and encouragement to develop strong early literacy skills.

In her spare time, Anne’s blog posts for “Common Core Connection” can receive between 8,000 to 20,000 views. She also does freelance curriculum development and shares her materials through Teachers Pay Teachers, an online marketplace where educators can buy, sell and share resources. “I love how easy it is now to interact with teachers from around the world,” Anne says.

Given her passion for education and her online outreach to other educators, it’s not surprising to see why Keith would share similar inclinations. “I think we are very like-minded in a lot of ways,” he says. “I like working with my mom because it’s something meaningful that we can do together and both enjoy.”

Keith remembers reading with Anne from the time he could look at pictures in a book to when he was absorbing series such as Magic Tree House and Harry Potter. Anne remembers how much Keith loved to play card games, learning about numbers and basic mathematical operations along the way. “And we always loved to estimate,” Anne says. “Before walking to the mailbox, we’d estimate how many steps we would take. Later on, before driving to a friend’s house, we’d estimate our time of arrival.”

Keith’s education is now focused on his computer science degree, and he has started doing research in his field. He worked with Associate Professor Patrick H. Madden to expand on an app that demonstrates the basic principles of computational complexity, utilizing live demonstrations of sorting algorithms. He also supported a joint project between the computer science and mechanical engineering departments at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a computer-aided design (CAD) interoperability project, with the goal of helping mechanical engineers collaborate more efficiently when using different proprietary CAD systems.

As for his career aspirations, Keith wants to be involved in meaningful work: “I believe in education, renewable energies, free Internet, space exploration and the preservation of nature and endangered species,” he says. “I hope to make an impact in at least one of these areas.”

A digital classroom revolution

Keith’s foray into early childhood educational app development is a smart move. There is an estimated $20 billion market of K–12 instructional materials. (And that’s a 2012 number, as reported by GSV Advisors, an investment firm run by education advisors.)

Apps that target preschool- or elementary-aged children accounted for almost 75 percent of the top-selling apps in the education category of the iTunes Store in 2012 — up from about 50 percent in 2009, according to analysis by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, an independent research lab that focuses on the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape.

This is a strong indicator that apps and digital games have an enormous potential to change the educational experience, just as Sesame Street did when it first aired in 1969 or when the first educational computer games, such as The Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, appeared in the mid-1980s. Already, nearly 75 percent of K–8 teachers in the United States bring digital games — which include video, computer, mobile and social media games — into their classrooms and report that those games provide greater improvement in their students’ core and supplemental skills, according to a 2014 national survey completed by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

Even the Office of Educational Technology with the U.S. Department of Education has taken note, releasing the “Ed Tech Developer’s Guide” in April. The introduction says: “The demand for high-quality educational apps will continue to increase as devices become more affordable and teachers and parents look for new ways to use technology to engage students.”

The reason well-crafted educational apps and digital games work so well among young children is that those students benefit from a high level of support and immediate feedback, Anne says. A typical primary classroom has kids with a variety of learning levels, so the teacher’s focus is often on small groups of students throughout the day. “As students work independently, well-designed apps can help teachers differentiate work and provide immediate feedback to each individual,” she says.
“It also doesn’t hurt that kids are naturally drawn to computers and iPads. Technology has the potential to enhance the learning environment in so many ways, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in some small way.”

Common Core provides common ground

Keith took an interest in his mom’s curriculum during his 2014 winter break and decided to put the programming skills he’d learned at Binghamton to the test. He created his first math apps to align with the Common Core State Standards — a hot-button topic across the United States.

The Common Core initiative attempts to set consistent expectations for what each child should know and do in each grade from kindergarten to grade 12. Two key areas focus on math and English-language arts. To date, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards, and testing was to begin this spring. “When the Common Core State Standards were released, many educators struggled to implement new components that had not previously been fully addressed by local and state curricula,” Anne says. “It quickly became apparent that there was a need for supplemental materials.”

Keith has continued to build additional Common Core apps, the most recent being a series of leveled reading-comprehension iPad apps in both English and Spanish. They fill a niche in the marketplace, says Erin K. Washburn, assistant professor of literacy education at Binghamton University’s Graduate School of Education. “There are a lot of apps on the market that support learning letter recognition and early phonics skills, but there are not a ton with leveled reading passages,” she says. “I was impressed because this app series is something that fits a hole in the market.” 

Washburn was also impressed with how Keith approached her for help on his leveled reading apps, so she invited him to use graduate students enrolled in her Literacy Assessment & Teaching course this past spring to act as a focus group for content and format.

“The feedback was very encouraging, but the teachers did suggest adding an accountability feature,” Keith says. “The group helped me think through options for this, and I was also able to get ideas regarding the app’s interface.”
Within weeks of the focus group, Keith had already used their feedback and made edits.

“It’s great to take what I’ve learned in class and use it in a way that thousands of people can benefit from,” he says. “Just knowing that I can maybe help one child learn essential math or literacy skills is a great feeling. It makes me feel like I’ve made a difference.”