Is There an App for That? SOE Professors’ Research Collaboration Examines Use of Technology in the Classroom

In fall 2013, School of Education Associate Professor Shobana Musti-Rao, PhD, and Assistant Professor Tom Liam Lynch, Eddy, began a research project to gauge the value of “app” technology for learning among elementary school students in an inclusive classroom setting. In the time since conducting their in-classroom study, Professors Musti-Rao and Lynch have published a practitioner-friendly manuscript for inclusion in Intervention in School and Clinic, a special education journal.

 While there are plenty of evidence-based practices regarding the use of tablets in classrooms, Professors Musti-Rao and Lynch sought to determine if using a tablet, in this case an iPad®, could increase students’ fluency with math facts.

“There’s immense interest and funding for the use of tablets and technologies in schools and what is interesting about this is that, despite all of the funding, there is very little research that says, ‘this is what makes a certain technology more or less effective,’” says Lynch.

What the pair saw was that there were often smaller studies that went into classrooms and examined specific parameters of tablet usage, including types of students using certain apps and devices under very specific conditions. However, they sought to explore how researchers can go into a classroom setting and better examine the effectiveness of these kinds of technologies.

In their study, the pair worked with an inclusive classroom in a local elementary school, wherein students with and without learning differences or disabilities were learning in one classroom lead by two co-teachers. Students used the iPad® as a vehicle for supplemental learning, along with traditional math learning approaches, including memorization and manipulatives—physical objects that help students learn broader math concepts. The iPad® use was limited for 10 minute periods and used for the very direct objective of one math app for learning math facts. Pre- and post-intervention tests were given to students to gauge their retention of math facts appropriate to their grade level.

“Using multimodal analytical techniques as we try to look at the ways in which the design of the app might enable and also encumber learning,” explains Lynch. “Multimodal analysis allows us to dive more deeply into the actual interaction between the students, the device, the user interface, and the software on the backend. We’re able to try to improve our understanding of why or why not the app is working.”

In addition to tracking the progress of the students using the app to learn and memorize math facts, the team also noticed that the students who were better able to physically master the device—prop it up on a desk, get comfortable with it in their hands, hunch over and focus on the screen—performed better than those students who were unable to get the device comfortably set up. This is just another example of how multimodal analytical approach offered insight into the success of tablet and app usage.

The use of iPads provided surprising results for the teachers as well. One teacher thought traditional methods would work better. The success she found in using the app with students has made her rethink using technology, helping to inform her technology implementation strategy. Teachers in the classroom study indicated that they would use the iPad® and app again in the future, as they found it was an efficient tool for positive results in math learning.

“Leveraging the use of this type of technology will also help take care of the resource management that is lacking in so many schools,” says Musti-Rao. “Teachers know that some students need the extra help, but there just aren’t enough hands to help them. If students can be trained to use this technology, it will promote their independent learning.”

The usefulness of the iPad®, Professor Musti-Rao says, resulted from using the technology in a very structured manner. “We were very clear about the learning outcomes we sought,” she said.

The results had a positive impact on the students in the classroom as well. “Students took ownership of their learning,” says Musti-Rao, “They could track their progress and say what they did, like ‘It helped me learn my multiplication facts.’”

Data are being analyzed for more detailed results, but she sees the possibilities for an expansion of the project into other subject areas, and even at other grade levels, to gain a larger picture for the best usage of tablets and apps in classrooms today.

Another possibility for this research could be to develop an app to address the specific needs for tracking student progress, to be used by teachers and researchers.

This piece appeared in the May edition of Opportunitas, a monthly online newsletter published by the University’s office of Marketing & Communications.